These words just may take you higher

On monument walls, grafitti takes a poetic twist

July 05, 2006|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN STAFF

Deciphering the writings on the wall As a rite of summer, we tackled the 228 steps up Baltimore's Washington Monument - stopping only long enough to pray to our Maker for the strength to continue. Finally, we reached the top of the 178-foot monument and stepped outside to gaze upon the city's panorama. The monument's four alcoves face each compass point and provide a breathtaking, if high-rise-obstructed, view of land and water.

OK, that's enough gazing.

Cowering back inside the spiral staircase, we came face-to-face with the monument's unsanctioned yet no less unique feature: its graffiti.

The Washington Monument's graffiti is not your spray-painting, tagging variety; it's more message board than outlaw art. To its credit, the writing on these walls does not resemble the stuff of bathroom stalls in sports bars. On the contrary, the messages are often poetic, funny and romantic, in keeping with the scenic, cultivated Mount Vernon neighborhood - which apparently also has a wild side. The monument was once voted by City Paper as the "Best Place" to have adult activities normally associated with the indoors.

During our platonic visit, we didn't witness any daring coupling, just plenty of wall scratch. Anonymous souls have been at work expressing themselves - or defacing a classic monument - depending on one's position on graffiti. We take no position, mainly because we are still out of breath. The city, on the other hand, prefers people keep their graffiti to themselves. It's against the law, and it's bad manners.

"Out of general respect and politeness, you should not be writing on the wall of this historical structure," says Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for the city's Public Works department.

Not ever?

"I do know that in some historical instances, when graffiti is 100 years old or so, it becomes a protected item," Kocher says. "I doubt there's anything of that age at our monument."

True. Much of the storied, older graffiti appears to have been scrubbed off when the monument reopened in 1992 after a lead-paint-removal project. But people have been busy in the Tuscan column ever since.

Let's put aside the legal issue - and the question of why a person would climb 228 steps to etch "Mr. Bungles" into the venerable Maryland marble of the first George Washington monument. Completed in 1829, the monument opened in Mount Vernon nearly 20 years before Washington, D.C., broke ground on its own monument. Unlike that city's monument, however, Baltimore's memorial doesn't have an elevator. You've got to hoof it.

Scanning the black-, orange- and blue-inked words of fellow travelers, we can imagine what they were thinking when they stopped at the barred portal windows. A graffitist even posted rules in one corner of marble blocks: "Don't add, connect, or draw over what's already written."

So, what clues into human nature can be found by reading the hieroglyphics inside the windowless, cryptic shaft? How long until a body would be found up here? Could a guy really find a date here? Why isn't there graffiti SpellCheck? And what of the mysterious Mr. Bungles?

Introducing now a modern gallery of Washington Monument graffiti - complete with a few lightheaded interpretations:

"Lost Truth. To wipe away the words is to wipe away part of history." Must be what you argue in Graffiti District Court.

"Walk Away Slowly."

"Here's to the nights we felt alive. Here's to the tears we used to cry ... "

"Only Nice Graffiti is Written High Up."

"Tallest Vomitorium." Proving previous graffiti a lie.

"They will see us waving from such great heights. `Come down now,' they'll say but we'll stay."

"She said `Yes' too." To?

"Wish I had ur ring."

There's a lot of love up here. But don't we all at one time want to climb the highest mountaintop (or local monument) and declare our love? Many little hearts are drawn or etched into the clammy marble. Someone loves Sylvia and others love Glenn and Danielle and Dean and Sonia and Kristen and Anna and Tommy and Brendan. Perhaps they all love each other.

The graffiti chatter turns to the man behind the monument: The Father of Our Graffiti.

"Thank you Geo Washington for our liberty" and the more formal, "Thanks Gen. Washington."

"King George Washington Bush."

"What happens in Baltimore stays in Baltimore." Hey, save that promotional tripe for the Washington Monument in Las Vegas.

And, now, our own "Best Of" winner in the graffiti category:

"Can't see my house better."

"Absolutely wonderful," says Bill Pencek. He's the director of Baltimore City Heritage Area, a cultural-tourism zone that includes the Washington Monument. Pencek, who hasn't scaled the monument in years, was clearly impressed with the graffiti.

"Of course, the city certainly does not want to see the defacing of our beautiful public monuments," he says. "Nevertheless, these sound wonderfully poetic."

Well, not all of it. Someone, probably in an oxygen-deprived moment, scrawled in big letters: "Olivia Newton-John."

Was she up here, too? She and ... Mr. Bungles?

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com

The Washington Monument is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. A $1 donation is requested.

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