Dartmouth’s Secret Sistines

by Natalie Van Brunt | 7/10/14 8:49pm


I’ve been influenced greatly by the written word at Dartmouth.

I would like to give credit to my professors, to thought-provoking classes and to heavy reading assignments. I would like to credit our vast array of special interest clubs and our various arts performances. I would like to, but if I’m being honest, the greatest moment of inspiration came to me while sitting on a sticky bench, staring at the walls of a decrepit frat basement.

“Buy a man a pizza, and he will follow you for a night. Teach a man to pizza, and he will follow himself for life.”

Reading this was an awakening, an empowering moment to a confused freshman lost in the crowd, unsure what to do with herself. I marched home with my head held a little higher that night. I was confident. I was secure. And I ordered my own damn EBAs to eat in my bed.

As the year progressed, I inevitably fell back into stress about school, life and my general anxious existence, but the scribbled writings of Dartmouth students came to me in my time of need. A light fixture in Psi U reminded me that “the best part is, it doesn’t even matter. Snack on that.” A library table advised me, “don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things.” The FoCo chalkboard spoke the words of wisdom reminiscent of my middle school AIM profile. It said “real eyes realize real lies,” but it made me ponder the deeper question of “real eggs realeggs real legs?”

When I found “KALE” tagged on an overpass in Vermont, I realized the graffiti here at Dartmouth is not what you would find in a major city, as far as I know no one has left their mark in spray-painted bubble letters or created some trippy mural masterpiece on the side of Baker. While we may be restrained enough not to tarnish the picturesque spots seen by the tour crowds, graffiti art still exists at the College, hidden behind the doors of our Greek houses. More than just places for pong and parties, these places act as our underground campus art museums.

Tiantian Zhang ’16 studied street art and the squats, old buildings that serve as a breeding ground for artists, while on an FSP in Paris. Many of the buildings have become sanctuaries for graffiti art, and certain sections of the city are left alone by police to allow people from all walks of life to leave behind their artistic mark, much like the freely painted walls of many campus basements.

To get a better look at some of the art of Dartmouth, I headed into the Tabard to take a look around. Justin Maffett ’16, currently serving as treasurer of the Tabard, gave me a tour of their elaborately painted rooms and walls. In every direction there was something unique and beautiful, and the work was never complete. He pointed to several designs and markings that had been added just within the last few weeks.

“It becomes somewhat of an issue, because a lot of this art means a lot to people, and 10 to 15 years down the line when things get covered up, alums take that very personally. This is how they leave their history,” Maffett said.

To support that, he showed me their bathroom, which was covered from floor to ceiling with quotes and sayings from members, usually attributed to their house name.

“I’ve come across things that I’ve said on this wall and not even known they’re there until randomly notice it while going to the bathroom,” Maffett said. “People I’ve never met will come back to visit and I can immediately be like, ‘Oh, you’re the one who said that thing by the sink!’”

Maffett takes the standpoint that graffiti is fully an art and a necessary form of self-expression. And in spite of the criminal label it’s given, Zhang found in her research that graffiti was valued as a legitimate source of art by both citizens and arts scholars. However, there is a difficult line to draw between what is artful graffiti and what is harmful and destructive vandalism. Certainly not all public musings are positive, as seen in last year’s hateful dorm graffiti, or the damaging comments about skipping leg day that were recently chalked onto our sidewalks.

Occasionally, there is argument over what goes on the walls at the Tabard, but for the most part, Maffett says that people tend to accept what goes up and value it as an art.

“Initially, street artists just did it as a way to rebel because they were bored and needed a way to express themselves, but it developed into a culture,” Zhang says. “Now, they’ve moved away from focusing on political messages to just doing things that are creative and expressive of their imagination.”

Walking through the basements of certain houses, it’s easy to see the incredible creativity of Dartmouth students, both past and present. Keelin Stronski ’16 says she constantly in awe of what’s painted in dingy basements.

“They’re entertaining to look at, and usually pretty clever. Sometimes I have zero idea how or why people came up with this stuff, but it’s fun to think about” Stronski said, noting a carefully painted, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the pong game?” found in Zete.

Hanover is kept idyllic for visitors who have no idea of the burgeoning underground arts movement. Preserved on our walls are drunk reflections and love confessions, freshman worries and senior bucket lists. There are paintings on ceilings that turn stairwells into the Sistine Chapel and murals that would make Diego Rivera applaud. It’s not all highbrow or tasteful, but it is beautiful. Fragments of our brains are captured to document our history and supplement our education with something we can’t get in a classroom.

“The work will never be done. Even now, with so much here, this place is still a blank slate. It will always be an outlet for all of us,” Maffett says.

Find your space and leave a piece of yourself. Be it an elaborate drawing, a tiny doodle, or sage advice about pizza, you will be responsible for a work of art.