Who's Pluribus, Anyway?

Creating peace in the world, preserving our environment, caring for one another, protecting our most basic human right--the right to live--all cannot be accomplished without new cultures able to work on the emotional problems not touched by political dialogue. We must learn to get along with our neighbors. (Arnold Mindell, A New Shamanism for Transforming Health, Relationships, and the Community)

Three times a week I pass a tagged-up utility box outside the parking garage near the university where I work and think of a poetry student I had in a class a few years ago. Though she now lives half way across the country, she was in town over the summer and left her mark. So three times a week I think of her and smile.

Tags--scrawled pseudonyms of graffiti writers--are a scourge to most folks who stand outside that world. I don't mind them; they remind me none of us is really ever alone. When I think of this gentle, unassuming young woman's tag, I applaud her temerity to tag this thing on a well-patrolled main road. All at once, her scrawl challenges notions of ownership, authority, control. I love her for that.

The anonymity of the tag is a challenge, too. Her peers know who she is, but few others do. So she is at once asserting herself and not asserting herself but asserting anybody's sense of self. The scrawl is a reminder that we're all human, we're all interesting, we're all rich with stories.

Amid the monolithic university architecture that exists as a monument to itself, graffiti transforms it into a counter-monument. The American English and Judaic Studies scholar James E. Young coined the term counter-monument in the 1990s, according to historian Paul Sigel.

Sigel says the term emerged from a "debate [that] provoked the question of whether it is possible to develop concepts for monuments which can avoid the danger of having a limited historical perspective and can achieve more than merely express a finished and possibly even ideologically biased interpretation of history." Counter-monuments memorialize significant historical events by continuing a public conversation about those events rather than by treating them as completed facts.

Consider Sigel's commentary on one graffiti-like counter-monument
"by the artist couple Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz. In 1986, they erected a 12-meter-high stele with a lead coating on a pedestrian bridge in Hamburg-Harburg. The object, referred to as a 'Monument against Fascism and War,' is at first sight distantly reminiscent of a traditional monument on account of its column-like character. However, the artists invited passers-by to write personal or political remarks on the surface [my emphasis]. The monument was successively lowered in the course of the following years, and in 1993 it disappeared from the surface entirely and can now only be seen through a window. The monument, says Gerz, cannot take away the responsibility of adult citizens to foster an active and critical political awareness, since 'in the long run, nothing can rise up against injustice in our stead,' as can be read on a slab next to the sunken monument. The artists used this concept to create a succinct image of the 'disappearing monument.'"

Graffiti has its obnoxious moments, but it's greatest public service--its social value--is that it never lets us feel too self-satisfied for very long. To power that expresses itself in massive buildings, it goes nose-to-nose for the price of a little bit of paint and reminds us that order for its own sake is not a virtue. Always, it asks the haunting question: "From many one, but who are we?"