WELL, THEY TAGGED my tree.
No, I don’t mean my 100-year-old elm earned itself a traffic violation. I mean some fool wandering around the neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning decided to paint his moniker on the trunk of our tree.
On a tree.
On an actual, living tree.
I thought there were rules about where a self-respecting graffiti “artist” (if that’s not an oxymoron) tagged and where he didn’t. Sort of like deer season. To a tagger, public property is apparently like having a 15-point buck wander into your gun sigh. Yee-haw. Private property appears to be acceptable to tag, say, in doe season. And the property of nonprofit institutions is like shooting Bambi, reputed to be off-limits to the big-hearted, civic-minded folk who have taken on the hobby of scribbling ugly markings onto buildings and signs and fences and, I now know, living things. I have learned all this streetwise wisdom from a friend who imbedded herself with the graffiti-ists as research for writing a story. We call her Stands With A Spray Can.
So my neighborhood tagger scrawled a star and a single initial in white on the bark of the aged and marvelous elm on our boulevard. His buddy painted his signature on the telephone pole next to the tree. Their mothers must be so proud.
I wonder if these taggers imagine themselves to be urban Zorros, slashing and signing their way along the city grid, leaving disfigured post office boxes and stop signs in their wake and feelings like brave defenders of the…of the what, exactly?
Perhaps the coolest thing they have ever done with their lives is color outside the lines, wrecking something beautiful while they indulge themselves. What a bunch of bozos.
When they do this to the wall in our alley, my husband hauls out a can of gray paint and paints over the scribbles. But I’m not sure this is a healthy thing to do to a tree. I’m not sure the tag itself is a healthy thing to do to a tree. Still, I don’t much like the idea of my yet-to-be-born grandchildren coming to visit and counting as one of their childhood memories views of that lopsided star spray-painted on the bark.
I don’t own this tree. It has a life of its own. A generation before me planted it. It shades parked cars of strangers and sidewalk walkers I do not know; it shelters squirrels I hate and birds I love; it makes its own choices, this tree, and I’m not the only person who has benefitted from it standing there this past century. It feels so blasted mean-spirited to have scarred this tree.
I feel for a human life that is so desperate to make a mark that making an ugly, illegal, and devastating one is better than making none at all. I feel for lives caught up in proving that who walks on which streets makes some difference in the world, or are pathetic signs of manhood and achievement. I feel keenly, especially since I live in a neighborhood where this is impossible to ignore, my own privilege and luck in life. At least I have a tree.
Still, I feel in some way that I have witnessed an innocent being assaulted. I wince when I see that paint on the elm trunk. Just one more thing, along with the hole in the ozone and the melting polar ice cap and the dwindling number of polar bears, that makes one so proud to be a human being.
This appeared in the Southwest Journal March 12, 2007.