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I laid me down upon a bank,
   Where Love lay sleeping;
 I heard among the rushes dank
   Weeping, weeping.
 
 Then I went to the heath and the wild,
   To the thistles and thorns of the waste;
 And they told me how they were beguiled,
   Driven out, and compelled to the chaste.
 
 I went to the Garden of Love,
   And saw what I never had seen;
 A Chapel was built in the midst,
   Where I used to play on the green.
 
 And the gates of this Chapel were shut
   And "Thou shalt not," writ over the door;
 So I turned to the Garden of Love
   That so many sweet flowers bore.
 
 And I saw it was filled with graves,
   And tombstones where flowers should be;
 And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
   And binding with briars my joys and desires.

Thanks to Eskimo Pie for posting "Carmelita's Here" on Saramento Poetry, Art and Music.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all /  Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  Ode On a Grecian Urn ”  John Keats 

If defacing someone else’s property isn’t illegal under all circumstances, it should be.  And with the appropriate apologies to Webster, I’m defining the word defacing, for the purpose of this article only, as adding words or pictures to an existing surface against the will of the owner  If someone commissions an artist to paint a mural on his or her building or other surface, that’s another matter.

Now that I’ve acknowledged the difference between drawing or writing on something that belongs to an “artist” and doing so on something that doesn’t, I want to examine the idea of graffiti as art—illegal art.   We see it everywhere:  On the buildings in the Arts District of Winston-Salem and in the subways of the cities to which we travel.  On certain overpasses along the highways (alongside ribbons to remind us that someone died.)  Sometimes it’s a simple message like “Jimmy Loves Susie.”  Or different words, from the bathroom wall.  Sometimes it’s pictures.  And if you’re railroad buffs, like Bill and me, you see it on the broad sides of railroad cars.

I’ve always loved railroad graffiti, although I realize that loving something illegal is problematic.  It’s like loving “likker” too dearly, during prohibition.  Or like “runnin’ moonshine,” fast on idyllic mountain roads, paving the way for NASCAR.  Nonetheless, railroad graffiti has a lightheartedness about it.  And usually, it harms no one.  I love the airy, balloon letters that almost always show up in graffiti—the letters that flow together, making me feel free.  They look like over-stuffed pillows, a decorator’s dream.

Viewing the graffiti makes me wonder about the process.  And actually, I love the word wonder, too. (But that’s an true aside: Fairly random, like most of my reverie.)  Graffiti artists seem nondiscriminatory in their choice of car types.  But tankers, hoppers, and boxcars are their likely choices.   Some cars seem to be works in progress, but the entire sides of others have been decorated. And I wonder how long that took.  I wonder if the artists, whose initials are at one end of the pictured boxcar car, were quiet during the painting to avoid being detected.  Or were they joking around, party-like?   Where was the car at the time it was painted?  Did the project take more than one night?  Was it done on a  night when the moon was full?  I wonder if more railroad cars are painted during the full moon than at other times of the month.  More babies are born then.

Was there a head painter who assigned the various sections of the boxcar to his or her protégés?  Did he/she make a sketch the night before?  Or was it impromptu with no one in charge?  Did the artists act co-operatively? Or was the competition fierce?  Was beer involved?  Rum?  Pot?  Who brought the paint?  Was the project costly?  Was the color scheme well planned? Or were the paints left over from an earlier, “legitimate project”?   Did each artist bring his own supplies?  Have these artists collaborated previously?  Or is this their “first boxcar”?  Are they on the lookout for more?

Did the artists get caught in the act?  Were they charged with vandalism?  Did the case go to court?  Did the judge throw it out?  Was there a hung jury?  Was the judge a man?  And is he “soft” on crime? Or did they go to jail?  (Directly, without passing “go”?)  Are they still in jail?  Will the head painter, being the instigator,  serve a longer sentence than the others?  Did any of the artists act violently during arrest and, thus, earn themselves time in solitary confinement?   Or did the culprits “get off” with community service?  Did their “community service”  (ironically) involve paint?

And what about the graffiti stats?  Are there more male than female graffiti artists?  Or vice versa?  Are there any gay graffiti artists?  Any famous ones?     What about ethnicity, religion, political affiliations?   The questions seem endless.  Would a Venn Diagram, in its intersection of circles, reveal a somewhat latent correlation between railway  artists and the recipients of speeding tickets in a given month?  You see, railroad graffiti brings out the whimsy in me.   And I wonder how many other people have seen the same boxcar and wondered the same or different wonderings.  And if they, like me, also spotted the  railroad flowers.

If, as I believe, the purpose of art is either to overwhelm the viewer with beauty or to make the viewer think,   railroad graffiti does the latter.  It’s as illegal as a pop-bottle rocket on the Fifth of July but not nearly as dangerous where there are trees.  And in this beholder’s eye, their special beauty is almost as much fun.   But is this problematic?

Can we justify loving illegal beauty?  Can we say like “when
Clinton lied, nobody died,” so it’s okay?  In the case of the boxcar in the picture, the artists carefully avoided painting the area where information vital to use of the car is printed:  They avoided crating a dangerous situation or, at least,  one that could cost the railroad valuable time (money.)  That no one’s life is at stake due to the graffiti is a fact, unless, of course, the painting was done during a lightening storm.  But the facts are not the same as the truth, are they?  The facts are not nearly as important.  So to that I say, To like or not to like:  That is the question.  And the answer is a personal choice, just as it always is.   

first published in Domicile

“If we want to be spiritual, then, let us first of all live our lives.  Let us not fear the responsibilities and the inevitable distractions of the work appointed for us by the will of God.  Let us embrace reality and thus find ourselves immersed in the life-giving will and wisdom of God which surrounds us everywhere. “

From Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Publishers, New York, 1958) Page 46-7.

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