Is this wrong? Whenever I see the work of one of those so-called “tag artists” — the stuff most of us call “graffiti” — I sometimes have this fantasy. It usually begins with me finding the guy’s house and, when he’s not there, painting some odd, indecipherable words on his living-room wall in big, bulbous letters.
When the graffiti artist comes home and sees the big, bulbous letters on his wall, he’ll jump back, startled, and think, “Whoa! What the heck is that?” Then he’ll ask himself, “Why? What was the point of that?”
But he’ll never know, because my identity will remain forever secret. He’ll just find the results of my work. Even in his bathroom he’ll discover jagged squiggles with arrows and exclamation marks around his toilet paper dispenser and a few more scratched onto his bathroom mirror for good measure.
In my fantasy, our graffiti artist wonders, “What makes this guy think he can come in here and write all over my wall? That wall doesn’t belong to him. Doesn’t he have any respect for other people’s property? Doesn’t he have any respect for things that don’t belong to him?”
As part of this fantasy, I run a series of articles in the local newspaper extolling the creative work of a new group of mysterious “living-room artists” whose work has been springing up all around town and make a big point of how lucky people should feel to have such “art” on their walls. I’d argue what a crime it would be for these people to paint over this “art.” So here this poor guy would be with my weird, indecipherable letters painted on his wall, feeling as though there’s nothing he can do about it because the newspaper has decided it’s art.
In time, though, when he gets tired of looking at those weird markings on his walls, he paints over them. Then he’ll have to live for months with this big paint blotch on his walls, because the new paint never exactly matches the old paint. Everyone who comes to his house will ask, “What happened there?” and he’ll have to say: “I had to paint over some weird writing someone left on my wall.”
That big smudge will always be there, as ugly as any big stain can be, impossible to ignore, crying out to be fixed. In time, he’ll decide to repaint the whole wall. “There,” he’ll say to himself when he’s finished, “I’ve finally gotten things back to normal.”
My fantasy then really gets nasty. Because that’s when I go back to his house — while he’s not there, at a time he least expects — and I paint the same bulbous letters and jagged squiggles on the same walls. When he comes home to his newly painted wall, he finds my work staring him in the face again, just as before, as though he hadn’t worked for four hours and spent 50 dollars on paint to cover the whole doggone thing. He finds his handiwork and mine, as if I were telling him: “No, no, Mr. Graffiti Artist, you’re never, ever going to be rid of me. However long it takes you to paint over my work, it only takes seconds for me to put my mark on your wall all over again. That’s the real beauty of what I do.”
He’ll feel truly violated, saying to himself: “Once might have been creative expression. Doing it again after I just painted the whole wall is just cruel. It’s an act of will-to-power. It’s this guy’s way of saying he doesn’t care what anybody else wants; it only matters what he wants.”
When our graffiti artist complains in a letter to the local newspaper about the “vandals” who keep messing up the walls of his house, in my fantasy I imagine that he is forced to endure a long, public scolding from a thin, severe-looking woman with a short haircut and horn-rimmed glasses who screeches at him in a high-pitched whine that he should never have painted over the letters I left on his wall in the first place.
“How dare you ruin someone else’s art!” she shrieks.
When he retorts: “But it’s not that guy’s wall, it’s my wall,” I imagine her saying, “You’re so ignorant! Don’t you understand that what this creative genius is doing is trying to redefine our whole conception of ownership and property and public art?”
“But why,” he’ll protest, “can’t he redefine our whole conception of ownership and property and all that on his own wall?”
“Precisely because no one’s permission was sought is what makes the art ‘edgy’ and especially ‘creative.’ Art isn’t about beauty or about what we want,” she’ll tell him dryly, “art is supposed to shock and challenge us, and that is what has happened on your wall. You should be grateful that this creative genius has deigned to bring his morally uplifting, intellectually enlightening work to your drab living room walls.”
That’s when our poor, bewildered graffiti artist’s head explodes.
So that’s my fantasy. Is that wrong?
Randall Smith is an associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He is the 2011-12 Myser Fellow in the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.