Before I moved to Seattle, graffiti rarely shocked me. I've seen enough music-venue greenrooms plastered with drawings of dicks that they may as well be doodles of daisies or hearts. The phalluses barely even register anymore. A tag like "Shitbarf" has the same effect as seeing a rat on the sidewalk. Yeah, it's pretty gross, but it doesn't surprise me.
What startles me now is not vulgarity, but emotional vulnerability. And since I moved here from Denver, Colorado, last summer, I've been disarmed by the trend of sensitive graffiti in the way I'm shocked when a sad song comes on in the grocery store and unexpectedly makes me feel real feelings in a public space. Seeing "I'm fine, it's fine" scrawled in neat cursive in the Linda's bathroom evokes a tragic feeling that's completely familiar—all the times I've said I was fine when I wasn't, all the times someone has said those words and I chose to take them at face value even though I knew they weren't true. The best emotional graffiti tags feel like something I've felt, a universal secret truth that anyone could have written. In the absence of a known author, the voice becomes my own, or my friends'. It's nice to know you're not the only one bummed out in a bar bathroom stall.
These evocative graffiti tags seem to be everywhere now, and their frankness comes as a relief amid the illegible and mundane process of Seattle's constant growth. I like a tag that inspires self-awareness or aggressively confronts something uncomfortable, like the sex-positive "COOL SLUT" tag that sometimes comes written with quotes like "I fucked yr ex-boyfriend but I feel bad & want to talk about it," or the angry-faced "BAD DAD" with a word bubble demanding, "Which one of you little assholes ate all my goddamn mac n' cheese?" or the cartoon skull and crossbones that reads "R.I.P. YOU, EVENTUALLY :("
When I see the "Call Your Mom" tag in the Redwood (next to an equally nagging "Check Your Voice Mail"), I feel guilty. When did I last call my mom? Oh no, I think I forgot to respond to the last text she sent me. It's probably too late to call now? I make a note to call tomorrow. And who wrote it? Is the tagger some empty-nest mother frequenting Capitol Hill bars and reminding children to phone their parents?
But the tag that consistently cuts straight to my heart is "I Thought We Had Plans," which is accompanied by a simple smiley face crying a single tear. There's a whole story contained in that phrase—it makes me empathetic for the tagger and conjures up all the times I could've written those words, trying to stay upbeat but feeling upset about a bailed-on hangout. Since when do I feel so much empathy looking at graffiti?
Maybe it's gloomy weather, or increasing economic disparity, or a growing desperation among vulnerable people to leave some public record of their vulnerability, but whatever's creating this legion of Sharpie Sylvia Plaths, I find I'm grateful for the unexpected catharsis and forced introspection. And the reminder to call my mom.