From Graffiti to Graffito, Trash To Treasure

Manzana Schoolhouse Ran Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National ForestThe old black board inside Manzana Schoolhouse, a free-for-all graffiti panel. (Manzana Creek Schoolhouse Circa 1893)

Inside the old Manzana Creek schoolhouse within the San Rafael Wilderness of Santa Barbara County one hundred years worth of names and dates cover the walls. R.L. Cooper carved his name and date into the blackboard back in 1911 and one hundred years later, long after the building was officially designated an Historical Landmark, Lars Peterson added his mark.

The initials and dates are crudely rendered and commonplace, but I enjoy reading over the oldest of them. They are an intriguing piece of history.

I’m not sure where the line is, the specific year or decade, but I hate the newer dates. It’s a contradiction I find interesting.

How long does it take for something to turn from trash to artifact, from graffiti to treasured piece of history?

Manzana Schoolhouse San Rafael WildernessOne of many scribblings on the interior of Manzana Schoolhouse.

Canyon de Chelly White House ruinssWhite House ruins, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

The cliff of solid sandstone loomed over us, a massive bulging lithic forehead, dark water stains trailing like beads of sweat down its face. We stood on the canyon floor on a sandy bench beside the wide and shallow stream, the puny presence of humanity amid a land of gargantuan geological features, gazing up at the ruins of Anasazi cliff dwellings built sometime between 350 and 1300 A.D.

Wanting to gain a better look at the buildings far overhead that were once accessed by ladders, Clint Elliott and I tramped across the creek to the other side of the canyon and picked our way up a rocky slope directly across from the ruins.

With a telephoto lens we could see names scratched into the side of a wall dating from the mid-nineteenth century, the handles of white American men that had passed through the canyon for some unknown reason, cavalry soldiers, perhaps, or cowboys or drifters of other sorts. Who now could possibly know?

Canyon de Chelly White House ruinsNames and dates carved into a wall of White House ruins in the late 1800s.

While the names and dates are, or at least were at the time, the work of vandals who defaced an archaeological site, gazing through the lens at the inscriptions I felt nearly as much a sense of interest, curiosity and appreciation for the letters and numbers as I did the ruins themselves.

Rather than taking away from the ruins the names added to them. Rather than viewing them as a transgression perpetrated by disrespectful people, I looked at the graffiti as another piece of American history holding its own particular value and hinting at its own unknown story, which is no less a part of the region’s past events then are the ruins.

Yet, if I were to see a new name carved beside a recent date, say for example, J. Elliott 2004, it would anger me. If I were to run across a person in the act of carving their name into the wall I would probably confront them, and likely without exercising much if any leniency, understanding or tact whatsoever. Such is my irascible nature.

Though were I somehow to return 150 years later the same hypothetical inscription would take on an entirely new meaning and value. The scratchings would cease to be vandalism and would have matured into an artifact. If not in 150 years then surely after 500 years. At some point, after enough years had passed, the marking would become a treasured piece of history.

rock art pictograph vandalism graffitiA remnant Native American rock art panel in San Luis Obispo County whereupon somebody deeply carved into the sandstone: “Geo Lewis Nov 5 1903.” Judging by the superficial scratch marks crisscrossing over the name, some people clearly do not appreciate the carving, as might well be understood. But what if the pictograph was painted by Indians in the year 1200 and the date carved by a European explorer in 1303? Would they feel the same? 4000 BC and 3003 BC?

In a previous post, Upper Santa Ynez Camp Vandalism, I mentioned seeing some recent vandalism at a backcountry campsite. Somebody carved “Amber and Dad” into an oak tree. Seeing the fresh, reddish hued carving emblazoned into the oak bark angered me. It was not there on my last visit the previous year.

I ran my fingers over the ugly scar trying to understand why Amber and her dad would do such a thing. I shook my head, lips pinching tight, thinking of the sort of family values that would lead the two to such selfish, disrespectful and inconsiderate actions.

I must confess, however, that as wayward youth I had done similar things. So did Eddie Fields, as noted below. And oddly, in some way, I’ve thanked Master Fields for his vandalism.

eddy fields initial manzana creekThe “F” carved by a young Eddie Fields a century ago.

I do find older such markings as noted above interesting. In fact, not only do they not anger me, I actually purposely seek them out, hiking miles to see them and ponder the life and times of those that left their marks.

Along Manzana Creek in San Rafael Wilderness Eddie Fields carved his initials into an oak tree some 100 years ago, yet if somebody carved a fresh name beside those old initials I would be angered. (Eddy Fields’ Initials, Manzana Creek Circa 1900)

Are not markings left by American settlers and pioneers a valuable piece of history? Should they not be legally protected like “objects of antiquity” as the American Antiquities Act of 1906 reads? At what point do these cease being vandalism and mature into something of value worth preserving?

Although by today’s mores and social norms, and under current law, many of these same actions are frowned upon or illegal and punishable by fine or imprisonment, by some, admittedly twisted, strain of logic, if I were to prevent a vandal from adding his mark to a tree or a rock, then I’d be depriving future generations of some sort of artifact.

This may sound ludicrous, but consider an example to illustrate the point.

Santa Barbara Chumash Painted Cave State Historic ParkChumash Painted Cave State Historic Park

Santa Barbara Chumash Indian Painted Cave Santa Ynez Mountains

Santa Barbara Chumash Painted Cave rock art pictographs

“The pictographs at Painted Cave are in no sense ordinary or typical of California rock art. The complexity of subject matter, the vivid use of colors, the semi-abstract visualizations executed with great care and intricate detail, and the condition of the paintings all lead scholars to rank this site as being among the finest examples of its kind left by Native Americans in the western United States.”

Travis HudsonGuide to Painted Cave, (1982)

“Cabrillo’s description of the Chumash of the Santa Barbara mainland is the oldest ethnohistoric document concerning California Indians.”

Robert F. Heizer & Albert B. Elsasser, The Natural World of the California Indian, (1980)

Would not a name and date from the 16th century carved into sandstone bedrock by an early Spanish explorer in California be a valued piece of history worth preserving? Would it not be legally protected in the same vain as an “object of antiquity”?

Imagine if Portuguese explorer, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, had carved his name into a boulder on the beach at the seaside town of Carpinteria to mark his arrival along the Santa Barbara coast. Undoubtedly the site would be marked with an official plaque at the least if not legally protected and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

What if the initials and date, “JR Cabrillo 1542,” were carved alongside the rock art in Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara?

Would the mark somehow be less valuable or less important? Would people dismiss it as graffiti and scratch it out?

I suspect it would be a feature which visitors would purposely look for in the cave and be sure to see for themselves, and that any pamphlet or signboard about the site would mention it.

Were somebody in 2012 to scratch out that marking, would they not be legally liable for defacing a treasured piece of history?

If not codified in law would it not at least be a relic valued by contemporary culture, and the vandal that destroyed it despised?

Is it time that renders such things valuable?

Or the social or historic standing of the particular person that created them?

Happy Hunting Ground Chumash Indian pictographs rock art San Rafael WildernessA remnant of a Chumash pictograph found along a trail in the San Rafael Wilderness.

Such telltale traces of times past abound in the southern Los Padres National Forest. The oldest can be seen in the form of pictographs and petroglyphs painted on and pecked into the walls of sandstone abris and other rock surfaces by the historic population of Chumash Indians.

What makes lesser, by their own cultural standard, specimens of Chumash rock art something precious, but the skilled work of a contemporary graffiti artist rendered on a cave wall vandalism?

Some of the pictographs found in the forest appear to be little more than hastily applied smudges of monochrome paint. They took no appreciable degree of skill or time to create relative the finer works found at other Chumash sites. If in their relative red ocher hued crudeness there is no aesthetic value or exposition of exceptional talent and ability or remarkable cultural expression, then it seems that the passing of time is the sole metric by which the art’s value is judged.

One might reasonably object to note that rock art paintings are priceless relics from a lost culture.

While that is true and certainly lends a significant degree of value and importance to the pictographs, if not representing their value entirely, it is hard to imagine that had historical events taken a different course, and today there remained a vibrant and fully functioning society of full-blooded Chumash still practicing their traditional culture, that these prehistoric traces left by their ancestors would in some way be devalued or less protected.

This seems to beg the question: Why then is it not acceptable for other peoples to begin their own rock painting traditions?

Chumash rock art pictograph santa ynez mountains santa barbaraRock art in the Santa Ynez Mountains of Santa Barbara County. Channel Islands National Park is seen along the distant curiously sloping horizon. Apparently your cell phone snapshot taker here was a bit off kilter this afternoon. (EDIT: 12-6-17 See comments regarding authenticity of this pictograph.)

Would society accept new and continued painting of rock surfaces throughout the forest by contemporary Native Americans? If so would that acceptance extend to people of all ethnicities?

One might argue that these hypothetical full-blooded contemporary Chumash should have the sole right to create pictographs because they would merely be carrying on old traditions. But they did not always paint rock surfaces. It surely cannot have been a practice without a beginning. There must have been a period of time when their ancestors did not paint rocks.

Yet it seems plainly evident that people today would never be allowed to start their own rock painting traditions. And it’s hard to imagine even a master artist being granted such permission.

As we’ve seen in one case, a lady that drew and painted images on rocks in at least seven national parks was banned from the parks for two years, sentenced to 200 hours of community service and made to pay restitution. (LA Times: Woman who defiled national parks with graffiti banned from 524 million acres of public land)

EM Walker Chorro Grande 1901 Rock CarvingA sandstone boulder in the Sespe Wilderness, whereupon somebody carved the date “1901.” I would photograph this rock, too, out of an interest for relics in the forest. But a name carved into a nearby rock with the date 2001 would anger me and I would never take a photo of it.

Photo ©EM Walker (Hat Tip Mr. Walker. Check out his weblog, The Los Padres Expatriate Hiker and his vintage photo collection featuring the southern Los Padres National Forest.)

I am not advocating anybody start painting or chiseling rocks out in the forest. I’m merely pondering the matter.

Time renders many things, including vandalism and graffiti, important and of some value when enough of it has passed. Even litter turns to treasure.

What gets a person a $1000 dollar fine for littering one year, fifty years later becomes an artifact protected by law, and the person that removes the trash, lest they have a special permit, subject to a fine similar to the one who originally carelessly threw it out.

Had director Cecille B. DeMille not littered the Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes of Santa Barbara County with the remains of the movie set from his 1923 production, “The Ten Commandments,” but instead cleaned up and thoughtfully disposed of the garbage properly, then archaeologists wouldn’t be excitedly excavating the trash heap at this very moment as I write, and there would be no international headlines celebrating the “find.” (UK Sun: Sphinx head discovered beneath sands of California blows dust off one of the greatest stories of extravagance in Hollywood history)

Even trash becomes treasure at some point.

Santa Monica Mountains. “Looks like a felony to me,” said my uncle.

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5 Responses to From Graffiti to Graffito, Trash To Treasure

  1. Anonymous says:

    The pictograph shown in “Rock art in the Santa Ynez Mountains of Santa Barbara County” is generally recognized as a fake by USFS archeologists, as such not Chumash in origin, which really begs the question.

  2. Paul says:

    Very useful article Mr. Elliot. I was excited to read about the nuances you explore.

    A name standing by itself is not history, nor is it a piece of history. However, were that name connected to a bigger story, such as Cabrillo, then it becomes historical evidence, and properly should be preserved.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Hey Paul. Thanks for stopping by, and commenting. I appreciate hearing that what I write about is of interest to you.

      I define history as the written record of human existence. Prehistory is that which lacks a written record. This provides you with a basic understanding of my frame of reference.

      As such, I find your comment about a name alone not being history nor a piece of history to be odd. Perhaps you could provide something of an explanation.

      You seem to be suggesting that history is solely defined by the relative importance of those characters involved. But this would relegate the lives of most common people, and thus most people overall, to some realm outside of history.

      But who is to judge what people or whose lives were important? Who is to judge how big their story must be to be considered history?

      A name standing by itself etched into a rock in the desert is history, by definition, as I see it. And if nothing else it’s evidence of human existence, which is the biggest story of them all. That is if history need necessarily be defined by something being connected to a bigger story, as you say.

      How valuable that evidence, the name, is historically depends on many factors. But the name remains history, if only in a generic or general sense.

      If an ancestor of my family left a written record of her life in some form, then that is important history to my family. Whether it represents anything if interest to anybody outside the family is irrelevant with respect to history.

      How important or valuable a piece of history that family journal is in a larger story depends on many factors.

      I have more I’d like to discuss, but I’m using a device away from home that is not working properly and so it’s very hard to type out even a short response.

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