I receive messages from below, rather than from above. The sidewalk speaks to me in shades of olive green. Sound like a Berkeley story? Berkeley and beyond …
To get to my office I must step over “The Frankenstein Project” sprayed in green capital letters on Piedmont Avenue’s sidewalk. Who made these words? Why? When? Intrigued, and clearly having too much time on my hands, I wondered whether archaeology might help answer these questions. Though archaeology is usually concerned with artifacts past and underground, many of Berkeley’s artifacts are not so much underground as underfoot—and they converse actively with the present. Sprinkled on sidewalks from north Shattuck to south Telegraph, east Centennial Drive to west University Avenue, are over 60 spray-painted “sidewalk statements.” I hesitate to use “graffiti” because these statements blur distinctions between art and graffiti.
Graffiti as Artifact
For many people the distinction between art and graffiti is clear—authorized versus unauthorized marks. But people also acknowledge Jean-Michel Basquiat’s SAMO and Keith Harding’s pop graffiti as art that migrated from the street to galleries and markets in the 1980s. And what of the political, personal and pensive stencils on sidewalks the world over? The world underfoot is noisy with social commentary like “Who would Jesus bomb?”, regulatory notices like “Walk Bikes,” and irony like “Nothin’s Wrong.” Existencilism. People also scrape, stick and embed messages in sidewalks, marking their environments. Whatever semantics we use, both “art” and “graffiti” remain definitively “artifact” and represent social information. That “The Frankenstein Project” was truly a project became clear after a year wandering Berkeley’s streets, chancing upon the same precise green capital letters that commented pithily on their surroundings. At an intersection, “Anthropologists Convention” suggests Telegraph Avenue’s suitedness for people-watching. Similarly, “About Face” dismisses a newsrack, “Study Project” turns the tables on UC campus, “Indian Rights” broods by a bookstore, “All The Things That We Are In The Sky” mocks/praises a church, and “HQ” at the main post office perhaps alludes to the Unabomber’s letterbombs. These statements suggest an awareness of place and history that goes beyond “vandalism” and which are worthy of further consideration.
An archaeology of Us
So, I wondered whether archaeology—a surveillance of people, places, and artifacts past—would help make sense of “The Frankenstein Project?” In other words, if archaeology is so good at studying “them,” may it not also be used to scrutinize “us”? Six archaeological techniques proved fruitful. First, dating. In three instances, green words occur on top of new sidewalks. Courtesy of the City of Berkeley, we know these sidewalks were laid in 1995 and 1997. The words cannot be older than the cement—a terminus post quem in archaeology-speak. Second, interviews with people on and off street determine that these words are variably remembered as appearing 18-34 months ago. Third, recording techniques like photography with ultra-violet film expose words worn by grime and time. Fourth, stylistic analysis shows the 67 statements found so far use the same spray pattern with letters 250 to 400 mm tall and around 25 mm thick. Fifth, a reading of the “text” groups negative identifications like “I Am Not A Toy” and “Not Roy” (with reversed “R”) and definitive declarations such as “I Am Orion” and “I Am A Samurai.” “Tony Curtis” outside a theater suggests an older person or film buff. Does “Fourteens Can Do” tag a gang affiliation? Interestingly, the author(s) use English and U.S. spellings with “Theatre” and “Savior.” Sixth, mapping site distribution suggests a focus on activist churches, “official” buildings and businesses with few private residences, parks or public spaces (other than the sidewalk) targeted. These techniques cannot explain enigmas like “Mens Viking Al Anon Meeting Go Homo Sapiens,” “Surfer Continuum Nine” or why the color green is favored but they do provide the spectral outlines of a possible author. A homeless person? An alcoholic’s spouse? A wacky Berkeleyan? Art happening? Myself in some surrealist hoax?
Is it at all important to know who did it, knowledge having consequences? In the Bay Area “graffiti” is a misdemeanor with a $500 maximum fine. Sixty-seven sites potentially equals $33 500 —so “Frankenstein’s” identity is a sensitive issue, made more so by knowledge that the project is still active. On Friday, April 13, at least seven new sites were created. “No More Al Anon Meetings,” “Credence” and “There Is No Treaty” suggest a new, angrier phase. Hopefully city officials will distinguish between “statements” like these and “vandalism”, which costs the US economy $200 million and Berkeley $250,000 annually (Daily Planet, June 28, 2000). Likewise, property owners tempted to remove words from the foundation that supports the city’s history might think twice. Some erasure attempts perversely accentuate the words by leaving negative removal stains. These and similar sidewalk statements are neither “ephemera”—many outlast the buildings and causes on which they comment—nor are they insignificant. “Archaeologies of us” help place contemporary material cultures in perspective and can give voice to people whose choice or circumstance relegates to the mainstream’s margins. In an increasingly regulated world in which public space is also contested space, popular visual culture is a significant source of creativity, critique and humor. So next time you go somewhere in town, take to the sidewalk; it may be one of the year’s most interesting journeys.
Sven Ouzman is a Fulbright scholar in the UC Berkeley Anthropology Department.