Graffiti at the grate

By David Seitz

On any given weekend night-or any night, really-Macalester’s social hub in many circles can be tracked to a predictable location.”Where’d they go?”

“Oh, they’re at the grate.”

To many, the grate, a partially underground utility staircase leading to a heating vent and the basement of Doty Hall, is simultaneously party room and ash tray, the site of nicotine-enhanced flirtations, intellectual discussions and friendly banter. Like no other on campus, the physical space is conducive to socializing for the “let’s step outside for a minute” set.

“There are grates all over campus,” says grate regular Jeff Bennett ’10. “But why is this [Doty] grate the grate? Because it’s big, and you can go there when it’s cold. You don’t really have any other enclosed space where you can keep warm for the five or six cold months of the year.”

To many others, it is a nuisance. Situated in the center of a common area bordered by five first-year and sophomore residence halls, noise produced at the grate can reach all 600 students, roughly one-third of the Macalester student body.

But its familiarity and centrality to campus social life, particularly among first-year and sophomore students, is undeniable. Call it the “Cheers” for a much younger, edgier crowd.

Of course, this cast is by no means solely comprised of people. It also includes (or has included) a robot, an elephant, a hookah, and of course, several disembodied penises.

Synonymous with cigarette smoking culture on campus, the grate is also a focal point for public art. Sometimes conversational, always controversial, art at the grate encompasses a full range of aerosol art, graffiti, tagging, stenciling and brushwork.

Many regulars have contributed pieces of their own and grown attached to particular pieces. “It seems like there used to be a code of honor,” Bennett said, citing a litany of iconic grate artworks. “Certain things were left alone.

“Around midway through last year, the sacred nature came under fire. A piece wouldn’t be replaced by another work of art. It didn’t seem to have any meaning other than covering up what was already there.”

Grate-goers like Bennett and friends Spencer Doar ’11 and Robin Weiss ’10 say they feel a sense of attachment to and ownership of the grate as a social and art space.

“In many ways, it’s our patio,” Doar said.

“And insofar as it is our patio,” Weiss added, “we’d want to do something to make it ours and make it nice, which is why we wanted to see nice bits of arts on the wall, and why we wanted to see us being the ones putting it up.

“As for things getting painted over, ultimately, I think it is the nature of this medium, this place to be in constant change and in constant flux, and to try and preserve bits of it is to deny the nature of the beast,” he said.

“But I do believe that there should be honor among thieves, a code of ethics almost, that you replace a piece with something similar to it,” he said. “And sometimes the conversation does need to end and come afresh.

“I see myself as contributing as a caretaker of the grate,” he said.

As regulars take ownership in response to a change in art culture, they say they also perceive a precipitous shift in how Residential Life approaches the enforcement of quiet hours and vandalism policy relative to the grate.

“You can see that people are getting written up for talking at the grate during quiet hours,” Bennett said. “People are getting harassed. It’s reflected in the chaotic nature of the scrawl you see in the grate this year. There’s probably a difference every year. This is just the time we have spent with it.”

For her part, 30-Big-Wal residence hall director Mieke Berg has spent a lot of time with the grate.

“At 1 a.m., voices travel, and the acoustics at the grate suck,” Berg said. “The noise just bounces off the brick buildings. We get emails every week from somebody who got woken up after quiet hours.”

Berg, a three-year veteran of Residential Life at Macalester, spent her first three years as hall director for Doty-Turck. At that time, Berg’s apartment was directly adjacent to the hangout space.

Berg said noise from the grate did wake her “most nights” for those three years, and does acknowledge her rule-enforcing professional responsibility. But she also emphasized a respect for the grate’s importance in social life at Mac.

“When I first got here, I was told by people-students, staff, everybody-that it was a place where smokers went, that it was going to be a problem place,” Berg said. “I went in with a very negative concept of the grate.

“That was challenged really quickly. I saw it was a place where people got together and hung out. Naturally, that ran into policy occasionally, but I don’t think it’s anybody’s agenda to stop what goes on there. It’s a congregation, and I think it has an identity.

“I do like it, and I think administratively, it’s a frustrating place. I’m put in the position of having to be the bad guy. But I like it that I go out and see 20 students out there talking.”

While she said she’s bound to enforce both quiet hours and vandalism policy, Berg said her focus is on violations of Residence Hall quiet hours, which she stressed are in effect outdoors as well. By contrast, targeting art or artists at the grate for punishment under the campus vandalism policy was not high on Berg’s priority list.

“I’ve never put in a work order to put into cover anything that I feel personally is not offensive. My view is that that would be an uphill battle.”

Dean of Students Jim Hoppe echoed Berg’s characterization of such spaces as administratively frustrating and complex.

“I think everybody struggles with this,” Hoppe said. “At the four schools I’ve worked at, we’ve had different approaches at almost every place. One school was like, ‘absolutely not.’ One school took an approach that allowed people to paint murals as long as they were going to do it, but in time they switched to ‘absolutely not.’

“Here, we don’t say ‘absolutely not.’ We try to be more limiting in where they go.”

Berg acknowledged her own unfamiliarity with the form, and expressed interest in learning more about aerosol, graffiti and street art, and openness to the creation of student-sponsored public art spaces, which she said has been done successfully in the past.

“Several years ago, a Resident Assistant set up a program and put a bunch of plyboards [in the courtyard],” Berg said. “That became a spot where people could tag, and did tags and personal art. I think it was an opportunity for people to not destroy buildings but still make some art in the area.”

Student interest in the practice, histories and cultures around graffiti, aerosol and other public art has bubbled up in recent years, but to date, most students have pursued these interests independently rather than in organizations.

As one of a number of students working to re-charter the campus hip-hop organization MNice, Tsione Wolde-Michael ’08 said that while students have historically had substantial interest in graffiti as a core art form within the hip-hop movement, she’d seen very little educational or other programming around graffiti on campus.

“Even in the charter itself, graffiti was initially a portion that people wanted to look into educating people on,” Wolde-Michael said. “Finding outlets to do graffiti is something people are probably still interested in doing. It’s in the charter, but nothing has manifested itself yet.”

Hoppe is also interested, albeit with significant qualifications. Many public spaces on campus could be enhanced by public art, Hoppe said, citing the drab pillars in the basement of the Campus Center as a surface and space that could use “sprucing up.” But, he was quick to add, any such public art project would have to be permanent and pre-planned.

“I think we’d always have a problem with somebody who decided to do it on their own where they want
ed without any consultation,” he said.

But grate regular Mark Bracey Sherman ’10 said he questioned the authenticity of designating a space for public art that required regulation of that art’s content.

“I feel that that there should be a legal wall, a designated legal place for art,” said Bracey Sherman. “In Chicago, businesses and organizations, without commissioning anything, can designate a legal space. You should be able to express art there and not have to face a repercussion.”

Yet as Minneapolis educator, organizer, and acclaimed MC and graffiti artist Chaka Mkali puts it, graffiti, in some sense will remain inherently illegal.

“Realistically, from my position, it’s all very blurred,” Mkali said. “Even if you decided to not write anything political, the act of writing on something is political in itself. Even if it’s ‘fuck hoes,’ that’s not the coolest message, but: why are you writing on property, and what does that say about the way you are engaging in society and the way society is engaging you?”

Mkali, who coordinates programs for young adults and organizes at Hope Community, 611 Franklin Ave. E., Minneapolis, works to build partnerships with businesses and organizations interested in commissioning murals. But Mkali’s theorization of graffiti as strategically placed, politically critical, creative destruction points to a simultaneous, different form of authentic artistic expression.

Mkali’s colleague Roger Cummings, artistic director at Juxtaposition Arts, 2007 Emerson Ave. N., Minneapolis, similarly characterized commission work as full of potential, but laden with contradiction.

“We got a call from the Peace Foundation, ‘Hey, can you guys do some stencils on our garbage cans?'” Cummings said. “They said ‘nothing political,’ which is not necessarily a good thing.

“You want to be able to put up whatever you want. The garbage cans have stencils of Lady Liberty feeding a baby with a gas can and the word ‘consume,’ stencils of ‘Stop War’ and ‘Rise up.’ The police got really mad about that.”

“If it makes people talk and converse about different ideas, that’s what it’s supposed to do,” Cummings said. “Stuff that’s really bland and homogenized might look great, have great style, great technique, but how is it helping anyone else? What is it doing?”

Both Mkali and Cummings stressed the indivisibility of graffiti and all hip-hop arts from their specific histories as tools of social content and critique. Though expression at the grate at Mac certainly constitutes expression and carries social content, the reality that Mac is a normatively white, middle-to-upper class place must be recognized. That reality, Mkali said, has specific implications for considering aerosol, graffiti and other public art at places like Mac.

“When it comes to graffiti, there are a lot of things that people just won’t want to deal with,” he said. “There was a class and ethnicity switch from the 80s and 90s to the 2000s in terms of who was doing what. Early on in the game, you had a lot more women, a lot more people of color, and the average age of a graffiti artist was anywhere from 10 to 16. That’s the ample age, because you have no responsibilities. You can do it at night. If you get caught, you’re a juvenile. You also have no fear. You’re in that rebellious phase. So it’s the prime age.

“In the black community, when crack came, the rampant level of drugs did something to the community,” he said. “It made a shift so when you got to be a certain age in L.A., you couldn’t do graffiti as much any more. You had to face the reality of actually having a job or the lure of gangs or whatever.

“Then as it became popular, there was a shift and so now, that freedom of youth is replaced with the freedom of privilege,” he said. “That’s why more European Americans are doing it. They were able to adopt it. Money isn’t an issue for many of them, time isn’t as much of an issue for many of them.

“How many people who like hip-hop today understand that it was a tool of organizing, that it came on the heels of the smoldering ashes of the Black Panthers and the Brown Berets?” Mkali said.

As of press time, the Latin phrase “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”-“Who guards the guards?”-remained on the grate’s east wall.

The question of graffiti at the grate reveals several parties who regard themselves as caretakers or guards of interests related to the space. Student regulars take ownership, contributing to and, in their own way, regulating the artistic community conversation. Administrators, for their part, see it as their responsibility to protect college property, as well as the interest of students, including student artists.

We know the grate’s location, its centrality, and its cast of regulars are fixed. As it turns out, those are the the only things about it that are.