My junior year in high school was shaped and defined by my three-month spring trip to the great countries of Europe with my family. The experience was so overwhelmingly worth the social sacrifices necessary that I constantly find myself wishing to go back. We spent the majority of our time at our “headquarters” in Prague, attending international Christian missionary school, and took weekend flights to cultural hubs across the continent. Cramped apartment and frequent jetlag notwithstanding, my European expedition was something that I never want to forget.
Quarter Finalist 2011 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
As I wandered some of the largest industrial centers in Europe, and by far the biggest cities that I’ve ever visited on any continent, I discovered a side of life that I had not seen prior. Through all of the cities we visited, including Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam, Krakow, Budapest, Prague, and others, there ran a common thread of poverty and a strong presence within the lower class. This poverty is simply not visible in my hometown of Boise, ID, or in many other places in the U.S. Metro systems were teeming with the homeless and underprivileged, and trash lay strewn across the ground of the old streets.
Perhaps most importantly, the walls of every building in the urban areas were covered in writings and paintings across all levels of size and intricacy. This street art, or graffiti, helped to give the neighborhoods pizzazz and color. While some structures were rendered somewhat dark and forbidding by these decorations, some walls were absolutely beautiful, and really added character to the neighborhoods where they were located. I took the time to explore various locations in Europe known for their incredible graffiti, and I was not disappointed. Especially on sites near the water, such as the Charles Bridge in Prague or Java Eiland in Amsterdam, where the walls are expansive and there are multiple vantage points, some of the pieces are absolutely ridiculous in their grandeur. I saw tons and tons of amazing professional artwork in Europe, but there are a few graffiti pieces that I saw that put it all to shame.
Graffiti can of course be aesthetically pleasing, but its most important aspect is its political cause and message. This is what stuck out to me the most in those marginalized communities in Europe. Strong political implications were everywhere. Anti-war murals, government satire cartoons, and caricatures of famous (or infamous) politicians in European history seemed to crowd the walls, expressing a people’s passion that would probably not be felt by the general public otherwise. The marginalized people in society have no better way to express themselves; where there are underprivileged folks looking to vocalize their desire for a better life and a better world, there will also be street art, for better or for worse.
My fascination with graffiti and the underclass can be attributed in part to my youth and liberal upbringing. However, I think that anyone who experienced these people, and their culture and art, in the firsthand and unobstructed way that I did, would at least be able to erase their perceptions of it as a stain on society. In its simplest form, graffiti can most certainly be vandalism; however, it is also a function of social democracy. Everyone has something to say, but not everyone has a good way to say it, or an audience that wants to listen. In Europe, I learned, among many, many other things, that with a fervent passion, an audience the size of a large city, and a few cans of spray paint, even the poorest of the poor can craft something truly beautiful.
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