The ritual graffiti of Burton-Judson

People who aren’t familiar with the Regenstein Library have asked me whether writing graffiti there is some sort of student ritual. I’ve assured them it isn’t– it’s just a manifestation of student stress and boredom, and/or perhaps a small creative outlet, that takes place in the building where a lot of students study. But these questions got me wondering whether there are places on campus with graffiti-based rituals. The answer: Burton-Judson.

Resident head, photographer, and Drupal guru Avi Schwab gave me a tour of B-J, which has its share of “normal” graffiti scattered around the bathrooms and brick walls*, but there were two places that were clearly being used for a sort of commemorative ritual: the Tower, and the Linn House lounge.

The Tower

At the top of Chamberlin House lies the Tower, where students have been signing their names since at least the 1970′s. Notably, the signatures commemorate Becky Burd and Patti Dickson’s gender-integration of the Tower, which apparently happened as recently as 1993-1994. (Strangely, the second women in the Tower didn’t arrive until three years later.)

Linn House

The Linn House ritual of residents signing their names in the lounge is of more recent origin; the first names date back to 1983. It seems that the original practice was for students of any year to write their names, but as I understand it, currently it’s a privilege reserved for fourth-years.

Unlike the Tower, the Linn House lounge is an organized and planned commemorative space: there’s a painted background, and while the student signatures are free-form (in terms of handwriting, phrasing of name/nickname, etc.) they’re more or less written along horizontal lines.

This alumni memorial is so large that it’s filled up one large wall, and now continues on the other side of the room. The background of the first two columns of names is a book; across the room, more recent students have to make do with a humble piece of notebook paper.

So where are they now?

One of the things that fascinates me about UChicago graffiti is the possibility that some of these pieces I’ve captured were probably written by people who will go on to do important, or at least interesting, things with their lives. Most graffiti is not signed; where names do appear, it’s usually just first names. Will the writer(s) of the hieroglyphic sex graffiti become world-renown Egyptologists someday? Will our lovesick student win a Nobel Prize someday?

Of all the varieties of graffiti, I find name-signing to be among the least interesting. The one upside is that it makes it easier to find out what happened to people. Thanks to the wonders of Google, I can tell you that:

  • Patti Dickson– one of the first women in the Tower– got her MD, and is now an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Medical Genetics at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute in California.
  • Marisa Westervelt– one of the second women in the Tower– is a lawyer in California, specializing in business litigation matters, particularly securities litigation.
  • Kerwin Olson, who was in the Tower in ’87-’88, is the Program Director for Citizens Action Coalition, “Indiana’s oldest and largest consumer and environmental rights organization.”
  • Zlatko Batistich was in the first class of Linn House students to write on the commemorative wall; today he’s a documentary and fine arts photographer in Bergen County, NJ.
  • Erica Adelberg, as of 1997 (14 years after leaving Linn House) lived in New York City, where she was a portfolio manager and vice president in asset management at Goldman Sachs.
  • Temby Caprio (Linn House 1987) is a Sector Advisor in the Division for Education, Health, and Population Policy in the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, after winning an award for her dissertation on “Women’s Film Culture in the Federal Republic of Germany: Female Spectators, Politics and Pleasure from the Fifties to the Nineties” from the Coalition of Women in German.
  • Veena Reddy (Linn House, 1988) is a Regional Legal Advisor at USAID doing work in Kazakhstan.
  • Loukia Sarroub (Linn House, 1990) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Teacher Education at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln.
  • Megan Whalen Turner, (Linn House, 1983), writes fantasy novels for young adults, and is notable enough to merit her own Wikipedia page.

To find the names of more alumni, check out the full-resolution photographs: wall 1, wall 2, wall 3.

* You can find the full set of B-J graffiti on Flickr

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