Politics and graffiti

The other day, a baby boomer coworker asked me about politics in the graffiti. Was there protest graffiti after the recent Supreme Court ruling on corporate spending in elections? “Of course not,” I replied, surprised that he’d even ask– though it’s something I’ve heard from other baby boomers before.

It’s not that politics are absent entirely from the graffiti; since I started taking pictures in September 2007, I’ve found eight pieces that relate to politics. There’s one discussion about the United Nations and two post-election pieces about Obama, but the majority of political graffiti sprung up in the run-up to the 2008 election.

The United Nations

There’s an ongoing discussion about the UN in the B-level men’s bathroom. Of all the possible reasons to object to the United Nations, American nationalism seems to be the only one in play:


Former neighbor, faculty member, parent to children in UChicago’s primary school, and current President. That said, UofC is also the school building the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, a decision which led to an outbreak of graffiti elsewhere on campus.

Those two positions can be summed up in the following two pieces of graffiti:

Listen and read all you liberal Obama (socialist) – the American Lenin – loving hippies of UChicago. “If you let the gov’t run the Sahara desert, in 10 yrs. it will be out of sand.” (or something close to this) – M[ilton].F[riedman].

2008 Election

The biggest outbreak of political graffiti related to the 2008 election. Someone expressed dislike for Obama as early as November 2007 (and possibly quite earlier; I picked it up on my first pass through the study carrels that November, and can’t guess how long it might have been there.)

In October 2007, there was some speculation as to the size of Hillary Clinton’s dick:

A little over six months later, as she was clinging to the remains of her campaign, she appeared again as the Black Knight from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and General Custer on an A-level whiteboard.

I don’t usually keep an eye on the graffiti added to the posters that line the stairs going down to the student-run cafe in the library, but this piece of graffiti transforming a stupid ironic poster (an ad for some kind of concert, if you’re able to read the tiny, tiny print at the bottom) into a political statement about Sarah Palin literally made me laugh out loud:

However, my very favorite piece of election graffiti comes from an ardent Nader supporter, who at some point in 2007 carved “Nader ’07″ into one of the wood study desks in the stacks… having forgotten that the election wasn’t for another year.

Much ink has been spilled on the topic of youth apathy towards politics, stemming from a perception that nothing one says or does will make much of a difference. I think the frequency and nature of the graffiti largely supports that assessment of youth attitudes.

The United Nations discussion seems like someone’s pet issue– I can’t think of any particular event recently that it’s likely to be reacting to.

The post-election pro-Obama graffiti could be attributed in part to a sense of local pride. The anti-Obama framing of the Milton Friedman quote is phrased in such an extreme way that it seems equally possible that the whole thing is meant ironically. Even if it’s serious, I’d argue that the focus of the graffiti is Milton Friedman, more than Obama– the timing (early May) doesn’t coincide with any particular milestones, though it’s shortly after the navel-gazing marking the first 100 days of his presidency, and perhaps that was what triggered the outburst.

Regardless, presidential elections are perhaps the one situation where participation in politics yields immediate, visible results, if only in the form of a staffing change in the highest office. If there’s ever a time for the cynical and disenfranchised to be writing political graffiti, the run-up to a presidential election seems like the most likely candidate.

We’ll see what happens in 2012.

The decline and fall of the B-level men’s room

It’s been about a month since I last wrote about the B-level men’s room (first post can be found here, last month’s update here, though I’ve been back a couple times since). The decline has begun: philosopher wordplay has descended into more penis drawings and an attempt to turn an anti-gay slur into a pun.

Perhaps to counteract the aforementioned slur, the acrimonious discussion of the UN has been augmented with the thought “I want to see more American Acceptionalism”.

A discussion of pregnancy has sprung up opposite the philosopher wordplay; there’s been two opinions over who wears man thongs (one of which tangentially involves Das Kapital), and there’s four drawings of penises and the only two vagina drawings I’ve found. But all that is what you expect to find in a bathroom stall, and nowhere in the same league as the wit and wordplay that made the B-level men’s room great. Personally, I find it sub-par even compared to what you generally find in the stacks and study carrels, and it reminds me why I generally avoid latrinalia.

As Q said to Captain Picard in the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “All good things must come to an end” and this is the end of the saga of the B-level men’s room, as far as I’m concerned. I wish it could have been painted over in its prime, before it was touched by ugliness. But so it goes.

Happy Valentine’s Day: the best of love at the Reg

To celebrate Valentine’s Day, here’s a few favorite pieces of love-themed graffiti. (Click any image to see it larger).

One of my absolute favorite pieces, and one of the first graffiti pictures I took:

The less-romantic follow-up advice:

Subtle longing:

Love in the time of H1N1:
‘I get flu-like symptoms when Shawnty ain’t around’

A very special UofC kind of love

Simply put

Be his Valentine

In conclusion

Emptiness, perceived reality, and actual reality in the Reg

This week in the stacks, I stumbled across two pieces of Chinese graffiti different from those I’d encountered previously. While most Chinese graffiti has been written horizontally, these pieces gave the impression of being written vertically, in neat rows.

Peter Behr, a UofC alum, identified the first piece as a notable passage from Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦), one of the Four Great Classical Novels (四大名著), “which posits a cyclical relationship between concepts that can be construed as meaning emptiness (空), perceived reality (色), and actual reality (情).”* For someone studying alone in the stacks, spending hour after hour in silence, perhaps exploring postmodern theories of this and that, I can imagine how those ideas might resonate.

Peter, furthermore, notes a typo: “our rushed artist committed a small typo in the upper left hand corner, 由 instead of 自.”

Matthew Felix Sun kindly translated this passage:

Through emptiness, one sees lust
Because of lust, passion grows
Conduct passion to lust
Out of lust, one learns emptiness

The second piece, written on a different wall above the same study desk on the 4th floor, reads as follows (once again, courtesy of Matthew):

[On top of the page, a very large and light character:]
The benevolent love mountain(s)
The wise love water

I can’t help but wonder what the author would make of those who love graffiti.

* Please also note a postscript from Peter, in true UofC alum style: “The problem with those words I defined is that their meanings are quite diverse and have shifted heavily over history. Indeed I believe 色, as it ‘grew up’ so to speak, came to mean physical desire, and now is ‘lust, sex,’ in addition to ‘color.’ 情, which is ubiquitous as the component to words such as 情况 (‘status, situation’) and 事情 (‘thing, matter, event’), also means ‘feeling’ or ‘passion,’ as in 感情 (‘emotion’) or 情爱 (‘love, in the sense of relationships’). So if we take 空 to mean not physical emptiness but lack, loneliness, or emotional solitude, the cycle also works. I’m not a scholar of the book, and haven’t even come close to reading its entirety. But I will be cavalier and guess that Matthew’s rendering is immediately borne out of context (it is a love story, after all), while mine is an interpretation of subtext (and so again, caveat lector).”

Beyond the Reg: Eckhart math library

Amidst the classrooms and offices of Eckhart Hall lies the large-ish room with large windows and two quirky balconies that houses 55,000 “research level monographs, scholarly journals, and selected textbooks in computer science, mathematics, and statistics”.

Who studies there?

My husband did a stint as a student assistant in Eckhart Library, and as he recalls it, the patrons were generally of two varieties. There were the students whose expensive math textbooks were on reserve– these would check them out, work for a bit or take the book elsewhere, then return the book and leave. Then there were the serious math students who would sit and work for hours. The faculty also have 24/7 library access, and while my husband never experienced the situation, there’s a whole set of procedures for what to do if it’s time to close the library and a faculty member insists on staying.

What are the study spaces like?

The main floor has some tables and chairs– not very graffiti-friendly. However, two corners of the library have two isolated study cubicles each– for a total of eight, four on each floor.

Where is graffiti written?

Strangely enough, only one of the two study desks in each pair seemed to be heavily graffiti-covered. No particular pattern: sometimes it was the desk in the corner, sometimes it was the one closer to the center of the room. Some graffiti was scratched into the wood desk, but most of it was on the surrounding walls.

Graffiti content
Declarations of love

If you love algebraic topology, Eckhart is the place to write it. Apparently noncommutative algebra is sexy; so is Antoine. I’m not entirely clear if the object of love is human or math, but someone has also written in Chinese* “I love you / I have dreamed / [after the blue mark] Ha ha“. Also with an unclear object is this “official” declaration of love.


I’m not at all a math person; interpretations of the math content by math people are more than welcome. I’m told this one might involve the Riemann zeta function. There’s a pretty generic-looking equation that might mean something profound to the right person. And “the math” involved in explaining what an English major is doing there involves dividing by zero. That might be funny to the right person.


There’s a drawing of some sheep in a house, a drawing of a piano, the number 7, and some circles and squares (though at Eckhart, maybe that should be filed under “math” for its geometric content, rather than “doodles”). Someone also drew some kind of pirate “going phishing” (possibly Paul Sally, our local “math pirate”).

For the full set of photos from Eckhart, check out the photo set on Flickr.

* Thanks to Matthew Felix Sun for the Chinese translation!


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