‘A man’s ambition is mighty small to write…’
Willis Webb

Most of us stop and read graffiti, even if it’s inane and ser ves no worthwhile purpose.

Someone once wrote, rather profoundly and perhaps prophetically, “A man’s ambition is mighty small to write his name on a (public restroom) wall.”

For some reason unknown and unfathomable to me, it seems that men are more prone to produce graffiti than the fairer sex, especially the kind you can’t reproduce in a family newspaper.

Graffiti, in one form or another, goes back to the earliest times of humankind. But, it seems, we modern Americans have a particular propensity to scribble on public walls. A trip to France a couple of years back provided some comparison. I saw no evidence of French graffiti but some of Kilroy’s modern American successors left proof they’d been there.

A recent item that piqued my interest enough in graffiti to attempt to make sense of it here had to do with some historical scribblings on my all-time favorite shrine, our Texas Alamo. A staffer at that structure discovered the date “1802” had been scratched into a wall. Alamo officials are unable to pin down a specific time the inscription was etched or an explanation of any particular significance for the date. Kilroy hadn’t announced his presence nor made any prior contributions to graffiti.

Shrine caretakers do offer some possibilities.

One explanation could be that an Alamo defender who kept watch during the 1836 siege by Santa Ana’s Mexican army from a window ledge in that wall, registered his birth date.

Another take on the inscription is that it’s evidence of a period about which there is little recorded history. That period, marked as 1793-1803, represents a time when Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo’s original official name) was secularized. Spanish troops began occupation of the one-time mission in 1803.

Alamo historian and curator Bruce Winders may have underscored the mischievous bent for graffiti and for Kilroy when he said, in a story in two Hearst newspapers The San Antonio Express News and The Houston Chronicle, “If you look at historic graffiti at face value, people usually put the date when they did it. Americans at that time were kind of notorious for leaving behind something that says, ‘I was here’.”

Kilroy has long been the symbol of Americans’ tendencies toward scratching or scrawling messages on public walls.

While historians can’t seem to agree on exactly when Kilroy arrived on the graffiti scene, it is generally noted that the big-nosed American comic character was perhaps cloned from British and Australian graffiti characters: Mr. Chad or Chad (British) and Foo (Australians). Foo was widely used by the Aussies in WWII but is not specifically attributed to have Australian origins.

Kilroy’s first appearance, at least under that name, came in the late 1930s. The practice and usage proliferated in the 1940s- 1960s. Kilroy’s waning appearances perhaps can be attributed to a different focus in the 1960s. Prior to that time, Kilroy was comic relief in those warring times. However, with the massive anti-war sentiment that erupted in the 1960s, perhaps Kilroy’s symbolism was viewed as part of an American war mentality and therefore unpopular to people in that decade and subsequent ones.

A Wikipedia accounting of Kilroy’s existence had one interesting reference to the graffiti character and Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union dictator. Wikipedia reported that at the famous 1945 Potsdam conference, Stalin went to a private, VIP restroom only to find Kilroy had been there. He asked his aides who Kilroy was.

And, when World War II German troops captured some American equipment with the term inscribed on it, Hitler wanted to know if Kilroy was an Allied spy.

Graf fiti today may have a much worse reputation than at any time in history. Basically, that’s because most public wall writing, particularly on men’s restroom walls, has become quite vulgar and offensive to many.

It can, however, be a form of effective social protest and commentary. When it is used in that manner, it honors the memory of Kilroy and the GIs who created him.

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2011-08-18 digital edition

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