Is this art?

Opinions vary. I’ve heard people say yes (often with the caveat that the graffiti itself isn’t art, but my photographs of the graffiti are art), I’ve heard people say no, I’ve heard people accuse me of encouraging the most heinous act of property crime.

Personally, it’s a discussion I hate getting into, and I’m thoroughly sick of having it, but for the record, here’s my take on it: if there’s anything here that’s “art”, it’s the original graffiti. None of the pictures I’ve taken of the graffiti contribute to the subject matter in any way. Frankly, a lot of them are objectively bad photos (slightly blurry, too dark, weird contrast, etc.) The point in taking them wasn’t to make art, but to capture the contents. I take plenty of photos I’d be willing to label “art”– you can find what I consider the best of my photo collection here– but I think that calling the graffiti photos “art” cheapens the word.

What was the first piece of graffiti you photographed?

Misquoted Nietzsche. There’s a blog post all about it.

Is writing in the library a tradition?

Nope. Graffiti just happens. There are some places on campus where writing graffiti is a tradition; one of these days I’ll write a blog post about them.

What’s the deal with the title? And ‘graffiti’ isn’t a Latin word!

Early on, I decided to title the book using a spin-off of the University of Chicago motto, which can be loosely translated as “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.” As I was documenting the graffiti, I felt my own life was enriched by graffiti “growing from more to more” on the library walls, and I wanted to convey that in the book title. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that commonly cited “Latin” words for graffiti were all back-formations from Italian. Seeing as there was no attested Latin word for graffiti, and I felt like a paraphrasing (“writing on the wall”) would make the title too long, I settled for using the English word.

When did you do this?

When my office was in the Regenstein Library, I had access to the building before it officially opened to students– which made the stacks and study cubicle photos much less awkward to take. People look at you really funny if they see you lurking around the stacks or study areas with a camera. So, those photos I took before work. The A-level is more crowded before the library opens, so I’d generally take my “lunch” break around 10:30 AM and head down to the A-level when there were fewer people. No work productivity was harmed in the making of this book.

I wrote one of these, or know who wrote one!

I’d love to hear from you. I included in the Acknowledgements & Thanks section in the book the graffiti artists I’ve heard from after they read about this project. The Thanks section of this web site contains a more up-to-date list of graffiti artists.

Have you ever written on the Regenstein walls?

No, though this piece of graffiti really made me want to write something encouraging. I doodled the cover art on a wall in my bedroom.

Should I write on the Regenstein walls?

No. There’s probably something in the student handbook prohibiting defacing University property.

What’s your favorite piece of graffiti?

I don’t think I could pick just one. If I had to narrow it down to five, though, it might look something like this:

Did you get this idea from the 2004 Scav Hunt item #80: “Brain Farts: The Collected Works of the University of Chicago Bathroom Graffiti”?

I never did (or followed) Scav Hunt as an undergrad, and only heard about that item in a Chicago Weekly blog post about my graffiti project. For what it’s worth, none of the graffiti here is from the bathrooms, but anyone interested in UofC graffiti really should check out Michael “mitcho” Erlewine’s PDF of the Pierce team’s submission. The “grout work” is a classic.