Writing On The Wall

This past winter, I witnessed a war just outside my car window which was harder to ignore than the bad news on the radio. The war of words breaking out in the back-lane was the worst graffiti I’d seen in the 19 years I’ve lived on Winnipeg's Beverley Street.

One afternoon this summer, I counted 109 tags on my block alone, with more than nine gangs represented. Over 20 of these tags were gangs crossing out other gangs, hoping to win the war. Trouble is, like the war in Afghanistan or Iraq, it never seems to end. One homeowner finally painted over his garage and fence a few weeks back, only to have it re-tagged the next evening.

My frustration with this war of words increased over the winter. I know the biggest deterrent to graffiti is quick removal, but how do you rally a neighbourhood? Not only that, how do you paint over graffiti when it’s -30º outside? The issue seemed too huge to tackle. And so, like most people, I began to see the graffiti as part of the landscape of my area.

There’s a famous saying about the “writing on the wall” — an ominous message that is important to pay attention to. You might think it’s from Shakespeare, but it’s from a story in the Bible about a king with a bad reputation. Trying to impress his friends, he served wine out of goblets stolen from the holy temple. Just as they were partying, a disembodied hand floated into the room and wrote three mysterious words on the wall. Ancient graffiti! The king became obsessed with the meaning of the three words and asked wise people to interpret them. In the end, the words spelled doom for the king, whose evil ways caught up with him.

This old Bible story came to mind as I thought about our Winnipeg West End graffiti. What is this modern “writing on the wall” trying to say to us? Gangs give youth a place to belong, something everyone needs, but the cost of this belonging is huge. An image of well-being and power is on the surface, but many forms of violence lurk underneath.

I often wonder who was there for the youth before they joined the gang. Someone must have cared and tried to reach out before the young person slipped from their tenuous grasp.

Our society has failed these youth at this fragile juncture in their lives, moving from childhood to young adulthood. Their words, scrawled on our garages and fences, cry out with the power and sense of belonging they’re trying to regain. It’s a conversation of sorts, but one that’s taken a nasty turn.

I look at the youth that I am privileged to know —my son and his friends, and the great kids I teach in the North End, and I wonder how well I’m listening to them. Do I give up too easily when talking over that infamous “generation gap” that can happen between adults and kids?

I remember the adults who cared for me when I was younger. It usually wasn’t their lectures or advice that helped me stay out of trouble, but that they saw me as a friend and extended kindness to me in many ways. They were themselves engaged in life and had a hope that was infectious. They took the time to read my writing, to laugh with me, and to talk with me in a non-judgmental way about stuff that mattered.

This vital connection is what I want to pass on to others. I may not be able to help the taggers in my back lane, but there is a sphere of influence I still have. This is the message I’ve been reading between the lines on the writing on the wall.

(This article was first published in West Central Streets, a Winnipeg community newspaper.)

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