Illustration by Emily Wang/The Gazelle
Got issues? Sure you do — you're one of six hundred students at a highly selective U.S. university in a desert. Think the Health and Wellness Center is too mainstream? Join the club, and grab a pen. Want to express your feelings? Make cryptic reference to them in a stairwell. Feeling pretentious? Just go quote some Neruda. Bonus points for remembering that one line in Spanish. The fifth/sixth floor stairwell is to proper counseling what Instagram is to Magnum photography. You're not even in the same league, kiddo, but if you feel like you are, then it's all good. Until some maintenance man has to waste his afternoon undoing your doodlings.
Maybe you’ve read that before. Back when I was a whippersnapper student journalist, I wrote an article for the now-defunct “Fishbowl Tribune” about the graffiti that was cropping up in a certain stairwell, the westernmost between the fifth and sixth floors of Sama. Fast-forward two years, and it turns out that we’re facing vandalism 2.0, but this time we don’t even have any Spanish. I think it’s the wall’s heritage that draws people back to the same place, but you have to wonder if we’ve changed as a community. What are we scrawling about these days?
Just like the last time I wrote on the subject, I am not going to pick apart the drawings and the artwork. Maybe thankfully, there’s actually less of that this time around — it’s mostly just text. Let's stick to a hard-and-fast close reading of this graffiti. Lit. major fun fact: Graffiti is actually the plural of the singular noun graffito. I'm going to follow Herman Melville’s example and employ some taxonomical classification, as most of this graffiti falls into one of six types:
1.) Suggestions for successful college living:
2.) Suggestions for successful emotional living:
E.g. “WRITE IT ALL AND DON’T FORGET YOU HAVE TO TELL US YOUR STORY [sic].”
3.) Suggestions for successful WTF living:
E.g. “I HAVE A WOODY, SO HOW ABOUT YOU GRAB BUZZ AND WE WILL PLAY?
4.) Commentary on life at our chosen institution:
E.g. “A KID BREAKS HIS KNUCKLES PUNCHING WET CONCRETE … IS THAT WHAT WE’RE DOING … BUSTING OURSELVES UP TO LEAVE A MARK? [sic].”
E.g. “I miss New York.”
E.g. “I CAME IN LIKE A WRECKING BALL [sic].”
For those of you who remember the vintage stuff of two years past, this year’s batch of graffiti may look a little pedestrian. This stairwell used to show off — mostly misquoted — lines from Stanislavski, Rohinton Mistry, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bobby Sands, John Green, Frank Herbert, Clarice Lispector, Picasso, Harper Lee, Miguel de Cervantes and The Roots. Miley Cyrus does seem to indicate a decline.
The stairwell isn’t what it used to be, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I once called it “a cornucopia of emotional desperation”, and sure, people still feel the need to tell each other, “You are worthy of love (even if it hurts)”, but insecurity is not as prevalent these days. Most of this graffiti is rather self-conscious, almost painfully so: “I’M SO COOL I WRITE SHIT HERE [sic],” for example. The retort — “No, you are so cool only if you write smART [sic]” — isn’t that much better, not least for its lack of an adverb.
Gone are the references to marijuana, gin, theft, Nietzsche, homesickness, fear, sleep deprivation, boredom and knights; this year it’s all about art. Being original is the name of the game; I was impressed by the fact that few of these lines are even quotations. “IM ONLY A CRACK / IN THIS CASTLE / OF GLASS / HARDLY ANYTHING / LEFT FOR YOU TO SEE [sic]” may be a misremembered Linkin Park lyric, but most of these lines are fresh, brand-new, artistic creation at its lowest.
“WELCOME TO THE BATHROOM STALL OF NYU Abu Dhabi [sic]” reads one phrase. A tradition as old as high schools themselves, the idea of writing on the stall always calls to my mind a punchline of the U.S. American comedian Demetri Martin: “Wow, a lot of people shit with pens.” The joke lies, of course, in why on earth you’re carrying a pen to the bathroom and then even thinking about writing on its walls. The same might well apply to our stairwell. What makes people pause, take their ballpoint out their bag and scrawl a hasty, misconceived epigram on the wall?
In a recent 53-comment-long discussion on the Facebook group Room of Requirement, about the emergence of this graffiti, most people got remarkably side-tracked by the question of whether our university employs wall-painters, their working conditions and whether or not we should give them more work to do. But what got the arguments started was a few lines from a celebrated graffiti artist, the inimitable Banksy. This one really stuck with me, posted on Facebook:
“the people who run our cities dont understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit … any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours, it belongs to you ,, its yours to take, rearrange and re use.Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head..” [sic].
Bear in mind that these are two separate quotes all jammed together and that Banksy plagiarised most of it from graphic designer Sean Tejaratchi anyway. The person who posted this seems to have just copied-and-pasted the whole lot from the Quotes section of goodreads.com
without even removing the gratuitous punctuation. But sourcing aside, this post and the six likes it got worried me a little.
There seemed to be a general unwritten sentiment that this applied to our community. That the people that whitewash that stairwell do so “because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit.” Check yourself, because this is NYUAD, the least profitable university around these parts. Check yourself, because “THE PEN IS MIGHTY-ER THAN THE (PAINT?) [sic]” is really just another advertisement that gives me no choice whether to see it or not. Check yourself, because that stairwell isn’t a public space.
There is a lot to celebrate around here. There is some amazing art coming out of our community, and I’m sure once the Capstones go on show, there will only be more to see. As per the stairwell, art does make “Life & Dreams Affect Your Destiny [sic],” but there really is no need to ask, “Where did the art go?”
If you’re looking for it in the stairwell between the fifth and sixth floor, then you’re doing it wrong. To those of you that feel you “cannot hold”, I hope you figure out a way to hold on to whatever you’re grasping. I miss New York too, and yes, “THAT’S JUST WHO I AM [sic].” Maybe art “CAN’T BE TAMED [sic]” and we’ll go all full-Miley with this graffiti: “We can’t stop / I WON’T STOP [sic].” But I hope not.
Above all the dross, one line hangs clearly in my memory. Sitting within its own quotation marks in large childish handwriting, it reads “The Great flood-gates of the Wonder-World Swung Open” [sic]. It’s a line from the close of the first chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, but more appropriately it was readapted as the title of a memoir by Justin Hocking, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld. It tells the story of the five years Hocking spent after leaving academia, floating around New York, delivering Indian food, surfing off Long Island and thinking about Moby-Dick.
In less than 100 days, the majority of our own first graduating class will leave academia. They will board flights away from Abu Dhabi, some of them probably never to return. They probably won’t suffer what Hocking went through; he doesn’t celebrate that period of his life in The Great Floodgates, depressed as he was. But it did show him a little of who he was. That’s what art does — it teaches you about who you are, not who the artist was or what Dadaism did. The world is a big wide place, and it’s easy to get lost in it. It’s harder if you know who you are and where you should be.
Look out for art. Look at art. Think about it. Know what it is and, more crucially, know what it isn’t. I’m not asking you to read Moby-Dick, although it might help, but I am asking you to stop pausing on the stairs and scrawling on the walls. The writing on the wall isn’t always right, and art definitely isn’t only “for those who wish to make art.” Art is for all of us. It’s not necessarily for all of us to share or to show others. It’s not something to force upon other people, it’s not something to require other people to paint over and it’s not something to make people argue about. And it’s probably not to be found on a dank wall in Sama Tower.