It is public art made of private wishes.
In a phenomenon spreading across the globe, over-sized blackboards, painted on buildings and freestanding displays, invite passers-by to complete the sentence: “Before I die I want to …”
Answers, some profound, some profane, are written on stencilled lines with pieces of sidewalk chalk picked from the ground below.
“… make my dad proud.”
“… find the yin to my yang.”
“… be happy.”
“… see Italy.”
Since artist Candy Chang created the first wall on an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighbourhood in 2011, more than 400 walls have gone up in Australia and more than 60 other countries, including the United States, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Iraq, Haiti, South Korea and South Africa.
And anyone can do it. On its website, the project offers advice and materials on how to develop a ‘Before I die’ wall somewhere near you.
Before I die … in Australia
The project has reached Australian walls, and true to the transient nature of street art, some have already come and gone. Geraldton in Western Australia participated, along with Townsville in Queensland, Sydney, Melbourne and the regional town of Geelong in Victoria.
“Before I die I want to … see Bonnie naked” wrote someone in Geraldton
“… Finish parole” wrote someone in Geelong.
” … kiss a polar bear on the nose” came a reply in Townsville
Australians who took part have ranged from a group of friends (Townsville) to a youth development unit within local government (Geelong). The Melbourne wall was painted inside a pizza restaurant, while Sydney’s appeared in a university library.
Sarah Andrews, a local businessperson and organiser of the Geraldton wall, said the town centre lacked vibrancy and the community was battling social problems like isolation, which made her wonder, could a project like this bring the town together? Yes, as it turned out.
“People wrote the usual things, like ‘I want to have children before I die’, or ‘fall in love’. But they also wrote things that were really appropriate to our region, like ‘Before I die, I want to catch a 200 kilo pig’, which I loved. Things to do with fishing and diving and hunting were also popular,” she said.
“Before we started we had a look at other people’s walls and it was all very cool and hip. But ours was very real and beautiful.
“It was very much the first time we had anything like this in our area and the first time young people in our area had ever been exposed to anything like this.”
Loss leads to inspiration
Carol Chang, who initiated the project, said she had been surprised by how quickly people dropped their guards and wrote “sincere and sometimes heartbreaking things on these walls”. She said the first wall was inspired by the loss of a loved one.
“It reassures me that I’m not alone as I try to make sense of my life. It’s an honest mess of the longing, anxiety, joy, pain, gratitude, insecurity and wonder you find in every community. … It’s like collective therapy in public space,” said Chang, responding to questions via email.
Using cities better
Chang earned a master’s degree in urban planning and sees in public spaces the potential to unify and communicate.
Her own entries have ranged from “enjoy more places with the people I love” to “revive a ghost town”.
“I don’t know if maybe you’re more likely to do it because now it’s out there for the world to see, there’s just something magical about stuff like this,” said Sara McAlister, 22, after stopping to write on a former factory building in Syracuse.
“I think putting it out there, even considering the question, is going to make a difference.”
“Travel the world,” “brighten someone’s day,” wrote McAlister, a bartender who recently finished a master’s degree in social work at Syracuse University in the US.
“And between you and me, I wrote, marry this one over here,” she said, nodding toward her boyfriend, Patrick Kraushaar, 26, who was writing “inspire someone positively” and “make my family proud.”
“It’s almost like positive imagery,” Kraushaar said after putting down his chalk. “It helps bring it to fruition, maybe?”
Building owner Rick Destito painted the “Before I Die” wall after seeing the idea on Facebook.
“It’s such a simple idea but it resonated so much with me because there are so many things that I want to do before I die,” said Destito, who is transforming the former gear factory into artist and rehearsal studios.
He has watched people of all ages and backgrounds stop and write, some lingering, others dashing off a hope and hurrying off.
Nyquis Turner, 16, stopped to write, “play in the NFL”.
“Find a cure for cancer. Be famous,” Lynn Morehouse read from one of two boards that went up last month in Providence, Rhode Island.
“Some of them are funny. Some of them are a little off the wall. … I like it.”
Chang said a universal theme is personal well-being, citing repeat entries like: “come to terms with who I am,” “have no regrets,” “forgive and be forgiven,” “heal”.
A hardcover book, “Before I Die,” released earlier this month by St. Martin’s Press, permanently captures some of the answers, which are often otherwise erased to make room for more.
“Some walls reflect the current politics of the region,” Chang said.
“But for the most part, the walls have shown just how universal our hopes are.
“We want to love and be loved,” she said.
“We want to see the world. We want to help others. We want to understand who we really are.”
Readers: Here’s your chance. Before you die, what do you want to do? Leave a thought in the comments section below.
— Agencies, with The New Daily