The Surface at Princeton in the Spring of 2014.

The Surface at Princeton in the Spring of 2014.  Photo by surfaceatprinceton.

The first graffiti I ever saw were unremarkable messages etched into my middle school’s peeling wooden desks: people’s initials conjoined inside hearts, a mysterious pointy S shape, and invitations to “put an x if youre bored.” People have scribbled idly on public surfaces forever, even—or especially—when it is forbidden. It’s a small way of bypassing institutions on the way to being part of a community—“put an x if youre bored” is a call to bond over shared boredom. It makes the speaker exist to his or her fellow individuals by addressing them. I speak, therefore I am.

American soldiers scrawled “Kilroy was here” all over Europe doing World War II. They did not want people to forget they had been there. Disgruntled ancient Romans adorned walls with expressions of ill will, most famously Caius asinus est, meaning “Caius is an ass.” And they railed against feckless authority figures, from ruthless landlords to wily Venus who made them fall foolishly in love. In Paris and around the world in May 1968, student protesters tagged the houses of academic and political power with angry, absurd or poetic slogans like “Be realistic: demand the impossible,” “beauty is in the street” and “it is forbidden to forbid.” Across eras, nations and struggles, graffiti is a form of ideological guerilla warfare, sometimes gleeful and sometimes vitriolic but never civil. Its power lies in its incivility.

These days, almost every nation punishes graffiti as an act of vandalism (in Singapore, you can be beaten for it), but artists still emblazon their names nine feet high on public transportation and apartment buildings, knowing that at best their work will be erased and at worst they will be arrested. This is the price of forcing an uncaring society to look at you, of making your presence undeniable. Graffiti allows you to assert your existence any way you like, to depict yourself as who you are and leave proof of your selfhood on a structure that is ostensibly the seat of a power much greater than your own. Like riots, graffiti is the voice of the unheard.

Though graffiti speaks for the marginalized, of late it has flourished in bastions of wealth and privilege—even Princeton, where the slightest unauthorized stroke of chalk is erased overnight as if it had never existed. Someone painted the words “RAPE HAVEN” on the outer wall of Tiger Inn after the news got out that someone had taken a picture of someone receiving oral sex inside the club and then sent the picture to the club’s listserv. Though the graffiti was erased quickly, the impact it made could not be.

Two other acts of vandalism in reaction to sexual violence have appeared in the news. At Columbia, lists of “sexual assault violators” and the names of “rapists on campus” were written on the walls of women’s bathrooms. At the University of Virginia, the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house had cinderblocks hurled through its windows. A recent Rolling Stone article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” reported horrific gang rapes by the fraternity’s brothers. “Suspend us” was written under the fraternity’s Greek letters. “UVA center for rape studies” and “stop raping people,” read more graffiti. Later, a letter of demands signed “the people who vandalized the Phi Psi house” surfaced. It called for the suspension of Phi Psi and proclaimed with the panache of a guerilla army, “We will escalate and we will provoke until justice is achieved for the countless victims of rampant sexual violence at this University and around the nation.” But none of the authors of any of these acts of vandalism of varying degrees of destructiveness made their identities known and probably none ever will. It is necessary for their identities to remain unknown in order for them to act freely.

One could argue that graffiti, as vandalism, is harmful and should incur consequences, but shouldn’t grievous harm to people be addressed before reparable harm to property? Isn’t violence worse than an uncivil response to violence? At the very least, this small act of vandalism calls attention to the gravity of much larger and more systemic instances of violence, and in this sense it is powerful and valuable.

The anonymity of graffiti is what allows it to be powerful. Those whose only recourse for self-expression is graffiti cannot afford to paint targets on their backs by voicing dissent publicly. Anonymity gives license to rage and obscenity and recklessness, but it also does more than that. Anonymous speech, whether it’s in Internet comments or on Yik Yak or in bathroom stalls or on the walls of an eating club, is a space for things that cannot be said out loud. Graffiti is seen as a reflection of a cultural consciousness—what people truly believe—but it’s more like an inverted image of it. Ideas are expressed through graffiti and other anonymous media to the extent that popular opinion stigmatizes them. It is a way to air ideas that are suppressed in public discourse, to lay claim to one’s beleaguered freedom of speech whether it is being stifled by outright censorship or unspoken social norms.

What does it mean, then, when anger about the state of a campus’ sexual climate must be expressed in the form of graffiti? It is no secret that Princeton’s culture imposes a chilling effect on frank speech. Being too outspoken or critical is a social faux pas. It is uncivil.

Last May, when a group of students created the Surface—a blank billboard in the middle of campus on which people were invited to write everything they couldn’t say at Princeton—the installation was plastered with messages. It was a sudden shining outpouring after years of suppression. Written biggest and boldest of all was the statement “RAPISTS ARE HERE,” scrawled across the Surface in full view of tour groups drawn to Princeton by promises of a peaceful, pristine bubble. “I was happy that the person chose to write it very large and bold,” says Kemy Lin ’15, one of the creators of the Surface. “I was glad that the Surface provided an open forum for that thought to be voiced, publicized, and viewed. I was pleased that the school left it there in plain sight. Consider the TI graffiti that got erased immediately as a counterexample.” The Surface was an exception, an outcry punctuating years of polite silence.

UVA, according to Erdely’s article, seems to be even more stifled. It is a place where rape victims are encouraged not to report for fear of social suicide—not to let their one “bad experience” turn into a scandal that brings shame on the university. At Columbia, too, the school administration’s red tape has tripped up rape victims’ attempts to secure justice to the point that redress is now the task of individual students like Emma Sulkowicz ‘15, who has vowed to carry her mattress everywhere she goes until her rapist is expelled.

I suspect these three universities are not unique in their culture of silence. Students at a given institution form a community and would no doubt feel uncomfortable thinking about the iniquities seeping through the very foundations of their community. Furthermore, it is in the interest of universities to try to safeguard their reputations by keeping sexual assault cases under the radar. Nobody wants to send their child to a school with its very own rape haven, and covering up the existence of a problem is much less messy than fixing it.

Though TI does not deserve to be the scapegoat for the rape culture that pervades all of Princeton, the fact that its space was vandalized should inform us: if someone was hurt and angry and disgusted enough to get up in the middle of the night and vandalize something as an indictment of sexual violence, the takeaway should be that we can no longer ignore that our campus culture has produced this kind of rage. One commenter on Columbia news site Bwog’s coverage of the bathroom graffiti pointed out: “if someone feels they must resort to vandalism to make specific instances of violence known, does that somehow make the violence less serious?” What is worse: uncivil protest against violence or the violence itself?

A person speaking truth to power by standing up and addressing someone can be dismissed or silenced without anyone hearing what he or she has to say. But you cannot so easily talk over words emblazoned big and bold on a public space. It is hard not to acknowledge them. The content of the message must be reckoned with independently of the speaker. A call for civility is often the oppressor’s way to shame the oppressed, a last ditch attempt to cry foul when you know your opponent is right.

In the book of Daniel, God makes writing appear on the wall of the wicked and corrupt King Belshazzar’s palace. It says that his days are numbered; that he has been weighed and he has been found wanting; that he will be overthrown. Graffiti is almost always writing on the wall in this figurative sense, too. It can be erased, but it has been there, it has heralded change, and it will linger in people’s minds.