When I first saw the mockingbird at my feeders, I felt I had succeeded at making a home.
My yard was welcoming to a mockingbird. I loved its colors: gray, white, and black. I loved how it flew like a kamikaze plane. I loved the pitched line of its tail, like a razor blade.
In the early mornings, it would perch outside my bedroom window and sing all the new songs it had—which were not, I would realize, anything.
Once I was a writer.
Early on, I was plagiarized. A woman cannibalized chunks of my writing, which she had read online, passing them off as her own in her printed book. I was shocked. I didn’t even have my own book published—and here she was, stealing mine. I wanted her book to die, to disappear. Instead, I almost did.
I became a graffiti writer.
I became a graffiti writer because I had something to say, something I couldn’t actually say, not with words. There are some stories that must be seen. Some you can only sing.
So I took a picture of my body. I projected it onto a screen. I traced the image onto cardboard, and cut the outline with a blade, then held the homemade stencil onto a wall, balancing it with my knees and hips. I sprayed aerosol paint into the outline, holding my breath as the paint met brick, adhered, and became the black and blue shape of a woman holding a flashlight, illuminating the word rape.
Graffiti is ephemeral. It’s defaced; it’s painted over. But my anti-rape piece seemed to shame a normally active scene into silence. No one wrote anything. No one tagged my work. No one bombed or painted over my piece.
Until a group stole it as their own, painting a logo around my piece, purposefully using the same paint colors I had used, and claiming me as a collaborator on their website. Then the image was picked up by other websites who gave all credit for my piece to the group—an organization whose aggressive and murky philosophy I disagreed with, and with whom I would never willingly work.
But they lied.
My artwork was appropriated to further an agenda.
My anti-rape art piece—a very personal and very difficult work for me to make—was turned into an ad by a thief.
My mockingbird sang the songs of other birds. It sang the cries of babies. It sang the blare of alarm clocks, and the robotic chirps of cell phones. It sang everything it stole from both sides of the window screen.
It also attacked birds. It claimed, not just the sounds of my house, but the seeds, dive bombing any bird who dared come near the feeders, chasing off finches, sparrows, wrens, chickadees.
When someone claims your work without claiming you, when someone wants your words without wanting you—only the product of your heart, but not the beating bloody muscle, not the lived-in body; just the image and not the imaginer; just the dreams and not the dreamer—when someone pretends she dreamed your dream herself… it’s hard not to shut down.
I took the seeds away. Now I have no birds.
Someone took my words. Someone took my body. Someone took my story. Once I was a writer.
You have to do it again, the street artist who trained me tells me. You have to do your piece again—and then you have to do something else.
But plagiarism is not just a matter of stealing another’s voice; it’s a matter of not using your own.
Don’t you have your own lived experience? Don’t you have your own memories? Are you soulless? Are you mindless? Are you a shade?
I realize it makes me sad for the stealers, those who distrust their own dreams.
Because they came from somewhere—these stories, these images I made. I made them; they are created from a brew of my past, my body, my brain filled with memories, heat, and hope. They are me. They would not have life without me.
I lived, so I sang.
I did a new graffiti piece the other day: another outline of my body, facing a wall on which I had written my name. In the piece, my body is naked, seen from the back, seen the waist up, and in my hands I was holding a pencil.
Then I changed it to a knife.
Then I changed it to a can of paint.
I sprayed the piece up on the bottom step of a flight of cement stairs, a small piece, half-disguised by dead leaves. October: the leaves are almost all fallen now. I stood, brushed the rot from my knees.
I looked at the blank trees and I wondered: Did no one teach you to live, mockingbird? Did no one trust you to sing?
Final Girl a writer based in the Midwest. You can see examples of her graffiti, including “I Believe You,” the piece described in this essay, at: http://www.finalgirlgraf.tumblr.com
Love this. Love your graffiti.