The Human Condition:

On Graffiti and Vandalism – December 21, 2014

Building with graffiti

Let me say right at the beginning that I hate both graffiti and vandalism. They are visual blights, signs of decay, and represent a loosening of the social order. You see scrawled signs, elaborate and indecipherable signatures, and spiky paint bombs in places where nobody is watching. You see broken windows, wrecked cars, shot-out street lights, and shot-up road signs in places where nobody cares. At the very least, they are marks of carelessness and disrespect for property rights. At the worst, they signal anger, despair, frustration, and hopelessness. Scrawled curses and broken windows are too often the salt crust left over from tears of rage.

And yet … I try to imagine a world where no one sprays graffiti, where no one breaks untended panes of glass. I think through the logical implications of this, and I don’t much like them.

Consider a world in which whole square yards of empty concrete and the sides of railroad cars and bridge abutments remain as visually empty as the day they were made. Consider a world in which abandoned buildings are never broken into and entered, where abandoned cars are allowed to rust gently into the topsoil, and where windows with nothing going on behind them gather only dust and sunlight and never the occasionally thrown stone. Perhaps that’s a world where everyone has good intentions, a liberal education, and a solid middle-class upbringing, with parents who teach their children to respect the property rights of others, think of the consequences of reckless impulse, and keep their hands to themselves. Such a world would belong to the proper little Ralphs among us.1

But not everyone—not by a long shot—has such a proper and respectful upbringing, such positive influences on their young impulses. For those among us humans who were not raised by a stern father and a reproachful mother, what would such a clean and orderly world signify?

Something missing, is my guess. A world in which young people—and those who still had the impulses of youth—did not itch to leave their mark in fresh paint, to break the abandoned windowpane, to rebel against the clean surfaces and orderly functions that others had left behind … such a world would be inhabited by drones. When left with idle time and no instructions to follow, they would fold their hands in their laps and sit quietly. They would contemplate the infinite and sink into their souls, like little Zen masters. Or they would simply switch off, like robots which had outrun their programming. Such is not human behavior.

Imagine a world where the young did not act out, did not test their strength against the inanimate landscape, did not break the rules. Imagine a world where idle people did not break into empty buildings to see what might be inside. Imagine a world where children did not roam the neighborhood, climb trees and walls so they could leap from their heights on a dare. Where they did not dig into rocky hillsides, looking for gold and treasure. Where they did not climb over the construction sites of new housing, free to hang from the door frames and scuff across the bare boards with their sneakers.2 It would be a world of little old people—or of insects and reptiles, hard-wired into certain mental and emotional patterns from birth. It would be an inhuman world.

Now I try to see graffiti as a sign of human creativity. Some person with a need for personal expression is experimenting with a new and exotic signature. Or trying to draw an elaborate haiku in unknown glyphs without ever lifting the brush and stopping the flow of paint. Some artist is trying to express the inexpressible, in loops and twists of an untrained imagination, using the only canvas that may be available to him or her, an unmarked wall or a sidetracked railcar.

I try to see broken windows as a sign of untested energy. Some bored youngster—or someone young in spirit—has picked up a stone and tested his or her skill in throwing it accurately; the crash and tinkle of breaking glass is his or her reward for a well placed shot. Note that I’m differentiating here between the broken windows, stripped doorknobs, and trashed interiors of an obviously abandoned building and the damage done to an occupied home where people live behind the windows and inside closed doors. The former is idle play and reckless disregard; the latter is premeditated terrorism, which is wholly evil in intent.

Graffiti and vandalism are expressions of the human soul in rebellion. It would be better, of course, for the graffiti artist to be given a clean sheet of vellum, an orderly box of colored crayons or paints, and instruction in useful visual expression. It would be better if the vandal were given a hammer, nails, fresh boards, and the invitation to build up rather than tear down. But those, again, are the responses of a socially motivated, middle-class mentality. Spray paint on concrete and a stone breaking a window are what the untamed human being finds in the wild and seizes on for his or her own satisfaction.

These expressions are part of what makes us human. We are a restless, invasive, encroaching, seeking, striving, overturning species. We are not respecters of limits. We are not mindful of the ghostly property rights left behind on empty walls and in abandoned buildings. We climb fences and sleep in other people’s barns. We break windows to test our own skill and strength. We spray paint to mark our passage through the world. Graffiti and vandalism are part of what drives us forward.

I suppose we could change human nature to erase these blighted landscapes. We could try to eliminate the impulse to put our mark where nobody has made a claim, to break the glass that nobody seems to own. With enough patience—or sufficient socially focused violence—we could turn these restless humans into good drones.

The justification would be that we are no longer creatures living in the wild. Those social scientists bent on changing human nature would say that humans must now become more sociable animals, mindful of the feelings and property rights of others, because every square foot of the Earth by now belongs to someone else, somewhere else. And anything that is not already claimed, either here or out among the planets and the stars, must be left in its natural, untouched state, because wilderness has its own set of rights and priorities.

Sure, we could change our innermost nature. Some would say that we must change in order to build a stable, urban society. But I doubt it can be achieved with any amount of patience or socially focused violence. Humans cannot become insects or reptiles, hard-wired to calm obedience. We cannot become drones or robots or little old people with our hands quietly folded. We are a violent, untamed mammalian species, and that has been the key to our success in the world.

If you take away our fierce natures, we will surely begin to die as a species.

1. From William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Ralph is the fair-haired protagonist who stands for personal responsibility, social order, fair treatment of others, and individual rights. As I recall the story, he doesn’t fare well.

2. When I was a youngster in my aughts and early teens, we lived in a new housing subdivision in the Boston suburbs. There the expanding periphery consisted of cleared lots, poured concrete foundations, and the rising frames of single-family homes nailed together in two-by-fours and one-by-eights. Exploring these building sites—not to damage them but simply to climb and play—was part of my childhood. From this experience, I also learned a fair amount about concrete forms, carpentry, and house construction just by observing how these new homes progressed.