Over the summer, I worked on a photography project with the intent to capture graffiti as a way to look at the things that people leave behind. Something about the nature of graffiti always stood out to me, though. Occasionally, I would walk down the stairs to leave my office instead of taking the elevator, and on the walls of the stairwell, there was graffiti. But it wasn’t just on the walls; it was on the signs on the walls too. It was then that I had this rather terrifying realization: either the office building wasn’t as safe as we thought—even with its annoying two-door system and locked stairs (but then, why weren’t the laptops in the office stolen?)—or (and at the time this seemed like the only plausible explanation) graffiti artists were people too. People with jobs and families, people who got annoyed with the two-door system and locked stairs and who struggled to wake up in the morning—just like I did.
We assume that people who destroy have bad intentions—that they are somehow separate from us and that we could never be capable of doing the things that they do. In short, we dehumanize. But maybe the people who tag, or at least some of them, just want to make sure that they are alive. Maybe it’s the rush of endorphins or the ability to reach out and put their mark on the world. Maybe they know that they’re there by what they leave behind, like a scientist discovering the presence of a chemical element in the byproduct of a chemical reaction.
Graffiti artists are just that—artists. But that doesn’t solve the problem of dehumanization, because we dehumanize artists too. Except we don’t call it “dehumanization”; we see it as simple idolatry. Yet somehow, we strive to be like them, to achieve an unattainable standard of perfection. And the only reason that this standard is unattainable is because it’s so romanticized that it’s simply not real. The opposite is also true; we strive to distance ourselves from the things we consider socially reprehensible, but those things are so inextricably tied to human nature that it is impossible to separate them out.
And therein lies the paradox of the graffiti artist; graffiti is “bad” and artist is “good”—but neither is human.