More shocking than dicks: Emotionally vulnerable, empathy-inducing graffiti is showing up all over Seattle. The Stranger

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?

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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. recommended