I remember, or think I remember, what it was like to take a plastic, black permanent marker in my hand and, after a glance over my shoulder to assure myself that I wasn’t being watched, touch it to the plastered wall of the cast dressing room and quickly write my name: one more name among many, a small witness to my short presence in that theater and the work I had done there. That wall, that dressing room, that entire theatrical space is gone, demolished this past summer shortly after graduation exercises at the high school that housed it. This is much to the good: the building looked like a military-supply shack built in hostile territory, all bare sheet metal on the outside walls. Now there is a new performing-arts center elsewhere on the school grounds, and though I have not seen it, I am sure that it boasts better acoustics, more welcoming performance spaces, more versatile lighting, and all the accoutrements that a wealthy and arts-conscious private-school budget could buy.
The first students to enjoy the new building began with blank walls and were doubtless enjoined not to write on them. Perhaps they even listened for a year or two: it’s hard to work up the courage to make the first mark. And even after someone or a group of someones made the first inscription—as they certainly have—people and productions will have to keep adding names until the space no longer feels so starkly empty, and then someday, somebody will walk in and see the names on the walls and will both know and feel how many people were in that place before them.
Inscriptions are a special kind of monument because of the inseparability of text from material context: they’re written on something, by someone, for some purpose. Graffiti, in turn, is a special kind of inscription: made for personal rather than official reasons, on some kind of public wall but without the official sanction of the public-facing body that owns or oversees the building. The act of writing graffiti can be a small rebellion against the impersonal design of, say, school institutions—a sign that people passing through did matter, that their presence made a difference. Even when that difference is nothing more than people’s names on walls, the sheer accumulation of names thickens a place and sets it aside, renders it sacred in the oldest sense. Their having been here and having left the sign of their presence makes the difference. They were here, just as you are here.
The communion of saints is an old doctrine, and often misunderstood. Both those who practice veneration of saints and those who do not tend to emphasize the saints whose names and stories are widely known: St. George and his dragon, St. Catherine and her wheel, and the many scholars and mystics whom we know through their writings. To be sure, it is much for the better that we know their lives and their voices and have their examples before us: the Catholic Church has long commended “friendship with the saints” as a way to holiness. But, fallen as we are, our knowledge of them can easily become plagued by misapprehension and perverted by idolatry. Thus St. George becomes a hero of English nationalism, St. Maria Goretti takes up as a youth-conference chastity speaker, and St. Thomas Aquinas boorishly patrols the boundaries of orthodoxy. And this is the trouble: lives that can be “read” can be misread, and if we are persuaded by the testimony of history, they will be.