Power of Graffiti and Images Dissertation

Power of Graffiti and Images

Every day, people read the news in the papers or hear reports on television about various crimes. It is easy to dismiss the words on the page or the anchor people. It is much harder to run away from an image. Long ago, people discovered that images were more potent than written words could be. There is the old expression that a picture is worth one thousand words. In both the articles “Exquisite Corpse” and “The Wall-Reader” focus on the importance of visual images to convey messages to the world at large. In the first story, Ashraf Rushdy uses the stories of Emmett Till and James Byrd to convey how times have changed between one racially-charged murder and another. In the first case, photos of Till’s corpse were made public to teach the world about the horrors of racism and in the second, Byrd’s photographs were not publicized because his family members did not think it was necessary. In Fiona Barr’s story, a young woman goes out for a stroll with her child only to have her eyes opened to the horrors of the world around her. She is an embodiment of the person who could hear about the violence around her and ignore it until she is face-to-face with it. Both the stories are about people who are forever altered by the things that they see.

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In Ashraf Rushdy’s news article entitled “Exquisite Corpse,” the author compares two of the most horrific crimes in American history. The crimes are more than forty years apart but were perpetrated because of the same ignorant reasons. Emmett Till and James Byrd were not killed for anything they did, but because of the color of their skin. Racism was the motive behind their deaths. The cases of Emmett Till and James Byrd were similar in that the young men were brutally murdered solely because of their skin color. Their corpses took on new meaning after their deaths. Not just the leftover remains of a former human being; they became icons of destruction and symbols of the deadly nature of racism. However, even more than a discussion about the two harrowing acts of racist individuals in the American south, the article is also discussion about the importance of the body as a symbol of something larger. The human corpse in the Till case and the bodies of Byrd and his killer are emblems of the psychological and sociological crises of hate crimes.

In the story “The Wall-Reader,” a woman is nonchalantly walking her young child about the streets in Belfast. Here too, the central event is a crime. Although painting graffiti on walls is hardly on the same level of criminality as murder, it is still an act of rebellion against the rules of the authority figure. This woman represents the viewing audience. Just as she watches the different graffiti as a hobby, so the reader is viewing this woman. She is an avatar for all of humanity who sit by as the rest of the world descends into acts of violence. At first, she watches the walls for no reason other than as a means for passing the time. Over time, she realizes that the messages are more important than she had originally estimated and they have a direct impact on her life.

After Emmett Till was murdered by white supremacists in the American south, his mother made the decision to have an open-casket funeral. This decision completely changed the American idea about its racism problem. Till’s mother also invited members of the press as well as cameramen to the funeral service so that the state of Emmett’s body could be captured forever and preserved as a part of American history. Before Till, Americans, particularly in the north, were able to ignore racism or dismiss it as not being a major problem. The unforgettable image of the desecrated young boy in the open casket made the realities of racism undeniable to the world at large. Many people were unaware at this time about how bad things were for African-American people who were living in the south. Particularly in the northern parts of the United States, such a horrendous crime as this murder would be absolutely unthinkable. By showing the world what the white men had done to her son, Mamie Till Bradley forced a larger population of the nation to see the true extent of racist ideology and racist actions. Those who were ignorant of the realities of racism in the south were forced to see the truth because of the Till photographs. They could no longer pretend that it was not a serious problem. Even in a supposedly free country like the United States, a small young boy, could be the center of hate and violence. His body became a symbol for the larger evil that was white supremacy and prejudice in the United States during the period.

In Belfast, Ireland during the time this story is set, there is a great deal of antagonism between the native Irish and the British government. This is illustrated through some of the specific graffiti that the young mother sees on her daily jaunts. It is made clear later on in the work that her husband is up to something, possibly something quite dangerous such as involvement with the IRA. Yet, the woman chose to be ignorant to the precise details. She chats with the disembodied voice about home and family. The majority of the people within Ireland would have been at least partially aware of the political upheavals that were going on. Few would take an active role in the battle over control of Ireland. Many would choose to ignore the specific acts of violence and acrimony if at all possible.

Forty years after Emmett Till was murdered, a young man named James Byrd was killed by a white supremacist in another horribly violent episode. James Byrd was dragged beneath the car of a man named John William King until he was dead. By this time, his body was mutilated beyond recognition. Rushdy provides several disturbing details about several of Byrd’s worst injuries, including the fact that medical experts were able to determine that Byrd had survived until he was decapitated. Medical experts were also able to determine that he must have felt a tremendous amount of suffering. Like the Till case, the body was horribly disfigured beyond the point of recognition. Also like Till, the photographs of the body would feature largely in the prosecution of the accused murderer. However, unlike the Till case, the family of James Byrd chose not to release the images of his dead body to the public. Although the images were used in the trial, the family did not release them to the press or allow them to be published. Instead, icons of the that were all over the body of King were published in newspapers all over the country. On nearly every inch of King’s body were images of anti-Semitic, racist, and prejudicial iconography. Instead of the dead boy’s body being the text of the crime, the body of the offender took that position. Still the message that was portrayed was a powerful one against racism.

In Barr’s story, Mary is not directly involved in the IRA as far as the reader knows. She has not done anything which would directly anger either the IRA or the British government. Yet, by the end of the story, Mary and her family are in dire trouble, to the point where they have to abandon their home and community to relocate to some place that they feel they will be safe. Mary’s crime was talking to a voice; something that she never even guessed could be in any way violent. Only after she sees the word “Tout” painted on the wall does she associate her choices and the choices of her family with the kind of warfare and violence that is written on the walls. Barr writes:

The the whole wall. It clanged her brain, its venom rushed through her body. Suspicion was enough to condemn. What creature had skulked to paint the word? & #8230;The letters were uneven, paint splattered down from the crossed T, the U. looked a misshapen O. The workmanship was poor, the impact perfect (Barr 4).

Just like Emmett Till and Byrd, Mary and her family are punished for an intangible error. Till whistled and Byrd existed. Mary was foolish enough to talk to a stranger with politeness and common humanity. The repercussions for their actions were far more drastic than the infractions could possibly have deserved.

In the article “Exquisite Corpse,” Rushdy tries to determine why the Byrd photographs were not released by the family, but the Till ones were. He also questions why the King tattoo pictures were released. For each of the crimes, the body became the signifier of the injustice of the crime. In the Barr story, the wall is an icon in and of itself, but so too are the words on the wall. The message is the most important aspect in all three. In the Till case, people outside of the south were unaware of the racism that was going on. Even if they were aware, they didn’t care. His mother’s actions made the racism of the south completely undeniable to the viewing world. By the time of the Byrd case, the world was already aware of the racism that could prevail in a location for a lengthy period of time. So, instead of producing images of the dead man’s body, the press released pictures of the perpetrator of the crime. For Barr, the words were more important than the icons because the words are the icons. The main thing to be understood from all three cases: Till, Byrd, and Mary, is that hatred exists throughout the world and can show itself even in the most unexpected and innocent of times.

Works Cited:

Barr, Fiona. “The Wall-Reader.” Home | W.W. Norton & Company. Web. Nov. 2011.


Rushdy, Ashraf. “Exquisite Corpse.” 2000. 356-365. Print.

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