Writing on Walls
October 20, 2022 § 8 Comments
How graffiti’s origin story helped me make peace with writing for the Internet
By Liz Charlotte Grant
I almost never see my words in actual ink. I’m an elder-Millennial a decade into a writing career. Most of the essays I have published have never made it to paper, existing only on the intangible wires of the Internet. This is the experience of most of my literary generation. We translate our sentences into a digital language we do not understand in order to reach across voids, where our words exist as brief blots of light in the minds of our readers. It’s miraculous and also fleeting in a way writers of other generations never experienced.
Don’t mistake me: I do feel relieved at the ephemerality of the Internet (don’t we all pray that myspace profile will stay buried amongst a zillion search results?). Yet the downside is stark—nearly all our contemporary literature is here today and gone in five minutes.
I find myself wondering, in this strange age that refuses to preserve even our most treasured pocket technologies across a single decade, how will the literature of the Internet persist beyond the click and scroll? Will any of these works last? How will we keep our most notable writings from becoming roadkill on the digital speedway?
Case in point: did you know that the Associated Press has downgraded the Internet from a proper, capital-worthy noun to an uncapitalized, common one—no longer Internet, but internet, no longer notable or historically significant enough to merit a capitalization, but instead unremarkable and ubiquitous? Remember back when us literati feared the e-book’s power to kill publishing? The internet’s ubiquity might be worse for us writers than e-books ever were.
Considering the nature of writing for the internet, I find comfort in graffiti’s origin story, which began as a love story. Darryl McCray was a teenager in inner-city Philadelphia in the 1960s. He fell hard for Cynthia, the prettiest girl in the eighth grade. Darryl, aka Cornbread, had already experimented with tagging back in juvenile detention where he had also acquired his nickname. But his crush made him creative: he memorized her bus route and swapped marker for spray paint, sneaking out at night to cover every free inch of cement along her bus route and block with “Cornbread loves Cynthia.” Ultimately, the romantic gesture won her—at least briefly, until her father moved her out of the school district in order to avoid the “gang banger” (he wasn’t one) Darryl.
But Cornbread’s heartbreak was brief, as he had discovered a new passion. Cornbread’s tag appeared across the city, on benches, sidewalks, walls and fences and bus depots. Cornbread told a Philadelphia Weekly reporter in 2001 that “riders would sit on the name Cornbread, go to work and see Cornbread, come home from work and see Cornbread again.” Cornbread, the omnipresent.
Then, when a reporter got the facts wrong and described the tagger as shot when he wasn’t—that was Corn, not Cornbread—Cornbread planned his coup d’état. “I go to the zoo early in the morning, climb over the fence, into elephant’s enclosure,” he told Sandra Shea at the Philadelphia Inquirer years ago. “I take the top off the spray paint, start shaking. The balls start rattling. [The elephant] turns around, he looks at me, doesn’t pay attention. I paint ‘Cornbread lives’ right on his side.”
Cornbread’s tag on the backside of an elephant in the Philadelphia Zoo represents the most naked declaration known to humankind, as old as the first graffiti in Pompeii’s ruins in 78 BCE, as Adrienne LaFrance wrote for The Atlantic: “Gaius Pumidius Diphilus was here.” Another artifact of Pompeii reflected Cornbread’s original instincts. Archaeologists discovered the following wall scratchings: “Health to you, Victoria, and wherever you are may you sneeze sweetly.”
In Roger Gastman’s seminal book, The History of American Graffiti, TAKI 183, an early wall writer said, “You wrote it once and a hundred people saw it. You wrote it twice and a thousand people saw it. By your hand, you were known.” Whichever medium we pick, us writers aim to be known, to be noticed across centuries by a crowd—or even by a single person in a single moment.
Though, admittedly, the favorite medium of graffiti artists remains more stable than mine. Cement’s lifespan inches to eternity. A log, and thereby any book, can turn to mush in a year depending on the weather. Plastics are not immune to decay either (a mark against lamination). But those concrete structures built by the Romans? They’ve lasted 2,000 years and counting.
Imagine with me a future excavation of downtown Philly, given the same attention as ancient Pompeii. What would an archaeologist find? There, beneath the layer of acrylic glopped on by a huffy landlord, the paint will flake off and expose the message Cornbread was here.
The handwriting will be unmistakable. The one and only, Cornbread the distinctive, the man who first shook the aerosol can at 2 in the morning to mark all of Philly as his, yes, that Cornbread, once paced this spot in a pair of Reeboks, a bandana over his nose. He flipped off the lid of the can with a pop and then blasted the wall in a stream, his right finger on the nozzle and the air filled with the sharp smell. His arm twisted and dipped as he traced the practiced letters, a dance akin to Pollock’s rhythm paintings. Cornbread was there back then. But also Cornbread exists now in the archaeologist’s sightline.
Back to the Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic, who reminds us that art offers the chance “to be everywhere at once yet nowhere at all.” The first-person pronoun, the paint on the wall, the chisel in the marble. Cornbread and Gaiius and Victoria’s lover and I are all the same: we were here and we wanted to reach past our own time and into yours.
Perhaps this is why I keep tapping the same language into new pattern, despite the likelihood that my words will vanish before anyone ever stops to notice. I cannot help myself. I’ll keep trying even if it kills me.
Liz Charlotte Grant is a freelance writer in Denver, Colorado. She’s published her essays in the Huffington Post, Hippocampus Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, Christianity Today, the Christian Century and many more places. Her publication, the Empathy List, was nominated for a 2022 Webby Award, making it one of the top five independently published newsletters on the internet (subscribe to The Empathy List for free). Find her on Instagram.