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Suburban Rebels

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“Street art” and the more general term, “graffiti,” are both tools the common person can use to interact with the public. All it takes is a sticker or a scan of spray paint, and one can send a message out into the physical world. If you keep your eyes open in any urban center, it’s easy to find these guerilla forms of self-expression—but head into a smaller town and it becomes more of a challenge.

Growing up in Batavia, IL, I’d never heard the term “street art,” but if someone mentioned graffiti, I definitely knew where to look. The odd thing about Batavia is that all of the most visible graffiti is concentrated in one spot, and it’s been there for years without ever being removed. If you wanted to call it street art, you couldn’t, because these images are not found near a street. Instead, they are all on an underpass that crosses over the prairie path (a vast network of suburban bike paths), in the middle of the forest.

As I approached the underpass by bike last weekend, I was excited to revisit the strange spot in the woods. It had been years since I’d stopped to get a better look at the graffiti, and I was anxious to see how the spot stood up to my mental picture of it. When I arrived, I was underwhelmed. All of the clichés of low quality graffiti were represented: swear words, pot leaves, penises, mushrooms, scribbles, skulls, and so on. Clearly these were the works of small town vandals, I thought. How could I have expected to come upon real street art?

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Anonymous, n.d. Spray-paint. Prairie Path, Batavia, IL. (photo credit: Zachary Johnson)

Taking a closer look, however, I started to find more surprising images. The first piece one encounters, after stepping off the bike path, is Shepard Fairey’s “obey” symbol. All over the two underpass support columns is the word “obey” stenciled in blood red, accompanied by the repeated image of Andre the Giant, in black. Though anonymous graffitists have reproduced these symbols across the globe since 1989, my first time seeing them was only four years ago in the same spot I stood last weekend. Shepard’s website explains that “the [symbol] has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the [symbol].” I had come to the underpass to do just that, to find meaning in these overlooked, spray-painted images.

Further in, some other works caught my eye, like the green creatures painted along the cement wall that lines the west side of the brook.Only after crossing and turning around to face west, can one discover them. They looked fresh, brighter than much of the other graffiti. Perhaps their more sheltered location has protected them from the elements. Or maybe they’re just more recent.

Two other pieces that caught my eye were textual. Further down, but still along the cement wall that lined the brook, were the words “DON’T PANIC” spray-painted in green. Sitting next to the rushing water, they seemed to imply the need to stay calm despite the unpredictable qualities of nature and life. Maybe I was reading too much into things, but after finding words like “douche,” “ho” and “f*ck” spray-painted on the underpass, it was a nice relief to find even a mildly reassuring statement.

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Anonymous, n.d. Spray-paint. Prairie Path, Batavia, IL. (photo credit: Zachary Johnson)

The words that struck me the most were located towards the top of the underpass’s cement slope. They read, “Everyone I know is too comfortable with their lives to want to be a part of change.” To me this perfectly summed up the suburban teenage experience. Growing up in a suburb like Batavia, life can be pleasant, idyllic, even, but there’s always an atmosphere of complacency, and change comes at a slow pace. By the end of high school, so many teenagers are aching to leave and make their mark in the greater world. n the meantime, as they count down the years before they can set out on their own, they have to find outlets for their boredom and frustration. The underpass graffiti is one such outlet: it provides an opportunity for teenagers to be rebellious and communicate their frustration.

Shepard Fairey describes his “obey” symbol as a tool to “reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment.” In the middle of the forest, a place already filled with such natural wonder, the obey symbol and the other graffiti reawakened my senses to another element at play: that of the young suburbanite, aching to leave, but forced to make do in the meantime.

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