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Yesterday, one of the volunteers opened a side door to the church and pointed.

“Shit!” I exclaimed before I could push the edit button. Someone had tagged the side entry with the word Gus spray painted in black loopy letters. Gus must be tall, because the letters were above my head and the whole tag was longer than my arm when fully extended.

Clients just arriving in their business suits at the main entry (the church rooms are rented out for gatherings during the week), glanced over at us, taking in the graffiti with mild concern. Perhaps that wasn’t concern, but judgment, I thought; “Do we want to gather in the type of place that draws graffiti?”  I was pissed and somehow taking it a little personally that the building had been tagged on my watch.

Luckily, this didn’t have to be the headache it could have been, because the City of the Hague has an anti-graffiti program.

I called the hotline and a woman answered the phone in a pleasant, upbeat voice. Her friendliness and eagerness to help completely caught me off guard. (Whereas the Dutch are world-renowned for many things–quality cheeses, tolerance, a legal drug culture–customer service is not one of them.) This polite city employee was also efficient in her message; someone would be out to clean up the graffiti within five business days.

After work, I took our son to Natuurspeelplaats Robin Hood (Robin Hood nature play area), a playground in the middle of The Hague’s forest with a child-oriented ropes course including rope bridges, zip line and climbing walls. The weather was perfect and we almost had the place to ourselves. My son pointed out that the birds were chirping, remarking how pretty of a sound it was and how much he liked being surrounded by green. I was so absorbed in playing with my son in the beautiful forest, that I’d forgotten all about the morning graffiti incident–until we reached the climbing wall. The entire wall had been tagged in curvy black and red spray paint, a few profane remarks mixed in with other inanities. A look of disappointment clouded over my son’s face.

“Oh man!” he declared. “That’s totally not allowed! Why do people do that?” I wanted to say because people are stupid and mean, and have no respect for beautiful public places. Or, based on the lack of artistic style, maybe it’s because they’re bored and have nothing better to do.

“I don’t know,” was my simple response. Because, really, I didn’t know and I hadn’t Googled it yet.* I wondered if this was the work of the same person or persons who had tagged the church. But, considering I had no background in literary forensics, I decided to forego any handwriting analysis and focus instead on the good guys-bad guys game my son had created for us. On our walk home, I saw other small tags on electrical boxes and street signs, as if someone had gone on a graffiti rampage throughout our neighborhood. When we got back to the church, I found more graffiti on the church tower. Part of me wanted to be open to the idea of graffiti as art. I’ve seen beautiful graffiti art and even appreciated it. But this was not art, or artistic expression. It was just vandalism.

The next morning, I dressed in a business skirt and summer shirt, eager to celebrate the two days of summer weather that had been thus far correctly forecast. I cut open a melon we had received in our Kievit fruit packet, discovering perfectly ripened flesh of the fruit presenting itself in a bright shade of salmon orange. As my family devoured the melon I had divided into three bowls, our breakfast was interrupted by blaring music that drowned out the soulful words of the Bob Dylan song currently playing on our iPod.

“Where is that coming from?” I asked my husband. He walked to the front balcony, peering out the window.

“From outside. It’s a city worker cleaning up the graffiti.”
“Already? Wow. That was fast!” I remarked. “I want to see it.” All three of us stepped out onto the balcony and waved to the man in worn blue overalls by the church.

As he started to work on the graffiti, I remembered the small tag I had seen on the church tower. I headed outside to talk to him while my husband finished getting our son ready for school.

After thanking him for coming so quickly, I asked him if he could remove the second small tag. It wasn’t on the reported list, he informed me, but he said he’d take a look at it. We discovered a much larger tag on an electrical box just by the tower, and since he would need to take care of that one, he agreed to remove the other small tag while he was at it.

I asked if he’d like a cup of coffee and he nodded heartily. When I returned with a steaming hot cup, he thanked me, pointing out that not many people offered him a cup of coffee these days.

“Maybe they don’t see you,” I suggested, imagining him cleaning up the side of an office building or a random utility box, out of view of the building’s occupants.

“No. They see me. I’m right there in front of them,” he explained. I remembered the loud music that had pulled us from our breakfast. Yes, he was not one to go unnoticed. A wise tactic, I thought; best to let someone know you’re there cleaning up the mess.

“What’s in that fluid?” I asked as he effortlessly removed the graffiti from the utility box.
“No chemicals,” he responded, practically reading my mind. “It’s all natural, made out of fruit extracts.” He explained that the City wanted to eliminate use of toxic substances, and this was just one example.

“That’s great that the “Gemeente” is thinking that way. There are so many toxins we are exposed to every day,” I started. Little did I know I was preaching to the converted.

“I’ve been to India three times now,” he said, “and when I get back to the hotel, I wipe a wet cloth across my face and it’s black from all of the pollution. And people think because it’s in India, it doesn’t matter. We all share the same air and the same environment,” he went on.

I realized that I had shoved the anti-graffiti man in a little box the first moment I saw him–just a hired hand doing his manual labor job to the soundtrack of whatever happens to be on the radio. Based on my surprise that he too thought about the interconnectedness of the planet, and the importance of using nature-based cleaning solvents, I had also boxed up his awareness and intellect into a cube much smaller than appropriate.

I suppose we are meting out judgments onto ourselves and others just about every nanosecond of every day without even realizing it. Well, maybe a little aware. But it’s when our judgments are proven wrong that we wake up to this not-so-subtle undercurrent shaping our views on the world.

Anti-graffiti man not only cleaned up the graffiti, but helped me clean up my own internal acts of graffitying others with preconceived notions. Speaking of which, what is your preconceived notion of the “type of person to graffiti?” See the Goodbye Graffiti link below for one account or consider this quote from Alex Salvador’s thoughts taken from the website Amsterdam Street Art:

“Ah, finally, someone else gets it. They think the same way. There is hope – for art to return to the hoi polloi, the voiceless, the oppressed. Or so I thought.”

* According to Goodbye Graffiti, people, more specifically males between 15 and 25 with problems fitting in, graffiti because they’re bored, frustrated, want to rebel or mark their territory.

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