A correspondence with Justin Walsh of the International Space Station Archaeological Project nudged me to return to Susan A. Phillips’s work on graffiti in Los Angeles. I had read some of her articles on graffiti and its relationship to Los Angeles history and late-20th-century gang culture, but for reasons that are hard to understand I had neither integrated this into my chapter on cities in my book, nor had read her rather recent book The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti.
It goes without saying that Phillips work is fantastic especially as she traces the intermingling of Los Angeles urban history (and ecology) and the practices and places of graffiti. It gets even more intriguing when she tracks the history of urban writing (up through tagging) — in the era before large scale graffiti mitigation and the rise of massive, roller assisted, street art — through the 1990s and anchors these in the significant subcultures in the Los Angeles area. The role of hobos, railroad workers, punks, immigrants, military men, neighborhood kids, queers, and various other vibrant subcultures made their marks on the urban landscape.
As a kid growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, I had always been fascinated by the graffiti that I saw especially on schools that had been mothballed around north Wilmington. (I remember vividly the massive cruciform graffito of The Who on the side of Forward Junior High School as a kid and wondering about it). Most of this graffiti was mystifying to me. I didn’t understand tags, street art, or any of the other conventions, but I did admire the appearance of names and art across the landscape that I knew so well.
One of the really curious things about my community here in North Dakota is that there is almost no graffiti anywhere. There are a few odd marks on the Washington Street underpass and of course the rail yard ensures that we have a constant flow of decorated train cars through town. I’ve heard there was some painting on the tunnel under Route 2 near Wilder School years back, but my impression is that it’s gone. There is an occasional tag or stencil in the tunnel under Columbia Road on UND’s campus, but that’s usually painted over. Remarkably the city is defined by its flood walls, but I’ve never seen any graffiti on these wall (and I frequent the the parks created by the flood walls). As Mos Def quipped: “there’s a city full of walls to post complaints at.” But, maybe the lack of graffiti suggests that there is very little reason for the kind of pent up anxieties that manifested in graffiti or that the youthful exuberance that supported the desire to make one’s name known has been channeled into other, undoubtedly more “wholesome” (or at least more closely supervised) activities.
One place where I did recognize graffiti was on UND’s campus, particularly in the Wesley College building sand I’m still kicking myself for not documenting it as intensively as we should have. Some of it we did photograph, such as these inscribed bricks found on the east wall of Robinson-Sayre Hall and these inscribed widows pains from Sayre Hall.
Some of the best graffiti however was found inscribed into the solid wood furniture that had made its way into the soon to be demolished buildings. The graffiti here followed conventions and practices tracked by Phillips in many situations across Los Angeles. The writers, almost certainly students, carved their names, their initials, their feelings, and an assortment of dates into the table top along with band names and lyrics, fraternity and sorority names, and various other sentiments common to college students.
The earliest graffito on the desk dates to 1956.
But the most interesting is a sequence of dates starting in 1975 and updated into the 1990s (and the last date added was 2012).
This table most likely was destroyed during the demolition of the building but it represents a remarkable find demonstrating over 60 years of continuity in student practices on campus. In an era replete with invented traditions, it is curious that we didn’t find anything more remarkable (or worth saving) in this far more authentic example of student culture.
What makes it all the more painful is that the rapid transformation of our campus over the last few years has made such long-lasting artifacts more and rare. Solid wood tables, chairs, and surfaces continuously visible for decades have become a rarity on our campus. In their place is an assortment of quickly discarded fiber board furniture, hard plastic chairs that have shorter lifespans than even the technologically dependent classrooms where they stand, and new, unblemished modern surfaces. These clean and disposable surfaces and contexts are obviously ironic. They offer new and prospective students the feeling of recently renovated hotel, prepare just for them, while obscuring the real marks of generations of students, faculty, and staff. They mimic the historical architectural forms of collegiate Gothic buildings with their suggestions of continuity and persistence, while replacing decades-old furnishing with the latest in laminated particle board and moulded plastic. In short, campus leaders eagerly transform the materiality of their institutions into the kind of benign (and sanitary) non-places expected of their short term residents (and their parents), while assuring the students that they can, figurative, make their mark on campus as part of a peerless tradition (that is neatly erased in time for the incoming class’s arrival).
I had the good fortune of attending Ohio State in the 1990s before the campus and its surroundings had become gentrified. Some of my fondest memories revolve around encountering the burry division between campus and the gritty surrounding community and realizing two contradictory things. First, the patina on campus reminded me that I was just a visitor here and one of many such visitors who had lived, studied, worked, and played in this place. But then, this also encouraged me to recognize that my ephemeral marks on campus — whether graffito or a well-trod path or a memory deeply inscribed in a particular place — contributed to its material form in a persistent way. This created a sense of connection which parallels some of Susan Phillips work on graffiti and one that I worry that I not only failed to document rigorously when I did see it on UND’s campus, but also sorely miss here at UND.