Graffiti at the River

My first assignment for this semester’s environmental humanities class at Wofford College may seem a little odd to the non-academic: inventory graffiti on the Glendale bridge and shoals.

Why graffiti? First, there’s plenty of it at Glendale Shoals, and I’d once heard writer Alex Haley of ROOTS fame tell about how he moved his family around the South in the 1960s and always inventoried the graffiti in bathrooms. If the graffiti was overtly racist, he’d move his family on. He knew that town was rotten at the core.

Maybe, I told my students, by surveying graffiti we’d discover some things about eastern Spartanburg County.

I divided my 23 environmental studies students into five teams and assigned each a zone. Zone One was the hidden abutments and girders under the old bridge; zone Two was the surface and girders of the bridge itself; zones three through five were stretches of the beautiful rock shoals downstream.

A graffiti survey, I figured, was a good way to break the ice, get the students doing something on their first day in the field. I wasn’t disappointed. They crawled over the landscape with cameras and notebooks, busy as bees.

As they worked, I stood on the bridge and looked downstream, reflecting on Glendale, a place I will likely spend a great deal of the rest of my working life.

The creek and the shoals are a landscape of incredible beauty. The surrounding village is a place once active and vibrant with industry, but now neglected and tattered, off to the side of the economy’s main flow.

After an hour and a half the students had located and documented well over 100 “tags” as they’re called in graffiti lingo. They ranged from unintelligible paint can dribbles and scribbles to complex mini-murals worthy of an art student.

There were names repeated over and over, words I can’t print here because they would be considered obscene, and repeated symbols of quarter moons with possible gang connections; there were Bible verses like John 3:16.

One of the biggest mysteries was multiple Stars of David and menorahs crudely painted on the bridge and rocks below. What to make of these symbols showing up in Glendale? Were these signs of hate, or tags left by Jewish teens?

Later we talked about the 245 pictures of Glendale graffiti, and I asked the class what they’d discovered about their new environmental studies “learning landscape.”

The students easily divided their tags into categories-religion, gangs, young love, drugs, sex, and even one Bob Marley lyric, which contributed a little rock and roll to the mix. Glendale Shoals has proven to be a landscape of youthful escape and rebellion, balanced with Bible verses and those mysterious Stars of David.

In spite of my academic interest, I still don’t like the graffiti at Glendale much, and I wish we could remove what’s already there and stop future rebels from tagging the rocks and bridge with more. I can do without mixing “spray can art” with my rocks and water.

I’m afraid there’s not much hope of stopping graffiti though. One friend, a Glendale resident, pointed out that humans have been writing on rocks for at least 40,000 years, and they are not about to stop now.

Graffiti, like the poor, might well be with us always.

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