Meddin Studios Mural

by , and

In the West, novels and poems traditionally served transgressive roles. The work of Henry Miller, Judy Blume, J.D. Salinger, and Shel Silverstein paws at fairly benign taboos like sexual freedom, pantheism, simple disobedience, and non-violent misanthropy. But other texts -- The Masque of Anarchy, Men of England, Daniel Deronda, Huckleberry Finn, Intruder in the Dust, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the work of Jean Genet -- serve as perennial subverters of the social order and stand as evergreen commentators on mankind's stubbornly persistent social challenges.

Class inequity, racism, the nature of citizenship, the excesses and varieties of tyranny -- the miserable list rattles on and on like Hell's own lector.

Novels and poems of the latter sort have become increasingly rare, though. And instead of illuminating the myriad hypocrisies and inequities in our midst, contemporary literature effectively anesthetizes readers with portrayals of life in the suburbs, hollow-styled balderdash, and MFA-polished, academic work that restages the tired, deflated battles of Miller, Blume, Salinger, and Silverstien (if it works up the energy to fight any battles at all).1 As such, the publication of contemporary literature all too often seems like an exercise in self-satisfaction (the antithesis of transgression) and the first awkward lurch in a long slog toward the pulping chamber.

But so be it.

If writers and poets choose to abdicate their responsibilities -- and thereby allow bankers to control literature and consumer instincts to devalue it -- there's little any of us literary refugees can do but cry in the wilderness, content ourselves with old pacifiers, and grow mad with desire for new masterpieces that will rattle our grey matter like TNT-packed psilocybins. As this suggests, while transgression may have ebbed in literary output, the demand and need for subversive texts remains acute, and those interested in such things have little choice but to turn their eyes from the pot-boiling, tenure-insuring standard to texts on the fringe.

Ecce Ecce graffiti. Ecce writers like Hebermehl and DRZ.

While the textual forms concerns itself with are all fairly outré, it would be difficult to argue any of them are more subversive or transgressive than graffiti. And until sees its first cocaine mandala (submit them here), no others are as arrantly illegal. This state of affairs gives graffiti a unique place among literary texts. And while filmscripts once languished under the Hays Code -- and the possession of novels like Ulysses and Lady Chatterly's Lover was, at one time, criminalized -- no other textual form has so thoroughly and identifiably risen to the level of full-fledged "art crime."2

Whether monumental like the Guernica-esque work that grew out of the Irish "troubles," masterfully intricate like the work Filippo Soevv, or starkly whimsical like Hebermehl and DRZ's recent Meddin Studios graffiti mural,3 graffiti stands as one of the only thriving forms of literary transgression in our midst. Like many urban artforms -- early hip hop chief among them -- graffiti carries its legal burdens feistily and with a certain nonchalant, empowered elegance. Of course, graffiti has a certain kinship with subversive, even criminalized novels and poems, but it perhaps reads like nothing so much as a secularized, urbanized illuminated manuscript that weaves textual forms and graphic illustrations together with monkish dexterity and, from the perspective of most viewers, anonymity. Frequently post-literate (and thereby unbound by the limitations of cultural context), asserting itself on the world (refusing to be bound between cardboard covers and organized into pages and chapters) -- graffiti has the additional power of being fully cosmopolitan and effectively unavoidable. As such, it seems like the textual form best-positioned to make subversive comments and tell transgressive stories and almost certainly have them listened to.

That most graffiti texts are illegal and forbidden merely further ensures the form's appeal.

While sanctioned and credited, Hebermehl and DRZ's recent installation nevertheless enjoys these other formal powers. The mural subverts its provincial Southern context by drawing on Western motifs, which appropriately enough the artists painted on the building's western façade, facing the direction of their influence like Zuñi sun worshipers. "SAV" -- an abbreviated form of this most traditional Southern city's name -- isn't rendered in a gilded, magnolia-dripping typestyle but rather in scaly, snakeskin patterns flanked by cattle skulls. Emphasizing the Western motif, these skulls also serve as ghostly, Upton Sinclair-like reminders of the Meddin abattoir-turned-atelier's past. And beyond whatever possible critique this sets up, Hebermehl and DRZ's graffiti text challenges its (predominantly Southern) readers to look beyond the mural's provincial context, as well as their own, and come to terms with a sort of "national cosmopolitanism" that brings southwest and southeast -- cactus and jasmine -- together in an instant.

In our age of bourgeois comfort -- when the merit of a novel, poem, or other potentially subversive text lies in its ability to reinforce rather than challenge our prevailing middle class doldrums -- it isn't surprising that graffiti is most often seen as a tacky, illegal eyesore. But these aren't inherent qualities; their existence is merely the result of accumulated cultural baggage at least as old as the Victorian signatures at Brú na Bóinne. Such baggage limits our ability to understand graffiti because we'd rather be comforted than challenged. But if we look beyond the typical views, and instead read graffiti texts as subversive, transgressive literary objects that fit into a long history of the same, we can begin to appreciate the elegant urban splatter with new eyes and see graffiti texts for what they are: generously anonymous public displays of narrative dialogism and lyrical expression.

Editor's Note

Photographs 5-17 are copywritten by Josh Branstetter of

  1. More focused on style than sociopolitical impact, B. R. Myers' A Reader's Manifesto (Melville House, 2002) nevertheless serves as an especially articulate salvo against the comparative hollowness of contemporary literature.
  2. ... to borrow a phrase from the invaluable aerosol art archive of the same name. See (24 April 2010. Susan Farrell, April 2010).
  3. Meddin Studios is located at 2233 Louisville Road, Savannah, GA, USA 31415 (map). The installation was also discussed on The Map of Your World (27 April 2010. [Elizabeth Rushing, 9 March 2010]) and (27 April 2010. [13 April 2010]).

Citation: , DrZ, Hebermehl and Quimby Melton. 8 December 2012. "Meddin Studios Mural." (accessed [PDT / -7:00]).

Updated: December 8, 2012 at 1:49 am (PDT / -7:00)

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