Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Writing on the Wall

Not far from my house is a concrete wall created by an on-ramp for a beltway and it is frequently littered with various tags and spray-painted messages. It's the perfect spot for such a thing, hidden from the street, but just off the main drag of a busy neighborhood. It's one of those transient spots of infrastructure, a non-place of sorts where you're always surprised to see a pedestrian. But because it is in not far from a park, not far off the beaten path of house-lined streets, I suspect that kids gather here, or at least pause to make a statement on their way to someplace else. I began thinking of this particular wall (pictured above) as a kind of bulletin board for the neighborhood kids because of messages like, "Quit picking on Ricky." (There was also my favorite message, a looping cursive script that read "Poop Alley!" with hand-drawn musical notes surrounding it as though someone had created a special song just for this spot. In my head it was set to a Scott Joplin rag).

Throughout Baltimore you will find these Mondrian-esque gray and white boxes of paint, representing the city's attempt at covering up graffiti. My wall recently received a major makeover of a different sort. Someone (the city? a community group?) painted over the conversation with this bright, boxy design. It's more complex and colorful than the usually graffiti cover-up, so I can't decide if this was sanctioned or someone's secret, personal project. Or perhaps, an overzealous city employee having some fun with his job (though somehow I doubt that).

This physical wall and its role in communication got me thinking about virtual forms of tagging. On Facebook, you can leave people messages on The Wall. It's described as "a forum for your friends to post comments or insights about you." People can leave drawings, tags, messages, pictures, etc. Of course, you have the power to be your own graffiti removal service and delete the comments you find offensive. And you can block people from viewing your wall altogether. So this classic form of covert, yet very public, urban communication has been co-opted to become sanctioned, controllable, and quite personal. If Ricky has a Facebook page, people could still pick on him, but he could erase their barbs before anyone was the wiser.