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Writing on the Wall

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A week or so ago a Wall Street Journal article called "Erasing Signatures from History" caught my eye.

It was about a classroom in Marple Newtown High School in Pennsylvania, where the English teacher Thom Williams encouraged students to write on the walls.

According to the story, "In his 35 years as a high school English teacher in suburban Philadelphia, Thom Williams often encouraged his students to splash their most creative thoughts on the walls of his classroom." But now the teacher died and the school planned to repaint and renovate the classroom.

Suddenly former and current students alike faced a dilemma. The writings on the classroom wall were a kick then. Now they felt a sense of loss and remorse.

Jeffery Zaslow reporting for the Journal said it all. "It is a human impulse to want to sign our names or scribble comments on the walls of places that have meaning for us --from the Berlin Wall to the walls of Graceland to the paneling in favorite bars. By tradition, actors sign their names backstage in theaters where they've performed. Soldiers scratch their marks in barracks before heading overseas. Athletes scribble their names and jersey numbers in clubhouses."

"These messages left behind can feel sacred" he wrote. So, too, many of the messages made by street artists, even sometimes so called graffiti artists.

Especially in our digital age, when signing someone's Facebook "wall" feels so transitory, there's something alluring about markings with more permanence. "But 'Zaslow asks' what happens when the buildings that house old autographs must be razed, or new owners want the walls painted over, or school principals worry about the fine line between creativity and graffiti?"

For those of us living in this age of Twitter and Facebook and web browsers galore, there must be occasions like these when we yearn for an earlier time.But maybe every age has these periods of ennui, of looking back, dreaming perhaps of times that never were.

But it explains in part, why we are witnessing a renewed interest and appreciation of street art.

Recently I wrote about an Exhibit in San Diego called "Viva la Revolución: A Dialogue with the Urban Landscape."

The exhibit included the works of Akay (Sweden), Banksy (U.K.), Blu (Italy), Mark Bradford (U.S.), William Cordova (U.S.), Date Farmers (U.S.), Stephan Doitschinoff [CALMA] (Brazil), Dr. Lakra (Mexico), Dzine (Puerto Rico), David Ellis (U.S.), FAILE (Canada), Shepard Fairey (U.S.), Invader (France), JR (France), Barry McGee (U.S.), Ryan McGinness (U.S.), Moris (Mexico), Os Gemeos (Brazil), Swoon (U.S.), and Vhils (Portugal).

It was truly the first time that these "street artists" were shown together; but more, their work was featured in locations around the downtown of the city. On buildings, vehicles, and the surface of public streets throughout the city, the art lived and breathed.

Since today most of the world's population lives in urban communities, the urban setting and its corresponding lifestyle, have become major sources of inspiration for us.

This is our contemporary culture, and the yearning for street art to flourish.

Perhaps we need to encourage a historic revolution in visual culture, in which the codes and icons of the everyday -- found on the streets in graffiti, signage, waste, tattoos, advertising and graphic design -- are an integral part of contemporary art-making.

Such art broadly defined, including street art and graffiti and writings on a wall -- are vehicles for us and other people around the world to express themselves. They are, after all, vehicles that give a community a sense of place and an identity.