I think it is a universal human desire to make one’s mark on the world.
Our life’s work, our children, our financial legacy is how we usually achieve this. It is a way to ensure that somehow we live on, even though our bodies may die. It is a fallacy. For one generation, we may be remembered. But for most of us, we never live on beyond on beyond our children. All this hoped for immortality is just an illusion. And yet, we long to know that, if only for a moment, we mattered.
I am a writer and so I am drawn to words on walls. Psychologically, anonymous messages screamed with spray paint in the night speak to me, and I wonder what could feel so important that it must be said at risk of imprisonment. I have pondered this question a lot, recently. It is curious, since much of graffiti is tagging – the inscription of a word or name that is identified with a particular graffiti writer. What could be so important about putting one’s name or associated word on a wall?
While I don’t condone breaking the law, and I don’t encourage anyone to attempt to make their mark in this manner, I wonder what motivates the tagger. I wonder if there isn’t some sense of wanting to simply say “I was here, and I mattered” and for a brief moment, “I lived on, even after I left.”
I am sure that graffiti scholars and writers alike would object to that reading. They would probably discuss urban disaffected youth, legendary status amongst other writers and the politics of anti-establishment activity and the adrenalin thrills of deviance as an incentive for graffiti. But, I think that at the deepest places, all of this amounts to an expression of the universal longing for importance and immortality.
Immortality is a sham. And, it is on the street that I find the lessons of impermanence so strongly. One day something is painted and the next day (or sometimes, the next hour), it is buffed out. Nothing lasts. Even the silent screams of spray-paint in the night shine briefly and are gone. As I walk along the streets of London, sometimes, I recognize names – Lager, Hekla, Osha. I have no idea who they are. But I know that behind each tag – famous or not, legible or coded – there is a human story.
I believe we should focus less on immortality and more upon meaning. And so, it is the meaning and the human story behind these colourful walls that interests me.
I am grateful to the friend who noted that I have already begun to write about meaning. I changed my style of writing and am looking for the meaning behind so many things for which I am grateful. I am grateful for the reminder of people who may feel invisible in the system, when I look at the anonymous tags of graffiti writers. I am grateful for the immortal words of writers in all various media, for the gift of communion they provide. Reading their words is much like a letter in the post which conveys a sense of a person in a particular time and place that no longer exists. It is a Joy to re-live a moment, like a time traveller, through their words and to feel our Oneness as I sense the ghost trails of a stranger. In looking for the meaning in words left on walls, my service is to take a moment to remember that they, like Kilroy, were here, and as people, they matter.