The following is a short essay I wrote about graffiti. It began when I was back in Washington State, watching the graffiti on freight trains and wondering who made them. Thinking about graffiti shaped how I think about art, and about what it means to be famous. Trains, graffiti, and gods were all themes of the project I worked on last year for the Twitter Fiction Festival, The Rats in The Walls.
Which way to Zion? Follow the railroad! The big, red, rusted rails!
It’s brilliant—God’s always hiding in nautilus shells, why not BNSF? Northern Pacific Railway!
Sitting on the rails for days and weeks, those great, glorious train cars.
Look at them. Who would have thought? Gods speak on old train cars.
Gods make the graffiti on the trains.
You have to understand that rail yards are surrounded by barbed-wire fences. That means the taggers were out at one a.m., carrying carpets. You buy the carpets at a thrift store or pick them up off the curb, and you make sure they have the rubber on the bottom. You throw the carpets over the top of the fences so the barbed wire digs into that rubber, and that holds it in place while you climb over the top. The taggers probably have a plastic Safeway bag full of spray cans with them, clinking and tinkling with ball bearings, and someone’s got to figure out how to get the cans inside without making a lot of noise. The open rails near the highway are even tougher. They’re twenty feet away from the road, and there’s no shoulder to pull your car off. When the taggers hit rails near a highway, they’re looking at a lot of walking, this time getting their backs lit up by headlights. You can see them at midnight, walking on the other side of the guardrail: pilgrims, knights, and small gods.
Those train cars are plastered with their work. Big, cartoonish proportions, horribly twisted and squished in all the bright colors of Tokyo neon lights, perfectly clean and sharp. Starbursts, the kinds of colors you see out in space. A lot of intestine-puzzles, the kind that are so warped and tightly wound that you have to slowly tease the letters out of them. There are the block letters, the towering white modular ones that each take up a panel of the train car. There are the occult cartoon characters too, the grinning zombies, the fucked-up Mickey Mouses with black eyes and pinprick red pupils, the giant, symmetrical Easter Island heads. There are names, slogans, parodies, giant eyeballs on Illuminati pyramids, non-Euclidean geometry and cyclopean blocks, all mashed together into a frieze on an industrial freight line. Triptychs are nothing new, but Hieronymus Bosch was painting earthly delights before the Industrial Revolution, before coal-powered double-boilers, before the atomic bomb and urban renewal, and a long time before the Union Pacific. He knew nothing of Hell.
Away from the railroads, far from the highways, there’s graffiti on electrical boxes, too. The thin, bright white glyphs and logos in miniature. Out in the great unknown wastes, there’s electrical box and lamppost taggers walking around at night, running their hands over the cold, metal surfaces. And there’s the disenfranchised youth sitting around in hoodies, passing around phone screens full of the newest tunnel graffiti, down where the clearance between the wall and the C train is about five inches. Deep tunnel graffiti is some of the most beautiful, partly because you only see it for an instant, in a little halo of light as the subway goes by, but you always remember that flash, that little alcove of illumination down in the tunnels. There are dozens of eyes in subway cars, watching for those flashes. Because taggers are the last gods. People may laugh at that, but it’s true—they’re the last gods. People still believe in them. There are worshippers out there, in the basements, apartments, and the streets. And the rush of the divine still fills them.
The small gods pay homage to the big ones. In cities, the cherubim take pilgrimages to the underground skate parks and overpasses to see what the seraphim have done. Alleyway spirits adapt the work of the angels in the metro tunnels. With freight trains, there’s a Passover: all the taggers pass by the big designs, the best designs, and paint over the amateur stuff, or they find an empty car for their work. In a half-mile-long train, an empty car is hard to find, but they do it because they’re not going to paint over something done by XNILS, one of the archangels of the Santa Fe Line. They know when they’re in the presence of something greater than themselves. They know what sacrilege is. This is what Jeremiah 31:33 describes when it says the LORD will write the law on the hearts of humanity, and that they will all know Him, from the least of them to the greatest of them. This is reverence, this is awe, and this is worship.
I just watch the hands on the clock in the First Church of the Lord and try to manufacture reverent feelings. I do the same thing in the Museum of Modern Art, when they let me in.
Dead, empty spaces.
They became dead, empty spaces when canons were established. They became dead, empty spaces when the first wave of orthodoxies began, when they built up that nice, comfortable patina of dust that lets lip-service and parrot talk creep in. Everyone wants to talk to you about God and Warhol, and no one whispers their names anymore. Their works are memorized rote. The French have got into everything, the Bible and the art galleries, and now it’s Jacque Derrida’s footprints next to yours in the sand.
But while wars of fashion and philosophy continue their pendulum swings, signs are appearing daily. Thousands of parousias are blossoming in public restrooms, alleys, and the trains. Polytheism is back in all its glory, and visions of Eden and Hell are crossing three thousand miles of the United States on big red rails, even the flyover states. The Pyramids are on tour, complete with hieroglyphics, the old books of alchemy are off the shelves and riding the rails with the lumber, and the burning words of the East Coast deities are written for all to see. Nietzsche and Time Magazine declared God dead a long time ago, but the graffiti keeps coming in on semi-trucks, bearing wonders to the people of the Tri-Cities.
Out walking on the asphalt and concrete, I’ve seen three people, one sweatshirted and earbudded, one sundressed and open shoed, and one suit-jacketed with his sleeves rolled up. They were standing at different distances from a brick wall, running their eyes over it. The wall was covered in a neon green sunset and pink marshmallow-puffed letters haloed by stark black. The rest of the people on the sidewalk threaded past those three and left them alone. After a while, they all went their separate ways. It lasted about ten seconds, but the world stopped for those three. That was a Mass. That finger, reaching out to touch.
But if the immaculate XNILS were to descend from Hoboken and meet his worshippers among the rail yards, would he lose something in the descent? Would the name fit a skinny Hispanic kid in a black Volcom hat? No. It wouldn’t. His letters have grown too big for one historically underprivileged youth in a sweatshirt. It’s common knowledge that gods dissipate when exposed to light. It’s that grasping, desperate desire to know what God looks like, to shine the harshest light on that figure so you can soak in every detail. There were honest-to-God quests back in the 18th and 19th centuries, Quests for the Historical Jesus. They dug through archaeology, historical records, and all the methods of the Enlightenment to try and reconstruct The Man Himself, to size him up and get him defined like the perimeter of a triangle. Every word was weighed, every hair was examined, and it took a wonderfully jowled man named Robert Bultmann to tell all the scholars that the obsession with accuracy was killing whatever The Man had been saying. And we’re still killing gods today. Why did people want to touch what Elvis touched? They wanted to get close to Him, that overflowing cup that poured ecstasy into their souls, and drink it all in forever. But it’s that thirst that bleeds everything dry. That’s what kills gods, because no human can sustain that gaze and fulfill that thirst for long. Soon, the shine will come off, the mystery will dwindle, and the divine glow will fade. So the answer, the wisdom of the gods, is to never to show your face.
The brick walls.
The electrical boxes.
Oh, god, the trains.
Their handiwork is there, in all its untainted mystery and all its glory. Who made it? How did a giant, blue-and-green name, DENIUS, find its way onto an old grain silo by the highway? It’s seventy feet tall. Was it one man, or a woman, or six people working together? Was there one hooded figure sitting by the highway, directing it all? A grand architect, or a watchmaker? Somehow, the same occult lettering shows up all over the country, monolithic and inscrutable. Who makes it?
It’s better not to know. It’s better to wonder and imagine, and to build a grand image in your mind, grander than their shoe size, grander than Hoboken, grander than any human could ever be. In the end, it all lets you focus on the point of contact between you and the divine: the art on the train. I think it was the short man and the slightly taller, afro-headed man who said it best.
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And it said “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And echo in the sound of silence.”
Today, we are all knights with Sir Antonius Block. Sistine Chapels everywhere, but one face is missing. I want to believe. God, I want to believe.