In a moment of inspiration, I set out last Friday—the best weather day of the year so far—with my wife on an adventure to find and document some of the graffiti of Newton. We scoured the bridges along Sand Creek, visited some creepy old abandoned buildings (including the building formerly known as Alco), even perused public restrooms for the sake of the work.

   Graffiti, or as the lead singer of Coldplay fallaciously called it, “Street art[1]” has been on my mind since I toured Europe a few years ago and saw it nearly everywhere—on phone booths, public monuments and works of art. In some areas, especially of eastern Europe, it covers, in layers, every available square inch of the old industrial brick buildings lining railroad tracks and highways. The local authorities don’t bother to remove it and the locals seem not to notice. Mark Steyn, the columnist and author compares Europe’s graffiti to the writing on the wall in the book of Daniel, spelling out its cultural demise. I happen to agree. But graffiti, aside from being an eye sore and indication of societal rot, gives interesting insights into the brains of a city’s vandals, criminals and hooligans. For instance, recently in London someone tagged this line on a bridge: “The Tigers of Wrath are Wiser than the Horses of Instruction.[2]” What does it mean? Who knows! But someone really wanted to say it. And, when my wife and I set out on our little graffiti adventure, we wanted to know what the vandals of Newton had to say.

 Mostly, what Newton’s petty criminals wanted to say was their own name: “Emily,” “Jessica” and “Jim” (written in large red letters). Surprisingly, there were very few last names. Many wanted their name added to someone else’s name, “Kami+Esteban”  “I Love Adrien from Deanna” and “JP+TP.” But there were a few who had more to say. One individual, possibly unhappy with the acting of Tom Hanks' pet volleyball in “Castaway” wrote, “Wilson sucks big time.” A visitor from the emerald isle penned in all capitals, “IRISH PRIDE.” Just across the tracks, at the city limit on the north side of Old 81 written on a shed near an elevator was the most thoughtful (if unoriginal) of all the graffiti we encountered; it said simply, “LIVE FREE.” My thought was, I’m sure that building’s owner would love to live free from delinquents like you defacing his respectable shed. My personal favorite was this enigmatic, mysterious tag, written suspiciously near Taco Bell under a bridge, “Seven burritos were! Taco!”

Though we did find these tags and a couple others, the real discovery of our little outing was the scarcity of Graffiti. In every place we thought we were sure to find colorful spray-painted letters, we found grey paint, covering the graffiti. To be honest, we had a really difficult time finding anything that qualified—even in the most expected places. The largest tag, “LIVE FREE” was technically not even in the city limits. No, what we found was evidence of hard working, respectable city employees who do their job thoroughly so normal citizens like us don’t have to look at distasteful images or vulgar words. Next time you take a walk by Sand Creek or take your kids to the city parks, take some time to appreciate how graffiti-free our town really is.

So, I’m pleased to report that, unlike in Europe, there is precious little writing on the wall in Newton, Kansas. I call that a good sign.

R. Eric Tippin
in The Study on 8th Street

[1] Best Buy Exclusive Interview:

[2] Ackroyd, Peter (2009-12-23). London: A Biography. Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.