Graffiti vs Postsecret

Postsecret exhibitThis evening I dropped by the ArtShould Postsecret at UChicago Exhibition, to see how closely the content aligned with the graffiti I’ve collected at UChicago. The similarity between some of the graffiti and the well-known Postsecret project has struck me since I started collecting graffiti. On Flickr, I tagged many of the early images with “Postsecret”, and I suspect that many of the viewers of those early images found them using that term.

There are, of course, some obvious differences between the media of the library wall and a postcard intended for a Postsecret exhibition on campus. Most significantly is the issue of audience. A secret written on a specially-designated Postsecret postcard is meant to be seen as part of the exhibition; a piece of graffiti in the library stacks, at least when I started the project, could only expect to be seen by other students occupying the same study carrel (and not even everyone– I remain amazed at how people can fail to notice details in the world around them, like writing on walls.) The public/private distinction has become less clear over time, as Crescat Graffiti has gained notoriety. I intended the publication of the book in November 2009 to be the culmination and end of this project, fearing that my “going public” with my graffiti-collecting habit might influence potential graffiti-writers. I know it’s had an impact. I’ve found a piece of graffiti written specifically for me (seriously, please, don’t do that, I won’t post it). I also wonder if the recent hijinks of the Advanced Poetry Workshop were in any way inspired by this project (I hope not). I’m still a little surprised every time I’m reminded I have fans, but in a sense it’s only a reminder that what I’m documenting now is in some way different than what I started off documenting.

Not smart enoughIn any case, this evening’s exhibit featured confessions that were intended to be presented to the public in the context of “art”. The prompt being Postsecret rather than the sorts of things that come to mind when studying, there were significantly fewer complaints about the academic aspects of school. This does not, however, preclude expressions of self-doubt regarding one’s achievement: two people were concerned about their qualification for their upcoming jobs. The question of employment seemed like a significant theme overall, also present in a postcard from an almost-PhD who couldn’t find a part-time summer job worth it. In contrast, employment has never been a major theme in the library graffiti, other than in the iconic “This is for six figures and a hot wife“.

CrushThere were postcards about sex, of course, but less by way of penis drawings. Race was a more prevalent theme (liking/disliking particular races, concerns about being perceived as racist, etc.) than in the library; while it’s a more common theme in (men’s) bathrooms, the postcards presented it with less venom. That said, maybe more strongly-worded postcards were censored. Particularly interesting was the portrayal of sexuality. I’ve written about homophobia in the graffiti before, but the postcards in the exhibit were devoid of such sentiments, and instead there were a number of postcards expressing surprise at being attracted to someone of the same sex (despite identifying as straight). Again, one wonders whether some degree of censorship was involved in weeding out the sorts of comments that are relatively common in the stacks.

An answer for CherThere was at least one postcard that I’d group with the “meta” graffiti (remarking on a marker fetish), and UofC students’ inclination to directly quote literature and song lyrics– a rather rare tendency, looking across a variety of university library graffiti corpora– also appeared in the postcards, with a quote from The Lion King and a response to Cher’s inquiry about belief in love after love.

The overarching focus on the social life at UofC brought out confessions about not having a best friend, obsessing over one’s future wedding, and hating one’s sorority sisters, in addition to comments about the complexity of love that wouldn’t be so unusual to find in the stacks. My favorite category of graffiti, intellectual commentary, wasn’t well-represented at all, but there were more than a few heartwarming pieces. I’ve posted selected examples from the entire exhibition here.

I once had this job

(6/2/11 addendum: Janel Jin, from the ArtShould Board of Directors, clarified the question of censorship for me: “We received over 200 postcards over the past weeks, and only did not display maybe three or four – these were taken out because they either negatively mentioned another student by their full name, or were simply lacking in content (intentional image/text).” Thanks, Janel!)

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