Not Eudora
By Harry Welty
June 6, 2008

Tag, We’re it!

A couple weeks ago my wife reported a bright blue tag painted on the retaining wall beside my house. It sort of looks like it reads: “ RAY ” but I can’t be sure. It was painted in one of those comic book fonts that you would expect to see stenciled into a cartoon panel over a picture of the Joker getting punched out by Batman - KAPWOW. In “Ray,” however, each letter so overlaps the next that only the artist can be sure what his tag means. Maybe it’s “Rat.” Because of this the tag is sort of like a private joke that only the artist can understand. It may be private but it’s obviously meant for everyone to see.

Ray’s work, if that’s his nomdegraffiti, is sprouting up all over my end of Duluth . Unlike the fabled art work under Interstate 35, which only urban spelunkers can see, Ray’s stuff graces the skin of all sorts of buildings, signs and walls. I spent 45 minutes trying to rub “Ray” out after I first laid eyes on it. I got about half of it off and it will probably take another 45 minutes to finish the removal.

I’m pretty low key about policing the Avenue and its two-foot wide strip of earth beside the street. There’s a never ending collection of squashed plastic bottles and fast food containers for me to pick up. A couple years ago I thought about writing a column about the 132 cigarette butts I picked up on that portion of the avenue in one hour. Careless disposal of non bio-degradable refuse annoys me but Ray’s handiwork isn’t careless. It’s intentional.

I suspect Ray is sort of like the laborer who can drive around his community and gaze with satisfaction on his life’s work. “See that building? I roughed in the window.” “See that one? I put in the electrical wiring.” “See that one? I troweled in the bricks under the spire.”

I imagine Ray does much the same thing although he (or she) must be a little more circumspect. “See that tag? I sprayed it on at midnight last June.” Of course, Ray does his work late at night and hides his spray can every time a car’s headlights flash past.

In addition to an air of rebelliousness in the tagging world it can foster a certain competition for space. In 1970’s New York , tagging’s unofficial world capital, no sooner would one artist render his work than another one would paint over it as though recycling a canvas. It was rather like a dog peeing on any vertical surface that some other dog had left a scent on.

Whatever Rudy Giuliani’s other faults he took a dim view of such unlicensed free form decoration. Giuliani treated graffiti as a sign of decay and neglect and blamed it for creating apathy in New Yorkers about the condition of their City. He felt that curbing it would encourage people to take better care of their neighborhoods but his theory didn’t end there. He thought that a cleaned up city would discourage other problem behaviors associated with gangs including crime.

I don’t know how much truth there was in this theory but even the Mayor’s detractors generally give him credit with cleaning up the city and, coincidentally or otherwise, bringing down the crime rate.

It would be giving Ray too much credit to say that he is bringing Duluth to its knees. He has plenty of competition, after all, with the current School Board. But certainly as more renters move in between 6th and 21st Avenues east with a smaller personal stake in someone else’s property, Ray’s work will set a tone.

A week after Ray’s work appeared on my retaining wall my wife took a little walk around the neighborhood. She noticed cars acting suspiciously in the Holy Rosary School parking lots a few block to our east. She noticed the same phenomenon a day ago. One car zips in and honks while another drives up along side it just long enough for a furtive transaction to take place - drugs maybe.

Ray may not be a doper but I sure wish he/she’d consider finding some other way to make a mark on Duluth . And if Ray ever drops by my house and offers to give me a hand scrubbing off the rest of his tag, I’d appreciate his help.

Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at: www.lincolndemocrat.com