Graffiti is almost always startling, regardless of whether I like the particular image. Even when it’s disturbing or ugly, I’m usually intrigued by the bright swaths of color and unusual, flowing shapes. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition between the artwork and the illicit canvass that most grabs my attention. I’m no fan of the serious damage such artistic vandalism can do to private or public structures and favor rigorous enforcement of the law, but I nevertheless admire the seething, raw energy many of these painters express. It seems to me that there ought to be places where graffiti is welcome—on a wall or other structure set aside for the purpose—so long as it doesn’t offend whatever local standards a community wants to maintain. Like the boulders sometimes set aside for painting on college campuses, these places could be painted over and over again by whoever has the urge.
Visible from Connecticut State Route 179 like a billboard, the west wall of the long-unused lower Collinsville dam gatehouse on the Farmington River is frequently painted with bold new graffiti, leaving the brick with a thick hide of paint. I pass the brightly colored wall, which is often reflected in the water, several times a week by car, and usually walk down to it on a path along the opposite bank a few times every month. Though I find the garish colors and ersatz hieroglyphics somewhat obnoxious, I’m also fascinated by the bold pictures and the typography that is more image than letter.
Indomitable and unexpected communication comes out of a spray can or marker pen. It’s like the language of a parallel, but hidden civilization. The arresting imagery jumps out at me like an animal from the bushes and the streamlined curves, bariatric letters, bloated colors, art deco tangles, and brambles of symbols hypnotize me like a kaleidoscope. The gatehouse wall is a spot that has attracted generations of guerilla artists and their successive messages lie layered one over the other like wallpaper in an old house. Sometimes, there are political statements, memorials for an untimely deaths, or fanciful displays of an artist’s name. There have been cartoonish designs, Pollock-like drips, geometrics, and surreal figures. Though unsanctioned, the wall has become a marker of place, a familiar and strangely reassuring site to locals for whom it has become an odd measure of home.
While graffiti is usually unwelcome, in rare instances it takes on a venerable and iconic status with which people identify. Such is the case with Numeral Rock high above the village of Kent, Connecticut where for decades kids from a local private school have painted their class year and slogans on a ledge outcrop. The same is true of the “Big Bird Bridge” in Farmington, Connecticut. An old railroad span that crosses State Route 4 (and now carries a foot and bike trail), many years ago someone scrawled the name of the gawky, loveable Sesame Street character across its steel sides. Ever since, the bridge has gone by that moniker, whether in newspaper articles, police reports or local conversation.
Graffiti has happened for thousands of years and no doubt will continue a robust and often unfortunately located existence. There will always be some amateur Banksy who wants to copycat the renegade British artist and thrill to an illegal canvass, whether it is a building or other object. But graffiti doesn’t always have to be creation by desecration. Communities would benefit from sanctioned structures or locations where graffiti artists could give vent to their creative energies without becoming outlaws. We might even find in some cases that such works give places a distinctive aspect which residents and visitors might come to enjoy.