Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Writing on the Wall

Oh my god.

My heart drops. Outside the window, the familiar hulking shapes of bunkers and buildings stutter past, rocking and tilting in time with the movement of the train car. Aboveground Metro rides are always a high point in my tangles with public transportation, but today, my normally relaxed ride feels cold. On the Red Line, just after Union Station, where the Metro comes aboveground, the tracks run parallel to new construction on one side and older, slightly creepy black bunkers on the other. The huge shapes are normally covered with letters and numbers, spray painted tags and names declaring JU, PEAR, OCHO, CHE, CHUNGO, MOE. Familiar monikers all, but now, that familiarity is suddenly, achingly, gone. The bunkers are devoid of their normally hectic skin, and stand ominously, painted a dull and deadly black. They’ve been buffed.


I don’t know when I first started noticing graffiti. I don’t know when I started learning about it. I don’t know what drew me in. I do know that now, I can’t go anywhere without noticing. The handwritten tags, the quick, bubble letters of thowups, and the elaborate, painstaking colors of burners and pieces all catch my eye. I’ve slowly begun to decipher the stilted and jittery letters of wildstyle, and the initials of the different crews who tag. I know the names behind different stickers, and whether they’re for advertising or just an identity. Wherever I go, I’m always on the lookout, drinking in this unattainable and impermanent art form.


For such a small country, Israel sure has an abundance of graffiti. Everywhere we went, the walls shouted names and phrases, in Arabic, Hebrew, and English. Giant murals splashed across walls in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I went everywhere with a borrowed camera swinging from my wrist, ready to document every scribble, every slap-up. I snapped photos of twisted and distorted faces wheat pasted on walls papier-mâché style, of giant dancing women spray painted up the side of a building, of the huge and colorful names beckoning from every wall and street sign. One of my most prized sightings was on the beach in Tel Aviv. There’s a seawall on the far left, supporting an embankment for a tower. On a bright red background, three names pop: SEVER UTAH ETHER. Since I’m not a local, I asked Yochai, one of our Israeli group leaders, what they were.
“Probably smugglers, or gang signals,” he replied, shaking his head and staring in distaste. I wasn’t so sure. Something that beautiful simply couldn’t be malignant. It turns out my gut reaction was right- those names are three copies of many all over the world. I wonder if those artists know how the locals view their work.

Over the two weeks I was in Israel, I came to recognize individual styles, the same names recurring on different streets, in different towns. On the plane back to the US, I opened the camera case. A smashed, broken camera looked up at me. When I popped open the memory card slot, I found that it, too, was wrecked. Back in DC, I lamented my loss to my mother. She asked, “Why do these mean so much to you? It’s just graffiti.” I gaped at her.

“Mom! Those might have been the only documentation of those pieces that existed! What if they’re buffed? No one will know!” She laughed.

“Well, if you say so. Next time, bring another camera!” I agreed. I’d thought of photos as permanent, but they’re just as fleeting as any tag or sticker, at the mercy of the authorities, the weather, or in this case simple bad luck and a misplaced backpack.


Six months after my camera smashing trip to Israel, I touched down in Rome, bound for Florence, Italy. As soon as we exited the cramped city streets for the highway, my eyes popped. Giant names and characters covered the Plexiglas and green plastic barriers beside the road. White highlights chased through neon yellow and purple letters, while electric blue offset black and green. My family laughed at me for pressing my nose against the small glass window of our car, and for swinging my head from side to side in my eagerness to see everything.

“Amanda”, they chided. “It’s just graffiti. It’ll probably be gone in a week.”

“I know!” I replied. “That’s why I have to see it all RIGHT NOW!” The colors on the barriers were new and different- bigger than anything I’d seen in the US, and lacking the artistic finesse of the Israeli street artists. This was pure, New York style tagging: marking your territory, the bigger and brighter the better. When we finally reached Florence, I found that the tags on the highway trailed themselves all the way into the city, where they evolved into handwritten tags and wheat paste stickers. There’s no buffing there, or none that I could detect; just layers and layers and layers of people’s identities, hopes, fears, and warnings, scrawled or sprayed on any available surface.


The train continues on, though for a moment it feels like everything stopped. I leave the bunkers behind and rise up with the elevated tracks. Down below, the names follow. They are a trail, making my day a little more colorful, a little more right. I don’t know how many people notice the graffiti. I don’t know how many care if it will be buffed. I don’t know how many names stick to the walls and rooftops I’m passing, buried under layer upon layer of paint, but I do know all of them, as old friends. MOE tags all over DC, his name greeting me in all four quadrants of the city. I see him every day in the spring, winking down from the Key Bridge, white bubble letters outlined in black. PEAR moved to San Francisco, but his name is still around, long after he left the city. JU stopped tagging, but not before he left several indelible portraits, ranging from Tony the Tiger to Michael Jackson. CHE and CHUNGO are still around. I see their new tags every month. Others are not so prolific, and the only memory of them is contained in these walls. Some have died or gone to jail, some moved, and some simply stopped tagging. As I watch the colors fly by, I sit and wait and wonder: which one will be gone next? Who will replace them? I may not know now, but I’m always watching. I’ll be the first to know.

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