Please Don’t Remove Your Home’s  “Graffiti”— A Precious Reminder of Its History

published Dec 13, 2023
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Mother measuring son's height on wall in kitchen
Credit: MoMo Productions / Getty Images

Although my apartment truly feels like its four walls and everything in between were plucked straight from my Sofia Coppola-fueled subconscious sometimes, I’m well aware I’m not the first chapter in its story. The 400-square-foot studio sits on the second floor of an 1864 Boston brownstone, a slender slice of slate gray that cleaves the block’s brick facades. The apartment was the parlor when the building was living its first life as a single-family home, the listing agent told me. That’s why the ceilings and the double doors that lead into the space are so tall, tall enough to fit two Celtics players stacked on top of each other. I signed for the unit on the spot because of its original period details: the dark wood trim, the crown molding as thick as buttercream, and—most of all—the original (albeit, not functional) marble fireplace. I knew the fireplace would be my favorite part of the room, and I was right, just not in the way I originally thought.

Before it was converted into apartments, the building was a dorm for a now-defunct all-boys school during the 60s and 70s. The underside of my elegantly beveled and swooped fireplace mantle is scribbled with swear words, names, class years, and inside jokes I’ll never be in on by the former students. There’s Tim Baker, Taunton, MA and Vinnie Orzano, Oceanside, NY marking their territory; a lament over the quality of the aforementioned school (it sucks, apparently); and the ever-creative “f*** you guys” among other gems. Throughout the six years I’ve lived here, my “home graffiti” is the first thing I show new friends when they visit — even before my nice view of the park (which is prime for dog-watching). I wave them over, crouch down on the marble-tiled hearth, and tell them to look up. Sometimes, I get giddy giggles in response. Other times, I get a deep sigh and a “what a shame.” 

I know my beloved jottings are technically imperfections — overlooked eyesores by the property management company at best and vandalism at worst — but to me, they’re mementos, reminders that, after many years and life stages spent in a space, I’ll be another colorful patch sewn into the quilt of its history. Home graffiti doesn’t have to be actual graffiti, like in my case, the term applies to anything that can be categorized as a blemish or bit of wear and tear left by a former resident at first glance, but that keeps the narrative of a place alive when considered more deeply.

Matthew Dickey, Director of Communications at the Boston Preservation Alliance and the creative eye behind historic architecture Instagram account @streetscapecurator, says it best: “The places around us are made more interesting by the layers of change and character they collect over time — height dashes on the walls, odd floor markings of moved walls, or fire escapes to nowhere … Each new layer is a marker of the human experience. I find the buildings that incorporate and preserve these layers tend to share the best stories.”

I’ll admit, it’s strange and surprising that the best thing about my home isn’t something that’s truly mine, especially in a rental. And especially when it has stiff competition in the form of the green velvet sofa, the antique soda fountain-style bistro table with the wood top my dad stained mahogany, and the vintage 1930s Rolf Armstrong pinup print I scored at a deep discount because the ruby reds and sapphire blues were sun faded into cotton candy hues. While these elements make the apartment more beautiful (in my eyes, at least) and make it “more mine,” the true beauty of a space lies in the details that represent both its transience and permanence. Those details don’t make it perfect but are emblematic of its enduring history. 

Embracing my fireplace mantle has made me view the other flaws (read: treasures) in my apartment — some leftovers from other tenants, others vestiges of bygone eras — in a new light. The floor scratches from the last resident’s unpermitted German shepherd puppy, the splotch of someone’s silver nail polish on the bathroom floor I’ve grown quite tender toward, and even the circa-1985 Whirlpool tub that I’m still not brave enough to look straight in the jets—I cherish them all. I appreciate the character they bring and the legacy they uphold in all of their human glory.

If you happen upon some home “graffiti” in your space, consider keeping and appreciating it. Maybe even feel okay with inevitably adding some of your own. (You know the glitter that got stuck between your floor planks when you were making your Hallowen costume? It’s part of the house’s history too now). I have scrawled my initials beside the cacophony of quotations and incantations underneath the mantle: “C.E.H. 2017- ” along with a small drawn heart. I’m not sure what end year I’ll fill that empty space with just yet, but I do hope that whoever lives here next will appreciate the apartment’s graffiti too and steward the space through its next chapter. (And, perhaps even send the mysterious “C.E.H.” some good vibes for leaving a fully assembled IKEA storage system behind in an apartment with no built-in closet.)