Copyright © 1999, 2015 by Jim Hull
(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)
As we cross the millennium, we drag with us a heavy load of baggage. We tote things we'd rather leave behind: the violence of the twentieth century, the angst of lost faiths, the dangers of pollution and new diseases. We're accompanied by our children, who bring with them symptoms of their own troubles. Worst, perhaps, is their urge to join urban gangs, wherein their flowering youth is ground up in the macho-nihilist machinery of guns, drugs, drive-by shootings, and the ugly, taunting, boastful inter-gang communications of graffiti.
Once upon a time - decades ago - political posters would appear all over town, and some wiseacre juvenile would walk up to a candidate's printed face and etch upon it a mustache. An ad-lib comment by a child, it would force from us - despite our urge to deplore the vandalism - a chuckle. Or we might, at the doctor's office, flip through a magazine to find an ad with a beautiful model on whom some kid had scribbled glasses, a missing tooth, and a scar. It was harmless, immature, and gave us guilty laughs. Today, glaring multi-colored tags pockmark the city and resound, not of charming youth, but of tocsins to some barbaric devolution into chaos. Not just our pretentions but our values are now defaced with a spray can.
In the 1950s, gangs were little more than rough-and-tumble social clubs for dispossessed kids. The "Jets" and the "Sharks" might taunt each other (the way sports fans today blithely finger their, well, noses at the other side). Sometimes that boasting would flare into a "rumble" and a gang member might get knifed. They'd paint their slogans on a wall here and there, but spray cans were new and costly, and the damage was minimal. Today, gangs are like corporate entities - with directors, lieutenants, and workers - who trade in contraband and enforce their black markets with high-powered guns toted by kids barely out of elementary school. Their markings are everywhere: gang insignia and warnings and messages etched on doors, walls, and traffic signs in a demonic infestation of stylized, garish totems. They MUST mark their territories, of course, lest other gangs move in on their turf and their profits. What has happened, in this hyper-modern age, to these children? How have they so easily morphed into automatons of destruction, thoughtlessly defacing walls and - guns pulled from oversized pockets - casually slaying each other? Is there hope for them, or do these teens precede us into hell?
Recently while driving I noticed an interesting billboard - dark background, huge full-face portrait of a woman, some block-letter words - looming over a busy street in a very big city. The face (beautiful, aggressively desirable) was of country singer Shania Twain, and the words included the call letters of a radio station. Slashed across the letters were the brutal, quick scratchings of a tagger, announcing his gang affiliation and sending a message to fellow gangsters in a code opaque to most of us. Then the tagger, his work done, had apparently noticed Twain's portrait, had ambled over and, in a few quick strokes, had painted on it a mustache.
So maybe there's hope for them yet.
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