If your back’s against the wall, turn around and write on it.
Like a war zone. Coming into Baltimore on Amtrak as the late October sun sneaked over the southern horizon. Barbed wire and concertina on tops of fences. Graffiti. On walls. On railroad cars moored on the spider web of tracks. Hopper cars, gondola cars, tank cars, all paint slashed, zig-zagged, tagged. Bombed with spray cans. Railway passenger cars, too. Busted windows and street art rage spray painted all over the sides.
As we chugged on towards Dover, Delaware, I wondered why the cops failed to halt the property damage. Some of the graffiti was interesting to look at. Some I tried to cipher. I even admitted to myself…some of it was almost…beautiful.
A year later, looking for majoliche ceramiche, Umbrian pottery at Deruta, Italy. Graffiti scraped on a long wall buttressing basketball courts just outside the old gate. Wild and nonsensical. Or so it seemed. A brown wall breached with white and red and black. Overhead sullen thunderheads. I wondered if any place was safe from the vulgarity of graffiti.
We parked the Vauxhall and sauntered up for cappuccini and biscotti. Wandered tight, winding streets, gazed off the top of the hill at the vineyards and groves that marched off in all four directions. We hunted pottery and found it. Back and forth we darted, shop to shop, as thunder boomed to the northwest.
At the little chapel in the middle of the bustle of evening commerce, doors creaked open. A swell of farmers and their dressed-in-black wives, their skin burnt by the Umbrian sun. Then a procession out the gate and past our waiting car.
As we sat in the Vauxhall and pondered the moment, the funeral wound down the hill. And the graffiti slashed on the brown wall, enunciated something. What? About life? About death? I didn’t know. The sullen clouds glowering overhead. Slashes of lightning shattering the black sky.
In search of explanations, Betty and I screened the film Exit Through the Gift Shop in hopes of understanding graffiti as something more than property damage. We wish to understand the phenomenon. But what we viewed was a quirky piece with quirky people who earn fabulous livings off their fame as bombers (graffiti artists.) They market their rebel images through art galleries and sell mass produced paraphernalia like t-shirts and coffee cups that display their famous tagger iconography.
What I saw in Exit Through the Gift Shop wasn’t the graffiti scrawled in the Baltimore battle zones bordering the railways, nor the ragged and tortured art on the wall beneath the sullen Italian thunderheads. The stuff in Exit looked more, and seemed more, like a case of anarchist, populist, angry post-modernist tagging co-opted into the world the artists originally started out to destroy. These taggers became what they set out to annihilate.
After viewing Exit, Betty and I watched the film Bomb It, by the documentary filmmaker, John Reiss. This film was more what I expected, a worldwide look at the phenomenon of tagging, or bombing. What one participant calls the largest art movement in the history of the world. Rage against wealth, restraint, dictatorship, the law…everything from raw and vulgar lingo to sophisticated assessments of culture in the 21st century. Instead of selling their graffiti art through the museum gift shop, these painters brave jail, fines, falling off of moving freight cars, off the sides of buildings, roofs. They leap onto overhanging porches and scramble up drainpipes, their long artistic arms making loops of defiance, the colors of rage.
Bomb It was much more what I wanted. A look at something that is endemic worldwide…Berlin, Rio, Tokyo, Los Angeles…even Boise. Something property hates…how Marxist can we get, trashing private property.
We all thought, when the wall in Berlin came down, that maybe Marxism was defunct, dead, caput; but no, it lives, every day and every place whether the result of petulant rage from the youth of an over-stimulated society of consumers or defiant rage from a stomped-on lower class. Marxism lives, as graffiti art, whether we like it or not.
Now, when I think about that train trip through Baltimore as the sun came up, or watching that funeral procession in Deruta, I understand more why the stuff was up there in all its ugly panorama. The way it glared sullenly, like those thunderheads, the way it menaced me like the barbed wire in Baltimore.
When I see graffiti on the electrical box, the sidewalk, the sides of apartments, stores, houses, I will have to take notice. Even though I won’t like it, the message that it sends will grab me by the metaphorical lapel. I should listen but I can’t. If I do, I may be forced to renounce what I am—an anti-Marxist.
But then again, I might stop and look closer and say, “Now that’s art!.”