Monday, December 13, 2010


A new graffito recently appeared on the unisex bathroom wall at one of my favorite cafés in Berkeley, Café Milano, just across the street from Sproul Plaza: "Life is short. Spend it making history."

I keep half an eye on graffiti on the campus and in cafés ... it's a way to track a certain segment of the zeitgeist. I find it amusing, aggravating, fascinating, or just plain dumb. Depending.

My friend and University of Chicago colleague, Quinn Dombrowski, has a much more regular and rigorous habit. She has photographed nearly 1500 pieces of graffiti from U Chicago alone; and has also conducted foraging expeditions to Brown University (930 photos), the University of Colorado (262), Arizona State University (507), and UC Berkeley (142).

Legacy readers of One Finger Typing will recall that Quinn's book, Crescat Graffiti, Vita Excolatur: Confessions of the University of Chicago, was an element of my early post Forays into self-publishing. Crescat Graffiti... is available on Amazon; and, as I mentioned some months back, generated a nice portfolio of media attention, from a Chicago Tonight TV appearance to the Wall Street Journal, to Der Spiegel.

Quinn's latest project in this vein is to analyze graffiti at the five schools she has sampled to categorize them topically and rate their "interestingness." Her methodology was unveiled on 28 November, and while one can take issue with metrics and methods at least Quinn is explaining what she's up to. The first (and "least interesting") school analyzed on her blog is Arizona State; Colorado's graffiti came up for review on Friday; and Berkeley is next. Quinn is "publishing the data from least interesting to most interesting, to end the year on a good note." As an alumnus and employee I am obliged to be disappointed that Berkeley didn't percolate to the top of Quinn's analysis -- but, hey, it's her rubric and she does have her own loyalties....

I will say that there's something about "interestingness" as Quinn measures it that doesn't capture dimensions of what I think makes some graffiti zingy and sweet. I didn't ask how she'd score "Life is short. Spend it making history." But I don't think it would earn as many points under her scoring system as graffiti that referenced or quoted "high culture" (you know, the kind of stuff university students are supposed to espouse), or even pop culture. The thing about the graffito in Café Milano is that it's not so much derivative as prescriptive, in a joyful, engaged, activist sort of way. Seeing it warmed this grizzled rabble-rouser's heart.

When I searched for "Life is short. Spend it making history." I didn't find an original source. Anybody out there recognize it as a quote? By whom, and in what book or song or film or revolutionary screed?

Check out Quinn's collection, and the analysis on her blog. I'd be interested to hear what kind of graffiti makes your heart skip a beat. Tell me in the comments?


  1. For what it's worth, I'd probably categorize that one as an Advice-3, the highest normal score there is, which would put it in the ranks of "Go to Italy, be a cobbler" and "let your passions incinerate themselves and in their ashes you may find silence".

  2. Those two are proud company, Quinn, I'd be happy if I saw either on or near the Berkeley campus...

  3. I saw this in Amsterdam: "Yes systems fail/but we don't have to" signed by one "Laser 3.14". I just googled him and apparently he's got a good thing going:

  4. @Ariel -- hmmmm ... thinking of Devo ... are we not systems?