Kilroy is here

A saguaro cactus spray-painted by Robert Baratheon

A saguaro cactus spray-painted by Robert Baratheon

When I read this article about vandals tagging saguaro cacti in national parks, I immediately considered capital punishment. That would not be appropriate, I thought, almost entirely convinced. Vandalism makes me angry in a way that more serious crimes do not. I can totally understand why people steal things, and murder makes sense to me whenever someone, say, puts “Hotel California” on the jukebox or spray-paints over a petroglyph. But vandalism is one of the few crimes that confers almost no benefit on the person who commits it. At best, the mastermind who wrote “Nevada has cronic” over 1,000 year-old cave drawings got the memory of a fun caper. Oh yeah—and he wrote his name on something other people think is important.

That last element of the modern rage for tagging is what bothers me, I think. Graffiti does not make me angry when it is representational or conveys some visual message. I think Banksy is a good artist, for example. I was always glad, on rainy elevated train rides into the uncool part of New York City, to see a wall or box truck spray-painted in a unified scene. But “DK” scratched into a window with a key is not moving art. It’s not even failed art. It’s very big letters, perhaps written in a stylish hand, but still conveying one discursive message: [person’s name] was here.

It is often argued that being there is the art. According to this theory, it’s not the content or execution of a tag that matters, but rather its location. Tagging a subway trestle is cool not because of what you wrote, but because you were in a position to write it. The initials are irrelevant. We find a unique opportunity to isolate one variable in this argument with the Kilroy Was Here phenomenon that emerged after World War II.

Writing “Kilroy Was Here” and drawing the corresponding doodle is approximately as stupid as writing your initials. It does not enrage me in the same way, though. The anonymity of “Kilroy” puts the emphasis on place, particularly when you think that the fad emerged among soliders in World War II. Kilroy says that another human being was in this spot, an individual consciousness who had many of the same experiences as you and is now gone. It makes you think about how many people pass through a place, each of them with his or her own little life. Reading “Kilroy was here” above the urinal is an exercise in perspective.

It is exactly the kind of perspective that the vandal fails to appreciate. He is ignorant of the idea that some other person might not like to see his initials next to her bedroom window as she’s coming home from work, or spray-painted over the cave drawings he took his kids to see. The tagger expresses his ignorance through pride: i.e., writing his name on every visible surface as if it were “John 3:16.” I submit that this combination of stupidity and arrogance is a recipe for making other people angry.

Fortunately, my vengeful anger is cut by the shameful joy I feel at seeing the New York Times connect parks vandalism to Facebook.  Of course the guy who spray painted his name on a cactus posted a picture of it on Facebook. He is a narcissist. He is such a narcissist that he considers writing his initials on stuff—something millions of idiots and children do on every surface they can get to—totally cool when he does it. Sorry—I’m angry again. The point is that vandals are a self-selecting group, and I bet they are also likely to be heavy users of social media, because I hate them.

The Times can be forgiven for working the connection, though. In a way, writing your name in a remote location at a national park is like Facebook with all the bugs and none of the functionality. It comes from the same gross desire to aggrandize yourself, even if it’s only by forcing your name into bystanders’ heads. It assumes that other people care about you as much as you do. The only difference is that many, many fewer people see what you wrote, and instead of burning office productivity it wrecks an old cactus. Yeah, I hate it.

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