Politics and graffiti

The other day, a baby boomer coworker asked me about politics in the graffiti. Was there protest graffiti after the recent Supreme Court ruling on corporate spending in elections? “Of course not,” I replied, surprised that he’d even ask– though it’s something I’ve heard from other baby boomers before.

It’s not that politics are absent entirely from the graffiti; since I started taking pictures in September 2007, I’ve found eight pieces that relate to politics. There’s one discussion about the United Nations and two post-election pieces about Obama, but the majority of political graffiti sprung up in the run-up to the 2008 election.

The United Nations

There’s an ongoing discussion about the UN in the B-level men’s bathroom. Of all the possible reasons to object to the United Nations, American nationalism seems to be the only one in play:


Former neighbor, faculty member, parent to children in UChicago’s primary school, and current President. That said, UofC is also the school building the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, a decision which led to an outbreak of graffiti elsewhere on campus.

Those two positions can be summed up in the following two pieces of graffiti:

Listen and read all you liberal Obama (socialist) – the American Lenin – loving hippies of UChicago. “If you let the gov’t run the Sahara desert, in 10 yrs. it will be out of sand.” (or something close to this) – M[ilton].F[riedman].

2008 Election

The biggest outbreak of political graffiti related to the 2008 election. Someone expressed dislike for Obama as early as November 2007 (and possibly quite earlier; I picked it up on my first pass through the study carrels that November, and can’t guess how long it might have been there.)

In October 2007, there was some speculation as to the size of Hillary Clinton’s dick:

A little over six months later, as she was clinging to the remains of her campaign, she appeared again as the Black Knight from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and General Custer on an A-level whiteboard.

I don’t usually keep an eye on the graffiti added to the posters that line the stairs going down to the student-run cafe in the library, but this piece of graffiti transforming a stupid ironic poster (an ad for some kind of concert, if you’re able to read the tiny, tiny print at the bottom) into a political statement about Sarah Palin literally made me laugh out loud:

However, my very favorite piece of election graffiti comes from an ardent Nader supporter, who at some point in 2007 carved “Nader ’07″ into one of the wood study desks in the stacks… having forgotten that the election wasn’t for another year.

Much ink has been spilled on the topic of youth apathy towards politics, stemming from a perception that nothing one says or does will make much of a difference. I think the frequency and nature of the graffiti largely supports that assessment of youth attitudes.

The United Nations discussion seems like someone’s pet issue– I can’t think of any particular event recently that it’s likely to be reacting to.

The post-election pro-Obama graffiti could be attributed in part to a sense of local pride. The anti-Obama framing of the Milton Friedman quote is phrased in such an extreme way that it seems equally possible that the whole thing is meant ironically. Even if it’s serious, I’d argue that the focus of the graffiti is Milton Friedman, more than Obama– the timing (early May) doesn’t coincide with any particular milestones, though it’s shortly after the navel-gazing marking the first 100 days of his presidency, and perhaps that was what triggered the outburst.

Regardless, presidential elections are perhaps the one situation where participation in politics yields immediate, visible results, if only in the form of a staffing change in the highest office. If there’s ever a time for the cynical and disenfranchised to be writing political graffiti, the run-up to a presidential election seems like the most likely candidate.

We’ll see what happens in 2012.

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