Everyone has seen it. On the way to West Campus from Main Campus, in the underground tunnel beneath the train tracks, a meaningful message placed on the eerie white walls of the walkway.
“Human worth is not determined by living conditions,” it reads, and by it, there is a faceless man on his phone, toting a bag that says, “Some people are so poor, all they have is money.” It is a powerful and eye-opening message, especially for the people of the wealthy Main Line area.
People slow down their brisk pace on the way to class to scan it. I have even seen it used as a cover photo on Facebook.
This was a couple of weeks ago. Now, the image has become the victim of a cursory paint job, still slightly visible under a thin veneer of white coating.
A reasonable explanation may be the location of the image. The tunnel wall is public space. This term “public space” is interesting because, though it suggests the area is available for and usable by anybody, it also cannot be tampered with, and no one is permitted to paint images in the passway. However inspiring the artwork may be, it stands no chance if unauthorized. Unauthorized, it is considered vandalism.
This is a reasonable explanation, surely, but I can’t help feel that the term is rather dramatic. Vandalism is defacement of public property.
When I think of vandalism, I picture hate messages scrawled on some wall in ugly print or the vulgar images drawn on cubicles in the library. Somehow, a message so inspiring and important seems to fit rather awkwardly within that category.
So the image in the tunnel has been removed because, despite its hopeful message, it was unduly placed on public space. What then, of the many advertisements, posters and signs hanging in other public spaces?
Is it okay to plaster public space with messages that may be much less applicable to everyone than the image on the tunnel wall? Is it a financial issue?
Many advertisements and notes remaining in public spaces are paid for—the space has been fairly bought out.
But then what does that say? People may disseminate information and messages in public spaces, as long as they are accompanied by a price? Would we still be looking at the image on the tunnel wall if it had been paid for?
Perhaps style and content also plays a part. If an image or a message defaces a public space in an obviously repulsive and harmful manner, we would support and maybe even champion its removal.
The image in the tunnel was hopeful enough, not supporting anything dangerous and it neatly executed. If the image had been less positive and more unseemly to look at, perhaps people may not feel so sad to see it go.
However, this also leads to confusion because labeling something as negative or positive also raises issues. We would then be hard-pressed by the need to define what is appropriate for a public space.
I am not saying that everyone should freely tamper with public space, even if the motives are noble. I do not have the answers to any of the questions posed above, and I will not pretend that I do.
I do, however, believe that, as daily users of these public spaces, these issues must be considered.
What becomes of public space, when we as the public, cannot be the ones to decide how it can be used?