Save the writings on the walls

Boys have been writing on walls since the beginning of time. Well, perhaps that is an exaggeration, but this scribbling tendency is quite ancient. Recent research by R. Dale Guthrie, a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska and author of The Nature of Paleolithic Art, shows that the cave drawings from 35,000 years ago were primarily created by boys aged nine to 17. The concepts and images in the drawings are quite similar to the artwork and graffiti of modern adolescent males. In an article from the March 31 issue of Discovery News, Guthrie said, “I think the full larder [of] success of the excitement and danger of killing a giant bison or auroch in the Pleistocene was the equivalent to the testosterone of art today.”

The most convincing evidence for Guthrie’s theory is the handprints that are on the cave walls next to the art. When these handprints were compared to earlier research on male and female hands, it was shown that most of them belonged to young men.

One wonders if the boys who drew on the walls 35,000 years ago faced the same reaction from their society as the graffiti writers of today.

Pittsburgh’s abandoned buildings, open highways, pocket neighborhoods, and freight yards are a graffiti writer’s dream. The Pittsburgh graffiti scene developed in the early 1980s; it has produced nationally and internationally respected writers such as Necske, Onorok, 21Rak, Prism, and Reke, according to a November 24, 2005 article in the City Paper.

There are many impressive pieces on many places throughout the city, from rooftops and bridges to alleyways and walls (especially along the route of the East Busway). Many people, though, are more concerned with the illegality and implications of graffiti rather than the quality of the art itself.

The city spends an estimated $250,000 a year in order to clean graffiti. In an article last April in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, City Councilman Bill Peduto wrote, “Graffiti in our neighborhoods has become pathological. There’s no difference when you decide to tag somebody’s home or private business and cause $400 in damage than if you were to reach into their cash register and steal $400.” According to 2005 statistics, at least a third of those who have been arrested for vandalism in Pittsburgh since 2000 have been juveniles, over 200 of which were under age 10.

The Pittsburgh Police spent $30,000 on a computer database that allows them to search for graffiti by business vandalized, address, tag name, neighborhood, or police zone. Every time graffiti is removed, a report, along with a picture, will be added to the database.

Graffiti is viewed as vandalism, and some people take it as a public attack. As Police Commander Kathy Degler said in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last April, “It’s a quality of life issue that causes people to feel their neighborhoods are going downhill.”

What is it about graffiti that causes this reaction? Many writers are in crews or gangs, and, of course, the thought of gang mentality scares many citizens. People think, “If someone is crazy enough to climb up on that bridge to write their tag, what else would he do?”

Although this view cannot be completely discredited, it may be an overreaction. (Stores generally don’t want to be covered in paint, unless it’s for advertisement purposes.) As Ayanah Moor, professor of contemporary and hip-hop art in the College of Fine Arts, pointed out in an article from the Pittsburgh City Paper last May, many corporations plaster subway cars and buses with their ads, a technique which is clearly stolen from graffiti artists. “Rather than having a conversation about who made that decision [allowing corporations to advertise in this way], we talk about graffiti being a pathological problem,” wrote Moor.

Not all authorities are on a mission to erase graffiti. In a May 2005 article from the Pittsburgh City Paper, Khari Mosley, Peduto’s campaign director, wrote of the city councilman’s anti-graffiti stand: “We can’t advocate for the illegal posting of tags on people’s walls, but we do need to find safe, legal ways for people to put up their work because it can be inspirational.”

Although this might help some, it would not solve the problem. While graffiti writers try to create better pieces each time, they also try to put these pieces in places that will make people think, “Wow, how did he manage to do that there?” Places that are designated for graffiti would take away the thrill induced by the risks they take to write it.

So how psychopathic is it, really?

Some say that the illegality of graffiti forces writers to act like historians: They try to save the legacy of their beloved culture by passing down stories and sharing images of what has happened.

Writers are under great pressure. It becomes an addiction; they get a surge of excitement when they see their piece or tag, and they know that if they stop doing it they won’t get anywhere. If they just did one piece and quit, it wouldn’t be long until it was gone and their mark would be completely erased.

As 21Rak, a writer famous for his improvisational style on freight cars, said in last November’s issue of the City Paper, “I don’t know how graffiti looks to someone that doesn’t know graffiti, like when they’re driving [and see it].... I’m sure they fucking hate it. As a graffiti writer, you’re not doing it for the people that don’t understand it. You’re doing it for the people that do.”