Published on November 7th, 2022 | by Lisa Hanson1
Graffiti Mom: MOMZ1
My son is an artist, a graffiti artist. He is well known for his work among the graffiti crowd across the nation. Responses to this fact are often polarized and narrow to two camps: That’s vandalism! or Street art is cool.
I was 17 when he was born. (If you have the thought at this point that now you understand why my son engages in sub-legal activity, please move along to the next article before I slit my mother heart and spill it onto the page.) In the first days of his life, I was shattered by how delicate he seemed: his tiny fingers, his pink-purple little body with limbs curled in. I felt his fragility as an ache in my body. The space he left inside, still healing, alive with imagined nerves connecting us. I wondered how mothers knew how to do this.
The first time I tried to cut his translucent fingernails, I held my breath. I nicked his finger and he cried. I cried too, then called my big sister, twelve years older and a mother of three.
“I hurt him!” I wailed.
She laughed and comforted me. “It’s okay, it happens to all moms.”
In just a few weeks I was as adept at carrying my baby as my own arms. But the desire to protect him and fear of harm coming to him did not diminish.
As I raised him, I raised myself. I lived always by a vision that I would be a great mom on my own terms and that I would create the life I wanted for us. I had chosen to have my baby because I thought I could love and provide for him and still live the life I wanted. My Mom had been a teen mom and had gone on to have six children with my father. She sacrificed and I knew that. I would not sacrifice. I would choose.
In small steps, a day at a time, I moved out with my baby, started a job, and chipped away at part-time community college in a strip mall on Whidbey Island, the rural community where I was born and raised. I had my own ideals about parenting and the privilege to do it alone, my way. I was vegetarian, made vegan cookies, read the home remedy parenting books, avoided television, talked to my baby like a real human, and read to him every night.
I finished college and moved my son to the city after kindergarten. I worked at a university and continued my slow incremental building, taking night classes for my MBA one at a time over 5 years. In our city home, my baby became a young teen. It was an era of conflict. Tensions between us ran high over small things, like when he didn’t want to eat what I cooked or tell me about his homework. Crushingly, I had to stop our daily habit of bedtime reading. He was 13 and we still sat down every evening, often with a Harry Potter book now instead of Goodnight Moon. I think that deep down neither of us wanted to stop, but the routine had become fodder for arguments, and it was time to allow him to step forward in growing up. We transferred our shared love of story to occasional movie nights.
I believe that if you ask him, he’d tell you that this was when he started to write. Not the kind of writing that was tied to all those books we read, but the kind of writing done with spray paint at nighttime on other people’s property. He somehow navigated through years of this before I became aware he was involved in graffiti. I knew he drew in his notebook constantly, but that seemed common enough. By the time he was 16 I was aware of the “hobby,” and it filled me with dread.
Part of the graffiti life has to do with where you paint. The deeper the cut the more credit you get for it with your friends. That means accessing high places, dangerous places, hard to get to places in the city. Graffiti was born in New York in the 1960s, a subculture started by Black and brown people alongside the rise of hip hop culture. After 50 years it was widespread across the globe with a complex network of subgenres and styles, icons, norms, and intricacies. In my Mom-ish understanding, part of graffiti is about wandering around at night and strategizing with your friends, or alone, about where and how to hit something. Do you ever see the condemned buildings that turn up covered with graffiti overnight? That is because there are rules to the culture about what is fair game and what isn’t. Of course, having a code doesn’t mean that everyone follows it.
In his teen years before he moved out, I was often up in the night or would jerk awake with the image of him falling, unable to return to sleep again. He was no longer a baby, but the ache that I had once felt fearing his tiny form would come to harm had become a part of me. It was like a low vibration under the skin, ready at any moment to surge past my other senses and sear away the rest of the world. My son was a difficult teenager; he is quick to say that now. I wanted him to take it slow, but he grew up early. I wanted him to take the easy road, but he always chose the hard road, and still does. Just like me.
The reason I know a few basics about graffiti now is because my son has remained steadfast in his love for the artform. He still writes, 26 years old and a father himself. Though I think, and hope, that he now chooses the safer cuts like painting train cars. He has taken and developed a catalogue of over 35,000 35mm photographs, mainly of graffiti life. He has created zines and commissioned murals and is currently apprenticing to become a tattoo artist. A smart translation of his talents and community to an artistic career.
He’s a beautiful human with a warm and dynamic nature. He makes friends easily and is generous and caring. These are the things I hoped for my child.
I’m no longer afraid of him falling. But I still hold the lingering vibration of wanting him to be safe, to be happy: the energy of a mother’s force field. From the moment he left my body we were separate. My ability to hold and protect my child diminished over time as he went from a baby in my arms to an independent little boy that would rarely sit on my lap, a rebellious teen taking terrifying risks, a young adult who asked my forgiveness for his teen years, and a man with his own precious baby girl in his arms.
The vibration that I carry has sometimes felt like the presence of fear, something that I need to quiet or ease. The anxiety of being a parent that hums and thrums across the days. But if I focus on the vibration and follow the thread all the way back to the birth of my motherhood, I can see that it emerged from my fragility in connection with his fragility, something infinitely precious.
I made many choices in pursuit of building what I wanted. I chose to change things about myself and my life, as well as to embrace the evolution of my role, and I’m proud of what I’ve done as a Mom and as a human. I love and trust the man I raised to be okay, and when I sense a surging roar of the old fear, that vibration coming to life in my body, I will remind myself that vulnerability is the root of strength, the root of love.