Literary Graffiti Tells A Story

Who knew there was an entire world of what is called ‘literary graffiti?’ I’ve just discovered it, and I’m fascinated.

Look at the story behind these pieces:

Written on a sidewalk in a London park is the ending to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by; and that has made all the difference.” 

Literary graffiti often features bust-like paintings of prominent and admired literary figures, like this one of Sylvia Plath. Known as a ‘confessional poet’ who wrote about taboo subjects such as suicide, postpartum depression, and death, Plath is probably most remembered for her own suicide, flamboyant as it was–she stuck her head in her oven and gassed herself. 

In a France subway station, this remark from French philosopher Voltaire: “Love is of all passions the strongest because it attacks the head, heart and body.” 

Walt Whitman, who aspired to be “the American bard,” is most remembered for being a poet of the people. 

In New York, Shakespeare in shades. 

In Paris, Edgar Allan Poe in some sort of hat monstrosity. 

Most appropriately, this portrait of Dickens is found in London. Dickens used novels as a force for social criticism and created one of the most memorable characters of all-time: Ebenezer Scrooge. 

A montage of lines from literary works, including one by Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, E.E. Cummings, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Jan Zwicky. 

An Alice in Wonderland scene. Creepy.

The man is Albert Einstein but the quote, which reads, “A wise man is astonished by everything,” was said by Nobel laureate Andre Gide. Quite a thought provoking combination. 

The letters are bit eerie, but they read “John Steinbeck.” Somehow graffiti, coupled with the dripping letters, seems a fitting portrayal for a man who spent most of his life protesting government authority. 

Perhaps the most famous, and most thematic, line from The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” 

And my favorite! This is allegedly the entire first chapter of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone scripted on a bathroom stall. Gotta admire that dedication.

 

Surveillance Saturates London Streets

This piece was unfortunately painted over by British police, but it marks one of Banksy’s most audacious stunts—a three-story high protest against Britain’s surveillance society just feet from a CCTV surveillance camera.

EYES ON THE STREET - Banksy's work protests the ubiquity of surveillance cameras present on streets and in public places in London.

The guerilla artwork appeared one day on a wall above a Post Office yard in central London. It features a boy in a red jacket painting the slogan “One Nation Under CCTV” in stark white capitals. His actions are filmed by a policeman next to a barking dog.

The secret work is made more impressive by its height, which would have required Banksy to erect temporary scaffolding—all of which went unnoticed by Post Office employees and the London police, despite being watched by a CCTV camera.

CCTV Security Pros is a leading supplier of security cameras and surveillance systems.

According to the London Evening Standard, London reportedly invested in more than 10,000 CCTV cameras in the late 1980’s in a publicly-funded 200 million euro crime-fighting push. The cameras are erected all over the city, but their effectiveness in stopping crime is widely debated. The Standard reported in 2007 that, “a comparison of the number of cameras in each London borough with the proportion of crimes solved there found that police are no more likely to catch offenders in areas with hundreds of cameras than in those with hardly any. In fact, four out of five of the boroughs with the most cameras have a record of solving crime that is below average.”

BBC News later reported in 2009 that, “Only one crime was solved by each 1,000 CCTV cameras in London last year, a report into the city’s surveillance network has claimed. The internal police report found the million-plus cameras in London rarely help catch criminals. In one month CCTV helped capture just eight out of 269 suspected robbers.” BBC further claimed that “there’s been little or no change in London’s crime rates since they [the cameras] were more widely installed in the mid 1980s.”

Despite numerous reports detailing unimpressive facts concerning the city’s security system, the number of surveillance cameras has continued to rise over the years, and British citizens are now being watched by an estimated 51,000 police-run CCTV cameras. (The same amount of public money could have funded 4,121 new police officers). However, when including the number of privately-owned cameras and cameras situated in other public places like train stations and bus depots, the estimate is closer to 1.85 million cameras throughout the city.

A FAMILIAR SIGHT to the London populace, this sign warns that CCTV cameras are overhead.

An article published by the Christian Science Monitor in February of this year says that, “Privacy activists are worried that Britain will become the bleak totalitarian society George Orwell painted in his classic novel “1984,” where citizens were spied on and personal freedom sacrificed for the benefit of an all-powerful state.”

The article continues, “The civil rights group Liberty estimates that the average Londoner is captured on camera around 300 times a day while BBW claims Britain has 20 percent of the world’s CCTV cameras and only 1 percent of the world’s population.”

Street Artist Influenced 2008 Obama Campaign

Designed by Chicago-based street artist Ray Noland, this perfectly outlined work of stencil graffiti depicts Obama shaking the hand of America. While no year is listed, it was presumably done shortly after Obama took office. It’s similar to another Chicago piece featured a few postings ago which portrays Obama delivering his Inaugural Address to the American people.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - Chicago street artist and graphic designer Ray Nolan depicts newly elected President Obama shaking the hand of America in a tried-and-true gesture of trust and sincerity.

Demonstrated by the oldest gesture of friendship and trust in the book—the handshake—this piece is a spot-on representation of the relationship between the president and the American public. It makes no qualms about the expectations of the president, who gives his word to be honest and fair to U.S. citizens with the simple shake of a hand.

Dubbed “the creator of Barack Obama street art,” Nolan’s designs contributed to swells of support for Obama and his presidential campaign in 2008. His most significant contribution was the “Go Tell Mama” campaign, in which a number of materials—posters, buttons, t-shirts, etc—were mass screen-printed with the slogan “Go Tell Mama I’m For Obama.” The campaign was not limited to the streets however, but went viral with an animated video as well. While the campaign had its roots in Chicago, its accompanying images and message quickly spread to other cities like Detroit and New York, making Nolan a subject of mass influence.

GO TELL MAMA - The first poster in the "Go Tell Mama I'm For Obama" campaign initiated by Ray Nolan featured Obama's face surrounded by megaphones resonating with shouts of support. A rally on Obama's shoulders shows supporters picketing with signs containing messages like "Surge of Diplomacy."

Nolan continues to feature Obama in a number of his works, rallying the populace to back the president again as runs for reelection this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this YouTube video, street artist Ray Nolan talks to the Chicago Tribune about his “Go Tell Mama” campaign and other designs featuring Obama. 

Yee-Haw: Bush’s Cowboy Persona

Quick on the draw and trigger-happy, George W. Bush is portrayed a sharp shooter on a brick wall in Sydney, Australia. His played-up Roy Rogers image evidently carried overseas.

SET 'EM UP - Former President George W. Bush Jr. depicted a true cowboy on a brick wall in Sydney, Australia. The subject of much mockery, his identity as a cowboy was not received well overseas.

Almost from the beginning of his presidency, Bush was graced with an American cowboy stereotype. His propensity to speak in Bushisms (common characteristics include, but are not limited to: malapropisms, mispronunciations, unconventional words, and grammatically incorrect subject-verb agreement) certainly didn’t harm the image.

An article in Americana, an American Pop Culture Magazine, notes that editorial writers and public figures frequently began describing Bush in ‘cowboy-esque’ terms following the September 11, 2001 attacks. As terrorism surfaced a topic of hot discussion, commentators began to portray Bush as a sheriff in the Old West “who would go it alone without a posse if need be in order to defeat what he saw as lawlessness and evil.”

In the months leading up to the start of the War in Iraq, the representation of Bush as a straight-shootin’ Wyatt Earp-wannabe continued. In an address to the nation on March 17, 2003, Bush declared, “Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing.” (Americana)

Bold and threatening, the ultimatum added fuel to the fire. Bush, not one to cool his guns, was depicted by several news articles as a Matt Dillon-type who told outlaws to get the hell out of Dodge or face the consequential shootout. Reuters even ran a story on March 19, 2003 entitled “High Noon for Cowboy Era,” in which the opening sentence declared that Bush’s ultimatum was a throwback to the Wild West for Arabs.

Turns out, the cowboy image was received fairly positively by Americans, especially among conservatives, who (at the time, anyway) found the good-ole-boy-from-the-South-persona endearing. The American fascination with the cowboy is a long-standing one, after all. Among other parts of the world, however, a negative image of the cowboy reinforced disgust with Bush’s handling of various policies, including his actions toward the Iraq situation.

This image, an outright mockery of Bush’s cowboy identity, clearly sides with those feelings of disgust.

Cornered: Street Art Wraps Around Two Walls

Painted shortly after Obama’s 2008 presidential win, this street art in Chicago, Illinois depicts Obama delivering his Inaugural Address to America.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - A street corner depiction of President Obama delivering his Inaugural Address to the American public.

I’m fond of the double-sided aspect of this piece. Up to this point, I haven’t seen street art that wraps around a corner, but it’s an intriguing dynamic. Any pedestrian walking along would naturally wish to see what’s around the corner, and thus the artist achieves his goal of attracting attention to the work.

The custom of delivering an Inaugural Address, or a presidential speech in which the newly elected president informs the public of his intentions as the nation’s leader, began with George Washington on April 30, 1789.

Debatably the most listened-to speech in a president’s term of office, it’s no wonder that the words and phrases used by some presidents are familiar to the public. Here are a few famous quotes from various Inaugural Addresses:

  • “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” – Franklin D Roosevelt, 1933
  •   “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what, together, we can do for the freedom of man.” – John F Kennedy, 1961
  • “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” – Ronald Reagan, 1981
  • “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” – Bill Clinton, 1993
  • “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” – George W Bush, 2005
For more famous excerpts from Inaugural Addresses, click here.