Graffiti from the Man

May 4, 2007

Usually, the reclamation of the urban text consists of the dismantling of desire – letting the city’s miasma waft over ads that seek to provoke our greediest tendencies. But I’ve noticed something lately which might be easiest to describe by beginning with a name: disciplinary graffiti.

These are the cruel, impromptu markings made on otherwise sincere texts in the urban environment. Far from blackening the tooth of an airbrushed spokeswoman, disciplinary graffiti sets its teeth against other citizens and the most benign institutions. The picture below is just one example. Two others also come to mind. In the Humanities building at school, there was an informational flier with the heading “Attention English majors,” to which somebody had added, “Do you realize that your existence is worthless?” In that same department, there was a bulletin from somebody looking for a roommate; that individual had the misfortune of describing herself as “quiet and studious,” which garnered the anonymous response, ” = boring as hell.”

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It may be that these anonymous additions provide the same outlet for maliciousness that flame wars on the internet provide. This is nastiness without any consequences, bent on pure release rather than sadism.

Instead, I see in the phenomenon of disciplinary graffiti the recursion of the presence of the commercial in such a way that it cannot be dismantled by any but the most radical reclamations. The idea of commercial space – blank canvas that can be bought for a price commensurate with its visibility – has accustomed individuals to thinking of their eyes as that which must be competed and compensated for. Internet access can be free if you put an ad-bearing toolbar on your desktop; logos are the currency of coolness; and magazine subscriptions can be cheap because they contain ads.

The victims of disciplinary graffiti seek to poach on commercial space, to benefit without being able to give to everyone who looks at their postings. But the anonymous scrawls of disciplinary graffiti reject this. It’s not the lesson of, say, burning important notes onto CD that these people want to teach; it is that nobody encroaches and cheapens their visual real estate without a tiny sting or salt in their wound.

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