February 10, 2004

Graffiti Leaves Mark at Cornell

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The earliest forms of human expression were technically graffiti. Paleolithic artists sketched images of animals, human figures and symbols on cave walls of southern France. Ancient graffiti has been found on excavated walls in the ruins at the Athenian agora and in Pompeii, with witticisms like “Hegestratos lies with me” or “Lucius pinxit” (Lucius painted this).

Spray paint art was one of the essential elements of early hip-hop culture. Marking one’s territory seems to be a universal human tendency, regardless of time or culture. Graffiti’s ubiquity is evident just from looking around campus.

In Italian, “graffiti” is the plural, diminutive of graffio, a scratching or scribble, so graffiti literally means “little scratchings.” In English, the word graffiti is far more common than the singular form graffito, and is mainly used as a singular noun, except in archeological contexts. The English definition of graffiti also includes dipinti.

“Dipinti constitute the same sort of phenomenon [as graffiti], but they are painted,” said Prof. Kevin Clinton, classics and archaeology, whose area of expertise is epigraphy, the study of inscriptions, especially ancient inscriptions. “Many of the Cornell ‘graffiti’ are technically dipinti.”

Clinton is the administrative supervisor for the Cornell Greek Epigraphy Project, which makes published texts of Greek inscriptions accessible to academic communities worldwide through the Internet. According to Clinton, the epigraphy of the classical world reveals subjects similar to that of graffiti at Cornell. “Basically everyday concerns and interests. They [graffiti] are often playful, joking,” Clinton said.

Like the graffiti of antiquity, graffiti today also comments on everyday concerns and interests, and ranges from lewd to bigoted to often politically charged. This is evident from the omnipresent “Bush is a Nazi” tags and anarchy symbols on and around the Cornell campus. Another striking example of political graffiti is a billboard on the northbound side of Interstate 81 heading to Ithaca. The entire board has been made to read “Onondaga Nation Where Raitors Rapist and Murder’s Rule. Protected by Gov. George Custer Pataki N.Y.S. Police Onon Cty Sheriff’s.”

This inscription is a sign of the hostility between the Onondaga and New York State in recent decades. As a sovereign nation, state and national governments are not allowed to claim taxes on the land or any of its by-products. In spite of this, New York State has tried many times to tax sales, particularly on fuel and cigarettes, to non-natives who want to take advantage of the tax-free policy. Furthermore, the Onondaga have been fighting for recognition of their sovereign title to their ancestral homelands. Considering these issues, the graffiti on Interstate 81 is an indicator of the troubled relationship between the Onondaga and New York State.

Graffiti can be used as a tool of social justice, but it can also be an instrument of prejudice.

“Graffiti has been the highest area of activity for bias,” which includes bias incidents, as defined by Cornell, and bias crimes as defined by law, said Lynette Chappell-Williams, director of the Office of Workforce Diversity, Equity and Life Quality.

She added, “Other forms of bias, such as physical confrontations, have dropped.”

According to Chappell-Williams, there were 30 graffiti-related reports in the 2002-2003 academic year, and 70 percent of these incidents occurred in residential halls.

“Of those reports, 50 percent noted sexual orientation as the nature of concern,” Chappell-Williams said.

“The graffiti around campus that I’ve seen has conveyed a message, not so much random vandalism,” said Steven Kim ’04.

Nevertheless, graffiti is a violation of the Campus Code of Conduct, a class A misdemeanor, and a violation of the law under section 145.60 in the New York State Penal Law.

“There is currently a bill in the New York State Assembly to stiffen the penalty for bias related graffiti that would make it a felony and would eliminate youthful offender status,” Chappell-Williams said.

But these policies have not stopped everyone from using graffiti as a means of expressing their opinions.

Why are public bathroom stalls and bulletin boards the sites for the expression of latent bigotry? Why do people choose graffiti over other forms of expression?

“For me it’s about cowardice versus art,” Ewunike Patterson ’04 said. “Sometimes graffiti is a cowardly way of expressing how you feel. But on the other hand, graffiti that is political and powerful should be considered art.”

Archived article by Jonathan Square