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In Praise of Graffiti

Elaine Wan

Art is an expression of our feelings, thoughts, and experiences through different media. Although most art forms are admired and cherished by society, graffiti has been condemned as vandalism. Artists stubborn in practicing such work have been punished by laws and fined by courts. However, you may have noticed the graffiti in the restrooms at MIT or the painted slogans on the Harvard Bridge. Although the removal of graffiti costs us a lot of money, graffiti has also contributed to the history of this Institute.

The highest concentration of graffiti lurks within the wooden cubicles and on the surface of the pegleg chairs of our silent sanctuary in the Student Center, the reading room. There have been many times when my boredom of studying certain subjects was driven away by those colorful messages engraved on the wooden panels on the desktops.

"Sleep awaits you," is deeply carved onto a panel top and stained with blue ink. Overlaying this message is the capitalized inscription, "LIFE=HELL." Responding to these two messages is a neatly written sentence, "Have you considered Harvard?" The author was quickly rebutted by another who wrote, "Yes, but Harvard did not consider me. I'm too smart and I'm ugly, not to mention especially maladapted."

Among a sea of etches and doodled drawings, more poetic statements can be found on the same panel, like "My life is a tragedy that hurts like a bad comedy." Some fellow student confesses in faint black ink, "I am deeply moved." Amongst the edges of some desks, abstract scientific formulas, like E=mc2, can be found.

The serious atmosphere and chilling temperatures of the reading room make it the place to study or work before finals and deadlines. It is not unusual to turn to doodling on furniture to take our minds off a profound postulate or a mentally grueling essay question. Reading the expressed thoughts of others is also amusing and relieving. The words of others insure that you may not be the only one with heaps of work that causes unusual desires. One student writes on the back panel, "I need a sensual blow job to continue my problem set."

The engravings in the reading room are as much a part of our history as the bright red Smoot measurements on the Harvard Bridge. Some couples have etched their initials in remembrance of the beginning of their relationship. Greek letters symbolic of various fraternities and sororities, along with their members' graduation dates, can also be seen on certain pieces of furniture.

Although such graffiti can be enlightening at times, it also damages the condition of the furniture. This means that new immaculate furniture may be needed to replace those currently still used in the reading room. It would be a pity if the furniture with all these marks from students who have graduated would not be enjoyed by future students of MIT. The ideas and voices which have been part of the MIT culture all these years are engraved along with those words you now find on the desks and chairs of the reading room.

If someday the furniture in the reading room will no longer be fit for use, I hope that the wooden panels with those inscriptions will be dismantled and displayed on the walls of the reading room so that all those who visit the reading room can get a sense of what it was like to be a MIT student studying there.

Now I'll take the advice some wise colleague wrote in bright red ink, "Stop reading this graffiti and get back to work."