The Age of Graffiti


Our Correspondents

An abandoned pier in Philadelphia.


In Danbury, Connecticut, off Interstate 84, there is an overpass festooned with graffiti scribbles. They have been there for three decades. No one has thought to erase them and, as far as I can tell, no one has added to them.

The graffiti is of the basest kind. There is little attempt at artwork, design, or display. It is simply the names of yesterday’s rock-and-roll bands spray painted in black in adolescent calligraphy: the Who, Kiss, Commander Cody, Mountain.

I drive under this overpass at least once a week. This is the route to all the big-box stores, supermarkets, and a dozen places that sell cheap cell-phone plans. Exit 7 is not the autumn-leaf splashed Connecticut seen on calendars. It is where you go to load up on paper towels and laundry detergent.

Decades ago, when I first pondered these scrawled names, the graffiti made me mad: here was more ugliness defacing an already sad stretch of road.

As a self-appointed arbiter of taste, I was harsh in my judgment. I had learned this stance in the eight years I spent at various art schools, where students were required to know the difference between “good” art and “bad.” De Kooning was good, LeRoy Neiman was bad.

But my unquestioned certainty did not last long. In the blink of an eye, I went from a know-it-all to a know-nothing. Trends change quickly, but I had never expected to become so uncool so fast. It wasn’t so long ago that I knew every hit single, every dance step, the B side of every 45 record. Now, I draw a blank when someone mentions Ed Sheeran, the Chainsmokers, and Drake. I can’t tell you the name of a single song by Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus. Most weeks, I can’t identify the celebrity on the cover of People. And as for art, I don’t understand most gallery installations or why Jeff Koons’s gigantic balloon dogs are so great. It is that bad.

The first time I felt my edge slip was when graffiti was declared an art form by the critics. How was this possible? How could one look at the spew on the sides of New York subways and think it was anything but a crime?

This new paradigm made me spitting mad. Why had I spent so much time in art school boiling rabbit skins to make my own gesso like the old masters when I could have bought a spray can of paint and gone around putting my tag on empty walls? I felt uncool, I felt old, and I felt gypped.

I can’t say I ever warmed to graffiti, but as the years rolled by I saw it through a different lens. It morphed from an urban blight to a testament of a time long gone. In my home state of Connecticut (whose motto is “The Land of Steady Habits”), it somehow felt right that permanent homage be paid to AC/DC, Whitesnake, and Twisted Sister.

Recently, a major archeological discovery was found on a sandstone wall in the Arabian Desert. Carved into the wall are images of men leading dogs on leashes. It has been estimated that these renderings are at least eight thousand years old.

Like the drawings on the walls of the Lascaux in Montignac, France, the images are not meant to be high art but depictions of daily life back in the Stone Age. It is impossible to see these images without a sense of awe. They offer us a direct link to a distant, almost invisible past. But it also made me wonder if, in their day, these drawings were not heralded as art but brushed aside like so much annoying graffiti.

I imagine a tribal council called to discuss what to do with the out-of-control young warriors who defaced the pristine caves or sandstone walls. What to do with these scribbles of dogs and wildebeest on the walls of someone else’s home?

What if eight thousand years from now an archeologist uncovers the Danbury overpass? I imagine these scientists, with delicate hands and fine brushes, removing layers of ancient dust and gasping at the mysterious words.

Was Ozzy Osbourne a twenty-first-century deity? What is the meaning of the headless bat drawn next to him? Was Whitesnake a white snake used in a ritual or something more symbolic? Who were these people and why were they so important that they were immortalized on a public wall?

I imagine a team of experts moving the wall, with great ceremony, to its permanent home in whatever is the Smithsonian Institution of the future. I would like to see the calendars and T-shirts bearing the scribbles from exit 7. Most of all, I would like to see the Rosetta stone that explains it all. Maybe a crumbling Danbury police blotter with the notation: “Teenagers again seen writing on highway overpass, ran away before caught.”

Eight thousand years from now, lines will form to look on in wonder at its beauty.


Jane Stern is the author of more than forty books, including, most recently, Confessions of a Tarot Reader. With Michael Stern, she coauthored the popular Roadfood guidebook series. The Sterns recently donated forty years of archival materials to the Smithsonian museum, documenting the atmosphere, stories, and history of various restaurants, diners, and regional food events.