Mixed graffiti

Early morning.

I pedal around a bend in an urban bike trail, paralleling the train tracks on my way to the city. And suddenly: an enormous profile of a woman’s face looking up into the sky. Brilliant color. Strong, heavy, sure lines. Larger than life.

I burst out laughing.

What a joy to come upon this unexpected art! On my last ride, it was just a blank, grey, concrete-and-chain-link wall. Now this!


I love street art. Especially along this stretch of tarry-smelling industrial trail – the Metropolitan Branch Trail. I am always looking to see what new tags will appear. And I check in with old pieces – that mural of nerdy-looking bikers on one wall. Bold, fanciful letters on another. The oddly dark mural of creatures riding bicycles on another. And always Crotch Rot. I wish s/he’d thought of a less evocative tag.

But that is what street art is: a messy mix of the unexpected. I get a happy hit of color and beauty around one corner. And a disturbing inner dialogue about what “crotch rot” might really mean, and how I feel about someone expressing themselves in a way that makes my nose wrinkle. Or worse.

On the day I discover the profile of the woman, I am giddy with delight. New art! It’s like a reward for riding my bike to work today. And then – the artists are still at work. Even better. I stop.


“Thank you for doing this!” I say. The artists are gracious about my enthusiastic interruption of the work. They explain it was part of a project called Pow Wow DC. I look it up later and discover it’s an effort to beautify the city with a week-long blast of street art by international and local artists.

This is great! And then, when you start thinking about it, get into the weeds, it’s complicated.

  • Why international? Isn’t local art good enough?
  • Who pays for it?
  • Did you ask the neighbors if they wanted this?
  • Maybe they want a grocery store instead?
  • What about gentrification?
  • Is this neighborhood down with being artsy?

And what about “real” graffiti, the unsanctioned spray of color applied late at night, with lookouts to avoid arrest? The kind that shouts, “I am here,” that sprouts up like a new and unexpected blossom, to discover in the morning?

One of those early morning gifts was this message, applied right in the middle of the assigned murals, but respectfully drawn out in neat cursive between he finished images:

Must we gentrify everything?


Gentrification is complicated. Beautification is subjective. What I think is laugh-out-loud joy may be a dark herald of $14 cocktails replacing the corner barber shop.

That doesn’t make me unlove the art.

I’d like to think there is room for graffiti and assigned murals. Let’s have art. All of it.

But then, what is art? Who decides what is beautiful? I love a lot of street art – swirly lines of color, fanciful faces and clever phrases included. But the profanity disturbs and disappoints me.

In my neighborhood, the city has just commissioned a piece of art for a wall that faces the highway. Terrific, right? But no. The neighbors hated the conceptual drawings, and did not mince words on the neighborhood listserv. “Hideous.” “Yuck.” I felt badly for the artist. But also: this is public art. It’s supposed to be appealing to that public.

The artist went back to the drawing board. Art by committee. Good luck.


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