The Metaphysical Writing on the Wall (and Desks)

Harvard Graffiti

What's the lure of graffiti? Simple.

First of all, there's the private thrill of defacing someone else's property in a small way. Especially at Harvard, where the enormity of the institution can feel overwhelming and alienating, writing graffiti can be a way of striking a small blow against the system.

Second, desk-scribblers can be honest and anonvmous at the same time. While the candid outbursts that frequently appear in graffiti must be repressed in polite company, inhibitions can burst free onto a clean tabletop. A cruel jibe, a private fear, or a happy confession of love finds an appreciative audience in the readers of the desk or bathroom wall--but the author can choose to remain safely unknown.

* * *

The scrawls provide any paper-writer or exam-crammer with an entertaining study-break. Often, readers' minds turn to love, as in this Lamont Library exchange:

"I love Vicky."

"I still love Vicky."

"I hate Vicky. I love Lucy."

"I want someone to love me."

"I love Ben (and Billy)."

"Incest is relative."

* * *

Sometimes, students are inspired by more immediate concerns and use the campus library desks as a forum for their feelings of despair about the rising tide of workload:

"You cannot leave until you finish this paper."

"Help! I'm being held prisoner at this desk!"

"I am a hostage and scared."

"David Eigon spent a whole day writing his paper here! June 22, 1985."

"People who talk in libraries deserve death."

"I never wanted to be a student, I wanted to be a lumberjack."

"I wanna be sedated."

"'Now is the winter of our discontent.'--Richard III"

* * *

And, sympathizers offer solutions: "Existentialize."

"It might be 1984, but you can still take LSD. Do it today!"

"What are you spending your time reading this for? Keep studying!"

* * *

In the notorious "pre-med row" of the Cabot Library basement, a subgenre of gripe-graffiti has evolved. The subject-matter varies little in its scope, though the final form can be more biting than run-of-the-mill graffiti:

"Veg row."

"I got an 'E' on the first Orgo exam."

"Look, preemie. There's much more to life than grades. Have a beer."

"I got only a Bin Chem 17."

"You'll never get into med school."

"How many pre-meds does it take to screw in a light-bulb? One to screw it in and one to kick the chair out from under him."

"How can you tell when a pre-med has done the required reserve reading? When he's done the highlighting in black."

* * *

When insulting students seems dull, students turn towards their courses:

"I hate Expos!"

"I hate Ec 10!"

"History 51 sucks."

"Expos sucks."

"Expos! Augh!"

"Death to Expos!"

"I hate Expos."

"So do I. Who ever heard of an essay on graffiti?"

* * *

Graffiti breeds a kind of rude comaraderie among the authors. With a frankness they wouldn't approach in person, Harvard students advise, commiserate with, or rebuke each other in writing. Mostly, they rebuke:

"Help! I'm caught in a love quadrangle!"

"Sorry. Change games."

"Move to the river."

"Jump in the river."

* * *

Naturally, intellectual banter also finds its place among the authors of Harvard's least conventional writings:

"This is the boringest stall! Strain your wits, women!"

"That's the worstest grammar!! Strain your English, woman!"

"I got an 800 M 800 V on my SATs."

"So what? I got an 800 on the SATs and I'm an alcoholic and a pervert."

This last carrel--on the ground floor of Lamont Library--proceeds to display a running list of more than 30 students' SAT scores. The math scores are consistently higher.

Religion sparks a plethora of comments as well, including some of a surprisingly serious nature:

"Jesus loves you!"

"I know--it's the only way I can get through this place."

"Jesus loves you, praise him!"

"I wish he taught Chem 20 and Ec 10."

"The last Christian died on the cross."

"Wake up, people. God is dead. Let us dispense with Christian morality, and prepare ourselves for the arrival of supermen."

"If God exists, that's his problem."

"God only exists in minds weak enough to look for Him."

"Vengeance will be mine, sayeth the Lord."

* * *

Pop culture and philosophy also find their way into the Harvard libraries, although not always in a comprehensible form:

"Things are more like they are now than ever before."

"What??"

In addition to inevitable tributes to Bob Dylan, "the Boss," and Elvis Costello, more daring individuals mix music with their theory:

"Haydn's hidin' but Bach is back. Roll over, Beethoven and mosey on, Mozart, (though Handel can handle it) cause Crye is the rage--(Giuseppe Verdi is just Joe Green to you and me)."

"Dead is Hendrix is God. Hendrix is God. Nietzsche was right!"

"Death to the industrial-minded Communists. Long live the Kantian Liberal-moralists...and Led Zeppelin. Pantheism is the way!"

* * *

And, there are those who write graffiti simply because it's a chance to share a witty idea.

"Jumbo shrimp--what a concept."

"Why is there air? It's a conversation starter."

"The masochist says, 'Kill me!' The sadist says, 'No!'"

"A day without opposition to anarchy is like a day without antidisestablishmentarianism."

"Harvard men are hunks!"

"You are either 1) kidding 2) a man"

"Question authority!"

"Why?"

"Tony Meyers is the brown shoes on the Great Tuxedo of life."

* * *

Despite the ceaseless efforts of cleaning crews to keep surfaces clean, the writing consistently reappears on carrel walls and bathroom stalls. The wooden desks in Lamont are scored with gouges, although the ink has been washed away. One such etching offered the following message, a testimony to the inevitable end of even the most lovingly inscribed graffiti:

"I write to you on the eve of May 25th, the last day of finals. Lamont is quiet, deserted. Only a few stragglers like me remain, weary from studying. The building, too, softly bids farewell to the last of the irritated but understanding friends. Goodbye, Fair Harvard. The day will come when even this message will be rubbed away, but God knows, you are in the forever. I'll miss you. 5/24/85."