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American graffiti
Across the city, people on both sides of the war debate are inking their opinions on billboards, walls, and lampposts

In the cavernous front lobby of Simmons Collegeís Main College Building, thereís a bathroom-graffiti-style debate unfurling on a long scroll of white paper. But this isnít your typical girlsí-school catfight ó itís a communal deliberation about the war, thrashed out in colored-pencil curlicues, fluorescent hues, and affixed appendages: a casualty list; a pencil-squiggled AMERICAN DEATH DOESNíT COUNT IN THE PERSIAN GULF; a star-spangled-banner sticker emblazoned with the now-ubiquitous rallying cry SUPPORT OUR TROOPS; BUSH + DICK = FUCKED crayoned in crimson. One contributor spits at all local dissenters: OUR SOLDIERS ARE OVER THERE SO YOUR YUPPY ASS CAN HAVE THE FREEDOM TO SPEAK OUT. THE GOAL IS TO GIVE THE IRAQIS THE SAME RIGHT. IF YOU DONíT LIKE THE US, GET THE FUCK OUT. To which another has politely responded, YOUR IGNORANCE SHOWS THAT YOU ONLY GET INFORMATION FROM THE MEDIA. On the portion of the paper thatís unrolled onto the floor, thereís the slogan DYKES FOR PEACE ... OUR BUSHES ARE SMARTER! accompanied by a graphic sketch. An arrow points back, CAN YOU PLEASE NOT BRING YOUR SEXUALITY INTO EVERY ISSUE?

The Simmons scroll is a lawful example of the raw, unedited exchange of war-related words, sentiments, and symbols that has been cropping up in the streets, on the sidewalks, and on all manner of the countryís other surfaces. Already, online "art crimes" mecca has an entire section devoted to war-related murals, from a blocky-lettered GOD BLESS AMERICA on a Florida wall to a luminous Los Angeles mural depicting Saddam and George W. as sinister genies. A few weeks ago, three New Hampshire men were sentenced to 15 days in jail for spray-painting NO WAR, DISARM THE US MILITARY and a peace sign on a Manchester high school. And 15 of the 40 graffiti-removal requests that Mayor Meninoís Wipe It Clean! program (a/k/a Graffiti Busters) received during the month of March were for war-related tags.

City surfaces have always provided a canvas for public expression: artists, punks, promoters, or vandals ó call them what you will ó convert sidewalks, bridges, rust-encrusted mailboxes, concrete barriers, aluminum railings, corporate-sponsored billboards, and crooked street signs into free-publicity space for their bands, epithets, designs, posters, self-styled signatures, and visual impulses. But the maculated cityscape is not only a sort of fleeting, collaborative art project sans curator ó itís also a reflection of the deepest parts of a metropolisís soul. And in a politically volatile time, the urban faćade reveals its inhabitantsí collective anger, rage, and perceived powerlessness.

In graffiti terms, this type of outpouring is sometimes called "folk epigraphy" ó an idiom incorrectly defined by various police forces as "political/social writing in response to emergency situations or political legislation." Or, as the Toronto Police Department describes it on its Web site, "political activism." But in Boston, at least, war-related public displays arenít all in the form of standard spray-paint-based graffiti; they can be anything from a glossy sticker to a wheat-paste poster, a chalk figure to a piece of tape. Even rallies rely on grassroots, non-graffiti styles of promotion: before the recent anti-war protest on Boston Common, stickers and fliers appeared on sidewalks, poles, and fixtures all over town.

As war erupts halfway around the world yet remains something of an abstraction here in the "homeland," graffiti writers process the conflagration aesthetically. Itís about contributing to a dialogue and morphing paint and concrete into a medium of dissent. Itís about leaving notes, setting a tone, spreading the word, and finding a platform ó all with an air of transgression. Sometimes itís about being clever. Other times itís about being vulgar. Most of the time, itís about sticking it to The Man.

Thus far, Bostonís war-related posters, stickers, and graffiti seem more concerned with content than design. For the most part, those who are pro-war tend to express their point of view non-anonymously, by doing things like fastening flags to personal possessions. Anti-war statements, on the other hand, come in lots of unsigned scrawls and stenciled slogans, almost all of them in capital letters. And, if agencies like Graffiti Busters, the Boston School Department, and the Department of Public Works have anything to say about it, they vanish as quickly as they appear.

Hereís a look at some of what we found.

ē Dueling spray cans and defaced billboard, Lower Allston. The best example of graffiti buffing as bowdlerization was at the intersection of Lincoln and Franklin Streets, beside the Mass Pike. At the littered corner of Franklin Street is a popular graffiti spot, the moldering home of NI ED UTOM IVE (a/k/a United Automotive). A Phoenix employee who knows the area says the pale-blue building was spray painted ALLSTON SUCKS for months and months ó until a couple of days before America attacked Iraq, when someone scrawled BUSH IS A MURDERER, or something to that effect, across its flecked face. Within a day, the Bush-bashing was eclipsed by praise: GOD BLESS BUSH USA. Itís still there.

On the next block stands a Clear Channel billboard that, two weeks ago, featured an advertisement for the Red Cross. Beneath the plea HELP US HELP, someone had added STOP THE WAR! On March 27, a policeman spotted this writer photographing the altered sign. The next morning, the entire ad was gone.

ē Pavement graffiti, Lower Allston walking bridge. Connecting Lincoln and Cambridge Streets over the whooshing Mass Pike traffic and the rattle of corroded boxcars is a chain-link-enclosed footbridge. Among the spray-painted mod disses, cigarette butts, and gum stains on the mottled pavement are an assortment of paint-dribbled cries: LAW BEFORE BOMBS!; BUSH STILL SUCKS!; PLEASE PUT DOWN YOUR WEAPONS; BUSH WILL KILL US ALL! NO MORE NAZI USA!; BUSH IS BANANAS.

ē ONE TERM PRESIDENT sticker, Boston Common lamppost. In the late 1990s, New York City street artist Robert Lederman found himself brought up on charges after creating caricatures of Mayor Giuliani as Adolf Hitler and displaying them at a Madison Avenue office building. This Boston saboteur, who added a square mustache and a shock of Hitler hair to a black-and-white decal of George W., was smart enough to leave the work unsigned.

ē MAKE FACES NOT WAR stickers, poles on Mass Ave and around Davis Square. Taped on lamp poles, telephone poles, and any other pole with a diameter greater than two inches, these palm-size squares appear along Mass Ave between Central and Porter Squares. The strength of this photo-booth-style shot ó high-contrast photocopy of two people sticking out their tongues ó isnít the riff on the hackneyed hippie motto, but its unobtrusive ubiquity: affixed just above eye level, itís so subtle you almost donít notice that itís on every pole for a mile. Most graffiti is ghostwritten; here you can glimpse the ghosts.

ē Swears, everywhere. "Thereíre almost always swear words involved," says Michael Bartosiak, head of the City of Bostonís Graffiti Busters, of anti-war graffiti. In nearly every crevice of the city, people who are unhappy with the war have chosen the F-word to express their discontent. And since cusses fall under the programís "no tolerance" policy ó along with anti-Semitic slurs and graphic images ó they disappear quickly. "We try and remove them within 36 hours," says Bartosiak. What "Tawhid" ó who spray-paints stencils in Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and Boston ó wants to fuck: war, Bush, rich white men, Israeli apartheid, and whack MCs.

ē Boston Globe news boxes near the Berklee School of Music and Northeastern University. The thick pink script pronouncing WAR IS WACK scribbled on the transparent window of the Globe self-service vending boxes is damn eerie, especially above headlines like BLASTS IN CAPITAL KILL 14 CIVILIANS.

ē FUCK WAR. LISTEN TO PRINCE tape, School of the Museum of Fine Arts garbage can. Prince did release Graffiti Bridge, a 1990 album with the lyric "Lay down your funky weapon," but itís a stretch to imagine the record has any connection to this strip of white tape on an ash-dusted trashcan. Perpendicular to a tattered pro-pot sticker, the red-lettered message is the most neatly handwritten stuff in the city. Leave it to the art-school kids to generate graffiti with the nicest penmanship.

ē DO NOT ENTER sign, the Fenway. Spray-paint IRAQ on a DO NOT ENTER sign and you have a protest. Simple, direct, and effective.

ē Sidewalk and wall graffiti, Roxbury. A pockmarked wall beside the MBTA station exclaims in small-printed pink and green gloss, THERE R 22 MILLION PEOPLE IN IRAQ! YOUR TAXES WILL KILL THEM! A few blocks and a left turn away, a stencil in front of a church wonders WHO WOULD JESUS BOMB? Around another bend, on the sidewalk in front of Mission Hill School, thereís a blurry, red declaration, ROXBURY SAYS: NO WAR. One afternoon, a local woman walked by, saw others examining it, and exclaimed, "Oh, really?"

ē Stencils, everywhere else. "Stencils in graffiti art are analogous to tracing paper in pad and pen art," says a graffiti artist named Kairos in an interview posted on Nevertheless, stencils are omnipresent, ranging from the anarchic YOU START A WAR, WE START A RIOT (Huntington Avenue power-supply box) to the damning THEIR WEAPONS WONíT SAVE YOU (Brighton Avenue transformer) to the passive CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR (Kenmore Square concrete barrier). But so far, the most striking stencil of all reads FOLLOW, beneath an image of a red-striped US map shaped like a sheep.

Camille Dodero can be reached at cdodero[a]

Issue Date: April 10 -17, 2003
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