The Hekman Library Graffiti Tour

While most students who use the library regularly have one or two favorite pieces of graffiti, Kathy DeMay, Hekman Library’s Head of Research and Instruction, was surprised to learn that there was graffiti in the library at all. “There’s no procedure for anything like that,” she said, adding that while she would stop a student if she saw them drawing on library furniture, any punishment would likely be lax. Janitorial staff takes care of any anti-graffiti efforts, but for the most part, the trend hovers beneath the radar of most library staff members.

Washable graffiti in a library stairwell. Photo: Bastian Bouman.

While most public places can expect to find errant writings in their bathroom cubicles, the Hekman’s stalls are relatively clean of illicit art or writings. here’s not much graffiti on the group study tables, either. Instead, generations of students have left their marks on the carrels, those odd desk-like furnishings that line the library’s walls in clusters. According to DeMay, the use of individual study carrels in the library has been declining in recent years. Students gravitate towards tables and group study rooms “except during exams,” she noted with a wry smile. The trend away from studying in carrels might explain why library staff don’t see graffiti as a problem. As students move towards tables, couches, and study rooms, they seem hesitant to bring their graffiti with them.

First and Second Floors: Open, Social, and Graffiti-Free

There is very little graffiti on Hekman’s first or second floors. The first floor, which is actually a basement, is the quiet home to Calvin’s IT department. Perhaps the lure of computers as an alternate form of procrastination keeps an would-be graffitists from practicing their crafts on its many tables. The absence of carrels, however, is likely a bigger motivator: The computers are arranged in long, uninterrupted lines. Any user is in the close to any neighbors as well as in view of the staff at the IT desk, both unideal conditions for any frowned-upon behavior.

The second floor (the ground floor, if you enter by the library’s main entrance) is likewise an inhospitable environment for graffiti art. This floor tends to have the highest concentration of librarians and patrons. Most of its seating is tables and couches, with only four of the graffitist’s preferred medium, the study carrel. Each of these carrels — newer additions than their siblings on the third and fourth floors — are unscathed.

Third Floor: Graffiti Lane

Most of the graffiti on this carrel is quotes from Steve Carell’s The Office character. Photo: Annaka Koster.

While periphery carrels on this floor bear some markings, the true jackpot for graffiti enthusiasts is a bank of carrels located on the northern side of the floor, next to windows that overlook Commons Lawn. Hidden among the rows and rows of particle board and laminate are some of the true gems of Hekman’s graffiti scene, as well as copious examples of the generic and banal. “___ was here,” hearts with initials, and general greetings pepper the carrels and brick walls surrounding them.

A very versatile message of encouragement. Photo: Annaka Koster.

This area of the third floor is home to the oldest of the library’s furniture, which helps explain the sheer volume of graffiti on these carrels. Some students engage in dialogue with past vandals, others extrapolate on solitary feelings of loss and hopelessness, and some seem like they’re just trying to convince themselves to get back to work. One oft-edited message encourages students to “stay focused, Christmas Spring SUMMER Thanksgiving break is only a month days away!!” Others take a more aphoristic approach to self encouragement: “The grass is GREENER where you water IT,” one message seeks to remind students.

The third floor also claims the most extensive and detailed work of art by a single artist. Done in Sharpie and faded with time and an apparent janitorial scrubbing, it depicts four simply-rendered, humanoid characters. One, an angel, seems to be rescuing the smallest of the four from other forces: a devil and a monstrous set of jaws among other things. Etched underneath the drawing in a different pen are a few lines from the Wombats’s song “Joy Division”: “Let’s dance to joy division + Celebrate the irony that everything is going wrong but we’re so happy.”

“Let’s dance to joy division and celebrate the irony that everything is going wrong but we’re so happy.” Photo: Annaka Koster.

Fourth and Fifth Floors: Older Students, Newer Desks

Moving upstairs from graffiti lane, we arrive at the fourth floor, the quiet home of the H. Henry Meeter Center’s John Calvin collection and the private carrels of Calvin Theological Seminary students. This floor also has a large bank of old carrels almost directly above their third-floor counterparts, but the vast majority of these desks are unmarked by graffiti. Apart from a few stray notes — “CAD WAS HERE 12/15/03,” “PROVERBS 3:5–6. Faith.” — the desks are clean. Perhaps this trend can be explained by the culture of the fourth floor, which generally sees far fewer undergraduates than it does seminarians, seminarians who are older, often have their own assigned desks, and may generally be less prone to graffiti as a form of procrastination or self-expression.

The only large piece of graffiti on the fifth floor. Photo: Annaka Koster.

The fifth floor is one of the most popular for studying undergraduates, but, like the fourth floor, it has a relatively small number of graffitied carrels. Carrels on the fifth floor tend to be newer than the ones on the third and fourth floors. One of the only notable examples of graffiti on the fifth floor is drawn on an old-style carrel, moved to the fifth floor and relegated to a corner. The half-finished drawing depicts a leafless tree. Few students study there; while its large windows offer a refreshing daylight and a view of the Commons Lawn, the area is also a wifi dead zone.

Christian Encouragement through Vandalism?

While many graffiti artists in the Hekman Library are expressing themselves, trying to be rebels, or just bored, much of the graffiti seems to be motivated from a different place. One common theme running through much of Hekman’s graffiti is surprisingly existential. Students pray and plead and encourage one another through the notes they leave on carrels. “You can do it!” a fifth-floor carrel reads. “You’ve come this far!” A simple note from the third floor — “Good Luck W/ Studying” — was enough to encourage a later student to post the message to the Overheard at Calvin Facebook page.

Calvin being a Christian College, it’s not surprising that much of the encouraging graffiti is religious in nature. Bible verses and short prayers are among the notes scrawled unto brick walls and etched into carrels. A simple plea on the fifth floor reads, “Help me, Jesus,” while an equally simple encouragement on the third says, “Jesus ♡s You.” Students find catharsis from exams, essays, and general stress by sharing their woes, worries and expectations with the furniture itself — and whoever just happens to come along.

Photo: Annaka Koster.