Black, White, And Read All Over.

palimpsestThe first time I heard the word “palimpsest” I thought it was like a pimple, or at least some kind of swollen mass. It’s not a word I run across a lot in spite of how omnivorous my reading habits are, although at the time I was reading a lot of Henry Miller and he liked to throw it in at least five or six times in every book. And from the context it always seemed like a big swollen mass of stuff. Fortunately my old friend the Oxford English Dictionary set me straight. The use I think Henry Miller had in mind, and one that’s pretty common, is a a writing surface that’s “reused or altered while still retaining traces of its earlier form; a multilayered record”.


Source: Wikipedia

Chalkboards, dry erase boards, and the crossword puzzles I do in pencil so I can go back and erase my mistakes are also palimpsests. Sometimes the old words are effaced and replaced, but it’s the “multilayered record” definition that always interests me, and this particular graffiti made me think about the word. There seems to be a certain amount of respect among graffiti artists. Mostly they don’t write over each others’ tags. There’s an exception to every rule, of course. I count at least four different tags here, one which I’m pretty sure was explicitly written over another one.

There’s also quite a bit of color too–black, yellow, and purple, all on a background of white and a black and white checkered wall. That got me thinking of how all graffiti already is a palimpsest. In academic parlance any object–and that includes buildings and train cars–can be “read”.

The building is a defunct fast food joint but by using it as a canvas the artists have overwritten that with their own meaning.

On the opposite wall there’s this circular window where, if you embiggen the picture and look carefully, you might be able to see the chain’s name. The neon no longer glows and has been overwritten by something new.


Art must survive.

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  1. Ann Koplow

    Nicely written. Glad I read.

  2. Tripping

    Thank you for using the word ’embiggen’.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Since it’s a perfectly cromulent word I use it whenever I can.

  3. halfa1000miles

    Ha! I went and looked up “embiggen”…understanding what it meant, but never having seen it 🙂 Crap. I wanted to use it in Scrabble.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Why can’t you use it in Scrabble? It’s a perfectly cromulent word. (Look that one up too. I’m leading you down a rabbit hole of amusement.)

  4. Laura Neacsu

    I now know something new!! Thank you for your post 🙂

  5. Michelle

    Palimpsest. I see ‘limpsest’ and think it sounds like a Gollummy made up word that means ‘most limp’.
    And I like the sound of cromulent. It sounds bad, like ‘pustulent’ or ‘flatulent’, but you used it in a positive context. I must investigate.

    1. Michelle

      AHA! I see what you did there! Nice one. “Embiggen” is a cromulent word alright. Long live the Simpsons 🙂

    2. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      And I like the adjective “Gollummy” which I’m now determined to use in conversation somewhere, although it thrills me that it’s been applied to something I’ve said.

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