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Poetry & Graffiti on the Red Line

Knowledge Commons, DC is “a free school for thinkers, doers, and tinkerers…” It’s a creative and innovative organization run by the magnificent and energetic Lucy Burnett. Knowledge Common’s core belief is that everyone should be able to take classes and everyone should teach classes. I’ve participated twice now in their programs and have loved the experience.

Today, we explored graffiti art through poetry, along the Washington, D.C. Metro’s Red Line. As those familiar with Washington, D.C. know, the Red Line, from Union Station to the Takoma Station, is a constantly changing museum of amazing graffiti art. I first became interested in graffiti art when my friend, Jefferson Pinder pointed out Cool Disco Dan‘s work along the Red Line near my Brookland neighborhood. Cool Disco Dan is one of Washington’s most storied graffiti artists. He’s been around, off and on, since the 1980s.

Today, we had about 12 people, as well as Lucy Burnett and me. One of the guests was Saaret Yosef, who is making a film about graffiti art along the Red Line. She is a wealth of information about some of the current artists. Please check out The Red Line DC Project and watch some of her fascinating film.

We gathered at the Metro Center station, in the last car heading toward Glenmont. This meant we had 3 stations underground and then would come above ground at Union Station. As we began, I described my interest in graffiti art– especially when it names and memorializes. These are two consistent themes within the D.C. graffiti art world. It fascinates me to consider what compels someone to write their name, or their “tag” in large letters in a public space. What kind of announcement is this? How un-heard must one feel to do this? I’m also fascinated by the memorializing which is often present in graffiti art. Sometimes when a local person is killed, the graffiti artists will memorialize him or her for the local community. Besides the very local quality of memorials, there are larger ones too. On this segment of the Red Line there are large memorials to Michael Jackson and Washington NFL player, Sean Taylor. Today, I saw a newer memorial I had not seen before. It simply stated: “To my father, one year gone. RIP.” These memorials span the entire arc from pop culture to one person’s individual loss.

We boarded the train at Metro Center and I read some of my Cool Disco Dan poems until we came above ground at Union Station. The people who were already on the train seemed to welcome us and they listened attentively to the poetry. I had passed out paper and pens before we boarded so once we came above ground, I urged folks to look at the graffiti and to draw or write as they felt moved. I suggested they consider what their “tag” might be. What would they write if the chance came to them? What would you write? What would you draw?

We traveled to the New York Avenue station when the train stopped and the driver announced there had been a malfunction and everyone had to get off. Fortunately, it was a 65 degree sunny day. So we all got off and talked about what we had seen so far. In short order, Metro had a new train coming and we were off again. We rode up to the Takoma Station where we disembarked and talked about what we had seen. The transient quality of graffiti fascinates me also. There was a lot of new art work I hadn’t seen just a few weeks ago. Interestingly, no one will paint over the Sean Taylor memorial. But someone did cover the large  announcement that “Obama Hates Borf.”

We decided to get back on and return to the Brookland Station to look at more of the artwork. On the platform at Brookland, we talked and closed our class. It was a terrific afternoon with some interesting and thoughtful people.

If you live in the D.C. area, I urge you to check out Knowledge Commons, DC. They offer some terrific classes and it’s a great way to learn about the underside of our beautiful and interesting city.

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