I was here

Graffiti. You’d think it was something new to the spray paint era but not so.

When I first went to college, there was a graffiti “artist” who wrote phrases all over the campus bathrooms and signed them: “The Righteous Fist.” Who this artist was or whether the Fist was female or male, or if there were multiple fists, I don’t recall anyone knowing… I just recall some general chat about the Fist’s existence and pithy messages around campus. I suspect that, had the Fist access to social media, he/she might have had quite a following via Twitter or Facebook.

Graffiti in Pompeii, Italy, an ancient city which existed long before I attended college for the first time (ha), was littered with the scratchings of the graphomaniacal. How do I know Pompeii had graffiti? Mt. Vesuvius blew up and covered the city with ash, preserving it, very intact, for modern inspection and study. I even remember hearing/reading about someone in ancient Greece complaining about the graffiti on the city walls of Athens.

A boyfriend once carved my name and his into a rock at Ocean Beach in California–with a plus sign in the middle of our names. I mean he carved the rock with a heavy-duty ice-pick thing and a hammer. It was a laborious endeavor taking two trips to the beach and much patience on my part. I was, after all, bored by the experience in some ways–I wanted his attention right then, and probably was not properly grateful for his gift at the time. Now I sort of like the idea of his having done that though I’m sure it was probably illegal.

I wrote on a fence in the Grand Canyon that I was there while on a family trip when I was young. I’m sure this was illegal.

I have legally written on walls in a bar, a restaurant, and several bathrooms where graphomaniacism was encouraged by the establishment owners handing out pens for exactly that use.

All over the world, folks who lived through WWII would still recognize the phrase: “Kilroy was here” and the accompanying graffiti. And perhaps those of us who still love Looney Tunes or reading history of the strange and intriguing.

There’s even graffiti in the Taj Mahal (that seems so wrong). It’s a World Heritage site–all WH sites should be a graffiti-free zones.

Taj Mahal Graffiti (from the Smithsonian Magazine, 9/2011; photo by Alex Masi)

The act of creating graffiti is as old as dirt and everywhere still (cave paintings or rock carvings, perhaps, could be called the first graffiti!). It’s vandalism. Or is it?

We, as humans, seem to need to write, or tell stories, or make a mark of some kind that indicates “we were here,” or “this” is what we knew. Somehow, we must leave some textual/visual legacy or signpost that we existed.

There is a long history of humans being graphomaniacal (a term I just love to write and say aloud–thank you, Jonathan Price and Karen Stern–check out the NPR story on them and their work). I hink my blog writing is graphomaniacal in some ways, especially when I’m writing a lot and writing in multiple blogs–some times I feel like I’m writing nonstop for weeks on end… Facebook definitely feeds that tendency; and if I ever bothered with Twitter, that would also substitute for: “I was here”; “Jen + Joe 4ever”; “I hate bumper stickers” or whatever.

I hadn’t thought much about graffiti lately, until we had to pick an image that was something about the self… an image self-portrait. I found myself wondering about one of my favorite photos:

Ponte Vecchio Graffiti (photo by E.D. Woodworth, 2007)

I was traveling in Florence and the surrounding area in 2007 when I found myself on the Ponte Vecchio may times. The first time I was on the bridge, I paused to look around and stopped near one of the arches, I glanced about me to check out the details. I was stunned to see each pillar was covered with graffiti. What? This was Florence. But there it was. I realized then that I was connected to the rest of world in ways I had never understood. It was me and the Righteous Fist, together, on this bridge over the Arno River, our connection spanning twenty years. It was me and every tagger or street artist hanging together in Italy. It was me and every political protester walking the Medieval streets and alleyways in Florence. It was me and all humanity who struggled in the past, or who might still struggle, to find a voice when a voice may be denied. I was part of humanity, a species who wanted to define itself publicly in some way, even if perceived as destructive by some.


I am less compelled these days to write on public property or on the sides of buildings or walls, and much less impressed by anyone who would carve up nature for my benefit, but I do dream of engaging in street art one day: creating a pre-approved mural based on an abstract industrial landscape on the side of a building or a freeway on/off-ramp. I can dream.

This photo reminds me that I am never alone, that my desire to be known (and loved anyway perhaps) is overwhelming and something I don’t think about very often but which is at the core of my life, personal and professional.