Signs of the Times

Okay, although I consider myself a relatively observant person, I only notice graffiti if they’re especially large or colourful. And no, I haven’t visited any of those little alleys downtown recently to see if the messaging there has changed; I’m nothing if not cautious. Anyway, I’m told things are different now.

When I was a kid, all I can remember about graffiti was that I could never decide whether to put 2 ‘t’s or 2 ‘f’s in the word. Mind you, I was seldom asked, so it could have been just lack of practice or something. I have the same trouble spelling ‘spaggheti’…

Also, I had trouble deciphering what the mysterious drawings were supposed to represent in many of the toilet cubicles; the phone numbers written in them were pretty clear, but since I never dared to dial them, I couldn’t really clarify their purpose. I have never visited the dark sides of life, though, so whatever enlightenment might have been hidden there would have been wasted on me; in those halcyon  days, graffiti seemed unnecessarily rude, if not downright naughty. Perhaps both of us have evolved since then.

Those that grab my attention nowadays, seem much more professional and artistic than I remember, though. I think most graffitists have better tools than they used to, and it’s probably easier for them to run away from the police with just a spray can than with a bucket and paintbrush. Of course some of them now use stencils, I hear, so I’m not sure what that does to their mobility.

The practice -if I can call it that- is an ancient one, although I’ve been told that the name applied to it is relatively recent. It apparently comes from the Italian word for a scratch: graffio. I don’t think they do it that way anymore, but I’ve never really looked that closely. Still, I have to say that the designs and colours that some of the artists are using now are quite stunning and hard to ignore. And they seem to be growing in size as well; they’re meant to make you want to look… up mostly.

Up is something I’m not good with, though -and it’s not because of neck pain, or because it might mess my hair. It’s because when I move quickly, I find it helpful to watch my feet -especially if I’m jogging. I’ve been wearing sneakers one size larger than necessary because otherwise my big toes get tired of constantly fending off the ends of their shoes. As a result, my feet don’t really understand where they end unless I keep a constant watch. Still, even when I trip, I’m proud of my bruises. In fact, I like to think of them as personal graffiti.

But of late, I have read of even more convincing graffiti that might help to exonerate my eyes and forgive them their obsession with whatever is beneath my feet. Unfortunately, for the time being the graffiti of which I speak are limited to paved and asphalted city sidewalks and only if there are plants or important weeds nearby. City people, who live mainly with buildings and cars, are often blissfully unaware of anything other than dogs, cats, or the colourful bits of paper that are littered on the pavement near their feet. So the idea, as I understand it, was to educate them: to name a weed is to tame a weed. People only fear the unknown. The unlabelled.

How do I know this? Well, I ran (sorry) across an article in a British newspaper the Guardian that talked about sidewalk graffiti:

Apparently, ‘Pavement chalking to draw attention to wild flowers and plants in urban areas has gone viral across Europe… A rising international force of rebel botanists armed with chalk has taken up street graffiti to highlight the names and importance of the diverse but downtrodden flora growing in the cracks of paths and walls in towns and cities across Europe.’

I think it’s a great idea. I mean, although I’m pretty good with my trees -I can confidently spot a cedar or a Douglas fir long before I run into it- I’d probably have crushed (innocently and with no malice aforethought) any Lung liverwort that challenged my feet. Let’s face it, any unnamed bryophytes would not attract my attention in time to warn them.

At any rate, ‘France banned pesticide use in parks, streets and other public spaces in 2017 and in gardens from 2019, leading to a surge in awareness of urban wild flowers in the country.’ So chalking little naming-graffiti on sidewalks with arrows pointing out the plants sounds like a fun way to involve people in nature. But, ‘In the UK it is illegal to chalk anything – hopscotch, art or botanical names – on paths or highways without permission, even if it educates, celebrates and fosters interest and knowledge in nature.’ As one unnamed and masked chalker confessed, checking first over her shoulder, ‘Botanical chalking gives a quick blast of nature connection, as the words encourage you to look up and notice the tree above you, the leaves, the bark, the insects, the sky. And that’s all good for mental health.’

What amazes me is the need to remain incognito. ‘Criminal law expert James Gray of Drystone Chambers confirmed that chalking plant names in the UK is illegal without permission or “lawful excuse” and a rebel botanist could be fined up to £2,500 for painting or inscribing any picture, letter, sign, or other mark on a path, highway surface, tree or other structure.’ Really?

I would definitely be opposed to advertising on woodland trails of course, although I’ve kind of gotten used to the trail-marking fluorescent ribbons that assure me I haven’t strayed from the beaten path. But I’m not averse to a discreetly annotated forest that informed me what might be leafing at me from the bushes. The more we know about what we see, the less we pick it, or step in it, I figure.

Now if some enterprising graffiteur could only figure out a way to annotate the ticks, I’d be really happy. I’m tired of always having to ask someone I don’t know to check me for wood ticks when I stop in for a coffee at Starbucks, or wherever… of course, I do like it when they comment on my bruises and sundry scratches. Still, I guess you can’t have everything, though, eh?


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