“Kilroy was here”
“John loves Marcia”
“For a great blow job, call …”
Old-time graffiti was grassroots communication, from the people to the people. Stoked by passion, you carved your sweetie’s name into a tree trunk or scrawled it on a freeway overpass. For the blow job ad in some funky stall, you filled in your worst enemy’s (or homeroom teacher’s) number. But Kilroy, that anonymous marker, was a sign of things to come. Kilroy could be anybody, anywhere.
In Paris, during the May 1968 student-worker revolt, I saw graffiti get seriously ingenious. On the walls of subway corridors and station platforms — normally filled with ads for sunglasses, mineral water or the latest fashions — leftists and anarchists seized their chance to communicate directly with the people. Every day, the handwritten captions piled up: A buff model in blue jeans sported a thought balloon: “Run, asshole — your boss is waiting for you.” A toddler in a playpen proclaimed: “Take your desires for reality.” A sleek babe in a bikini confessed: “I sold my ass to capitalism.” And plastered all over the city was the most poetic slogan of all: “Under the paving stones, the beach.” Everyone immediately understood.
During the violent street confrontations, demonstrators tore up the ancient Parisian paving stones and hurled them at the police. Then, under the pavement, they found clean, white sand. Whichever anonymous bard came up with the phrase, it was beautifully ambiguous. A simple statement of fact, it also suggested that resistance to the forces of repression would lead to a better life — including a beach vacation — for all.
During May and the months that followed, dozens of these one-line street poems were created by the revolutionaries. Artists silk-screened hundreds of radical posters (pictured) that cropped up each morning on walls that the police had washed clean the night before. Political murals got painted wherever and whenever possible. But if a painter or poster artist signed a work, someone else would invariably add a tag: “If you sign, you’ve understood nothing.” The revolution wasn’t about individual egos or reputations.
Before the ’60s were over, and more and more in the early ’70s, a new form of graffiti exploded on the walls and subway cars of the heart of world capitalism. Kids from ghettos in the Bronx, Philadelphia and points west proclaimed themselves with eye-popping style and moxie, making wild, glowing abstractions out of letters and forms. Gang-bangers marked their territories with less-adventurous tags. But either way, if the powers that be pretended the writers didn’t matter, that their lives and hopes were zero, then the kids would let the mainstream know they were here, like Kilroy.
Like it or loathe it, the art of graffiti is now a fact of urban life. Some of the work on the walls of Detroit — by writers such as Fosik, Jime and Fel — is as vital as any surrealist or abstract expressionist treasure hanging in a museum. But lately the crosstown profusion of tags has been invaded by a subspecies known as TRTL or TURTL. And like the zebra mussels polluting Lake St. Clair, it’s done nothing but make an odoriferous mess.
When graffiti gets boiled down to a simple act of aggression, smearing its writer’s ID on any surface available, you start to wonder about the mind-set behind it. Some letters sent to Metro Times about TRTL have suggested that the writers have got to be white suburban wankers desperate for street cred — the idea being that no one who was raised in our beleaguered city would be so deliberate about defacing its art works and art spaces, its private homes and public architecture.
“Kilroy was here” was always a kind of collective joke. It showed up where you least expected it — on a train trestle, in a swamp or on the face of a cliff — and that was funny. Only assholes would write it on public sculpture or on a site (like detroit contemporary, the pioneering gallery project) that somebody had worked hard to bring back from ruin.
TRTL is really the signature of someone who hasn’t understood a thing. A whole universe away from the political consciousness of May ’68 or the awesome creativity of a Fosik, it’s more like the snot that a 2-year-old leaves on the sofa — a sign that, yes, this Kilroy was here. Maybe someday soon he’ll grow up.
Join in the free discussion at "Art or Vandalism: A Symposium on Graffiti" sponsored by Detroit Artists Market (4719 Woodward Ave., Detroit), 7 p.m., Thursday, April 3. Call 313-832-8540 or go to www.detroitartistsmarket.org.George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org