A doctor diagnoses urban scrawl
The abbreviated sayings of wisdom, sometimes called adages, have not been confined to the teachings of any one religion or ethnic society. They are remembered, recorded and repeated in every group that adheres to the compelling delusion that their elders are smarter than their young ones.
While every religion advances its own adages, axioms, proverbs, credos or epigrams, the ancient Hebrews condensed theirs – since there were so many of them - into a separate division of the Tanakh called The Proverbs; they represent the many distilled sayings ascribed to Solomon. The Book of Proverbs contains 31 lengthy chapters, which leads one to wonder how Solomon ever had time to rule.
The 31st chapter of The Proverbs begins with these resonating words: “No, my son! No, O son of my womb!” The exhortation is directed to a poorly documented king of Massa, possibly Solomon himself, and may therefore represent the admonishing words of his mother, Bathsheba. This memorable passage urges the king to practice temperance, chastity, forbearance and, most of all, compassion for the poor. Uncounted generations of Jewish mothers have subsequently pleaded the same message to uncounted generations of Jewish adolescents.
So, the world is now awash with allegedly helpful adages teaching, chastising, rebuking, scolding and otherwise lambasting the masses of wayward male offspring. Whether these adages have any effect upon the decerebrate behavior of youngsters remains in doubt. Yet, much like the mistral winds of Provence, the avalanches of adages persist. Few now read the Holy Scriptures; and as a poor substitute for those too busy to read texts, succinct messages can now be found as handwritings on the wall, a novel form of communication sometimes called graffiti.
The ethical content of graffiti may vary between fateful prophecy (see Daniel 5:24) and mindless pornography, best seen on the vandalized walls of public buildings.
What makes graffiti distinguishable from other public messages? They tend to be brief, hastily assembled, cogent, and at other times, acerbic. Sometimes they offer a plea for change or a cry of remorse, sadness or failure. And when legible, they tend to resemble more the fatalism of a prisoner’s message than the evolving reflections of a philosopher.
Sociologists tell us that graffiti messages (as distinguished from graffiti-generated abstract art) are really the primal cries of the disadvantaged, the dispossessed and the world-weary.
To a scholar of graffiti, the public washroom walls provide a rich source of raw text. Telephone booths, too, but these communication contrivances of the past have been replaced by the cell phone. Not many of the graffiti sayings of the toilet philosophers pertain to medicine. Yet one might encounter some tilt toward medicine in the inner walls of hospitals or medical schools where the aptitudes of the physician may merge with those of the metaphysician. Graffiti like the following might be found:
• First Law of Genetics: If your parents didn’t have kids, you probably won’t.
• People in committees generally agree on things that, as individuals, they know to be idiotic.
• I want to be what I was when I wanted to be what I am now.
• Freud’s third rule: Don’t ever confuse movement with progress.
• Reality is for people who can’t live with drugs.
The scholarly study of this form of public communication, sometimes called graffitiana, is a worthy avocation. The self-satisfied middle classes have their e-mails, their conventional letter-writings, their office bulletin boards, their texting cell-telephones and their letters-to-the-editor as venues for their feelings of disquiet. But for those without such conventional outlets, for those inarticulate ones consumed with the message, “I have something important to say!” there is always the empty brick wall on the next street.
The study of graffiti – its special and distinctive art, its idiosyncratic messages – is a worthy research project for the serious scholar studying the voices of the voiceless.
For the rest of us, only a case of urinary frequency might bring us closer to the arcane world of graffiti.
Stanley M. Aronson, M.D., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.