This Week in Race published a post titled Does It Still “Take a Village?”: Multiple Perspectives on a Chicago Encounter. In it, Stephen tells how he witnessed “three young Black boys — maybe 13 years old — tagging the station walls with spray paint” in a Chicago subway.
Stephen decided to confront the boys and got an earful of cursing in return. He was torn about what to do. Should he have reported them to the authorities? Should he have ignored them? He didn’t want to be the great white savior, but he felt a responsibility to do something about the boys behavior.
Several people were asked to respond to Stephen’s dilemma, but amazingly nobody challenged the basic assumption Stephen was making. All the responders seemed to agree that graffiti was degenerate behavior that needed to be corrected. At best, the boys had “gone astray” and at worst they were “ignorant thugs.”
Is graffiti really a sign of thuggery?
Graffiti is beautiful. (If you don’t believe me, check out some graffiti archeology.) Graffiti is social commentary, self expression, public conversation, or grassroots support. It’s free public art in opposition to a culture that commodifies everything. For many artists, it is also part of an historic tradition.
Granted, Stephen said these kids were tagging and not painting works of art. But art is in the eye of the beholder. And if tagging isn’t art, what is it? It is a way for kids to make a mark, to say “I’m here and I exist.” Who among us didn’t do that growing up? Even my friends who didn’t tag still wrote “Tammy is here” on bathroom walls, folders, sneakers, blue jeans…whatever was handy.
And who can blame kids for wanting to shout that they exist in a world that ignores them so completely – unless, of course, they violate some rule or social convention? I’m not so old that I don’t remember what it is like to be a kid and have nobody listen to you. The whole world wants to judge you, mold you, try to make you into whatever serves their interest. If anybody needs a means of self expression it is a teenager.
True, I would not want someone tagging the outside of my house. But who is more degenerate, the kid who tags or the society that constantly values property over people? How many people are happy to spend money on police to keep graffiti off their walls but don’t want to spend a dime on education or other social programs to give those kids options?
Adults are often incensed that kids don’t respect authority like they used to. But why should they respect authority, particularly when it doesn’t usually respect them? I’m 36 years old now and I can say with absolute certainty that, when I look back on my sixteen year old self, 90% of the adults I was supposed to listen to didn’t know shit. And I was right not to pay a damn bit of attention to them.
Happily, many of the responders did point out that kids were unlikely to listen to any adult unless there was a previous relationship of trust. Kids have plenty of people jumping in to tell them what they should do or not do. What they don’t have is people who listen to what they have to say.
Who knows, those kids you want to save may see the world even more clearly than you do.