Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

How Metro commuters react to graffiti on the Red Line

January 23, 2012 - 01:03 PM
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Colors for your commute. (Photo: flickr/elvertbarnes)

What reactions does graffiti inspire among the D.C. residents who ride the Metro's Red Line? Are these images art or are they blight? How do the graffiti artists themselves see their creations and how do they perceive their transit-riding audience? Are their daytime identities even what commuters would suspect?

These are some of the questions that Georgetown grad student Saaret Yoseph has continued to explore with her ongoing Red Line D.C. Project, which zeroes in on the Red Line track between Union Station and Silver Spring. I first wrote about her efforts last summer, where she told me about her motivations and goals and thoughts on how graffiti and WMATA intersect. Yoseph has not spent the last few months idly. Her Red Line Project website features many updates, new clips, and best of all — a 13-minute mini-documentary called "See Something, Say Something," chronicling a range of voices from both Red Line Metro riders and the graffiti artists who have tagged the many buildings and walls visible from Metro windows. Released last month, i's a wonderful film that essentially stands on its own as it, Yoseph writes, "explores [the] indirect dialogue that graffiti creates. Equal parts craft and confusion, art form and illegal act, Red Line graffiti embodies all the contradictions of the capital city."

The dialogue is a refreshing and fascinating one. Watch riders and artists speak up in "See Something, Say Something" here:

My favorite part is seeing where the reality defies expectation, such as when one graffiti artist notes that many riders might expect him to be a teen when he truly is a property-owner in his 30s. "I used to worry about how the audience felt," omnipresent graffiti artist Ju tells the filmmaker at one point, "I used to worry about how the people on the train felt about my work."

But what really draws me in is the range of commuter reactions to the graffiti, most of which strikes me as surprisingly receptive and above all, curious. Who are these people creating these transit images? "See Something, Say Something" tries to provide an answer. A narrow focus on the commuter and the artist helps frame the 13 minutes, and I suspect a longer version to come will bring in the other voices Yoseph has interviewed, such as employees of the District Department of Transportation, the significance of the Met Branch Trail, and the people who are attempting to transform illegal graffiti into legal, sponsored outlets.

See clips and follow along with the Red Line D.C. Project's updates at its official blog. I'm happy to see how active it's remained in the new year and hope to see more in the months ahead.

Update, 3:10 p.m.: I had contacted filmmaker Saaret Yoseph, who put together the above short documentary, before beginning this post and have just recently heard back from her about the status of the Red Line D.C. Project. Yoseph has stayed busy over the last six months and let us know what to expect in the year to come.

"I've been researching and re-framing this very rich conversation about anonymous art on public transit," Yoseph told me by e-mail this afternoon. "Though Metro graffiti has been and remains at the center of my documentary, I'm finding new ways to contextualize it by considering the people and the place."

Yoseph produced "See Something, Say Something" as part of one of her class projects at Georgetown and expects to have a second  companion documentary of about the same length done by the end of spring, along with a more polished version of what we've watched above. Part 2 will focus "more on the Red Line as a place of multiple and overlapping histories." All right, I like the sound of that. She says that these two films, which will comprise about 20 minutes each, will be screened once they're both finished, hopefully in late spring or early summer.

What the young filmmaker really wants, however, is more engagement with the riders of the Metro. Yoseph emphasizes:

The more I learn about social media, the more I realize how critical public participation is to the process of filmmaking, especially when social issues are concerned. That is why I am on a mission to encourage active engagement with my audience online. I want to drive eyes, interest and opinion towards the project so that I can be sure I'm doing my job. I want to hear what people have to say about the Red Line, what they know about it and what they think of the graffiti/murals they encounter, if any. Red Line D.C. is all-ears and open for the opinion business! But step #1 (which I'm pretty late in accomplishing) is building my online network.

In that spirit, you can follow @TheRedLineDC and Yoseph herself on Twitter.

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