Graffiti Wars

The bridge near our house no longer hosts passing cars, but it does host lots of other activities: kids learning to ride bikes; teenagers tripping on Saturday nights; dog walkers and shit talkers and even stilt-walkers when a nearby festival strikes.

The bridge is the gathering place for our town on almost any major occasion: we host a Fourth of July fireworks show where locals roll their grills down for a potluck barbeque and banjo pickers circle up with fiddle players and jam bluegrass until the rockets fill the air. Also notable is Halloween when thousands of people stroll along the bridge to wonder at the hundreds of pumpkins that local artists carve and place along the bridge’s cement ledges. These are no run-of-the-mill Jack o’ Lanterns: artisans use special tools to thin and shave the pumpkin skin so that the scene created resembles an intricate woodcut, the candlelight illuminating it from within.

But the bridge is also the scene for a drama that unfolds 365 days a year: graffiti wars. With the preponderance of loitering that takes place on the bridge, it’s no surprise that spray cans get sprung and silly phrases get gunned across its grey walls. Most of the graffiti is proprietary in nature and largely inoffensive: “Go Tar Heels” or “Steve was here” or even “Eminem Rules.” Still, occasionally someone will write something obscene, usually scatological or sexual in nature.

When these “bad tags” strike, there are usually three responses. One pings around the e-mail list that serves the area. A message will be sent detailing how sick the citizen is of the graffiti and how it’s time to do something about it. Someone will mention the possible formation of community patrols. Someone else will furnish the Sheriff’s department’s phone number and the criminal code for vandalism. Of course stopping graffiti in a public place is about as easy as dictating the river’s roiling rapids.

The second approach is less punitive, more realistic, and more positive: it entails spray-painting “good tags” to combat the negative ones. I’m not sure if these come from teenagers who are doing Ecstasy instead of whiskey or from steadfast Bynum bridge walkers, but there are countless tags that are unapologetically cheery: there is a “hope” and a “happiness” and a pink dragon and even the green footprints of a mythical platypus that local lore says sometimes hops onto the bridge.

The third approach is my favorite, and it happens without a word. At night, a loose network of ragtag community activists embark on guerrilla missions to alter negative comments into positive ones. To my confusion and horror, I once ran across the word “Catpoop” scrawled across the bridge’s floor in thick red letters. The next day I bought a can of red spray paint and returned that night to the site. I figure “Catpeople” may be enigmatic but at least it’s an improvement. Really all I had to do was change one “o” to a “e” and add “le” to the end. No one was probably the wiser. “Fuck It!” in black was quite easy to change to “Rock It!” (I even had the black paint in my storage shed.) But others are trickier. There was one that said, rather bluntly, “My favorite things are pot and porn.” Rather than figure out an alteration for that honest admission, someone just crossed it out, which seems just plain lazy to me.

Some tags defy categorization. I like to think of them as cultural commentary; they are not offensive but not innocuous either. “I am not addicted, just committed,” made me chuckle, and think. My current favorite has sat unscathed for several months right in the center of the bridge in huge white letters: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” When I got home and settled onto my couch next to the warm woodstove after my walk, I wasn’t sure how comfortable to get. I call that provocative, which I almost always applaud.

The tags that stay in my craw are the ones I want to change but can’t figure out how to. Right now, there is one I’ve stared at for quite some time: “Fuck bitches. Make $$$.” I abhor this one, for obvious reasons, but it also captures the misogyny and materialism endemic to our culture. Does the tagger deserve credit for inadvertently making a sociological statement? I think not. But I won’t mess with the tag until I’ve found a way to doctor the message.

A friend once asked me, “If you found a sidewalk of fresh cement, what would you write?” I don’t know what my final message will be, which is the same reason I’ve never gotten a tattoo: I’m wary of trying to unify the multitudes. But I do know I’ll keep using my small arsenal of paint cans and the cover of night to transform ugliness into tiny patches of hope.