Arizona State University: where literacy comes to die

Recent works of fiction, including Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, depict a future where traditional literacy has become a niche skill, and the general populace relies on simple symbols for written communication. An examination of the graffiti of Hayden Library at Arizona State University leaves one with the impression that such a scenario might not be so far-fetched. (If you want to explore it yourself, here’s the photo set and transcription.)

ASU library graffiti has three unique and striking features:

  1. The number of messages consisting primarily or exclusively of frat names
  2. The high frequency with which gay and fag are used as insults
  3. The amount of scratches — not drawings, but animalistic scratches on the desks

Frat names

I was astonished at the prevalence of the genre of graffiti consisting of one or more sets of frat names– without any context, or at best, with an associated negative judgment, often phrased in homophobic manner. The dark wood study desks on the upper levels of the library are covered in this kind of graffiti, and I quickly grew tired of photographing it. Taken collectively, frat names would be by far the most frequently used “word” in the entire graffiti corpus. There’s nothing unique about frat names (even, much to my chagrin, at the University of Chicago), nor the combination of frat names and homophobia (even, again, at the University of Chicago), but the extent to which it appears to be the dominant form of “discourse” at Arizona State is stunning.


Consider for a moment, if you will, the top five words from the corpus:

  1. love(s) – 34
  2. fuck(s/er/a/in/ing, etc.) – 27
  3. gay(s) – 12
  4. fag(s/gots, etc.) – 12
  5. like(s) – 11

I think that pretty much says it all.

It would’ve been interesting to explore the men’s bathrooms at ASU, to look for private examples of racism, antisemitism, and misogyny to contrast with public homophobia like at the University of Chicago. Alas, skulking around men’s bathrooms at my home institution is one thing, and doing so at other universities is entirely another.


ASU is not lacking in drawings of genitalia, but the phenomenon of assorted scratches is not one I’ve seen elsewhere. Perhaps it is on account of these seemingly-feral students roaming the building that those interested in pursuing serious study are caged. No joke. The equivalent to the private study carrel found at other universities is a small caged room that could pass as an inmate’s cell.

Attack of the space felines

One day while spending two months at ASU, my husband came across this graffiti narrative in a classroom. “Literate” might be slightly overstating the case, but it does have a certain spark of creativity, doesn’t involve any frat names or homophobia, and I think it makes for the least depressing conclusion to this post:

To many puppies Are Being Shot in The dark

That’s because the horses can’t buy anymore ammo for the farmers.

Else, the puppies simply could not afford to pay the new taff tariffs on electricity imposed by the draconian rule of the Cilk, space-felines from a distant galaxy. After the Clik snuffed out our sun, the genocidal execution of the puppy-dogs had to take place in the dark. For you see, the Clik simply hate candles.

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