Someone once said, “Those who can, do, and those who cannot, teach.” Bullshit.
A more venerable proverb, Latin, I believe, tells us that “by learning we will teach and by teaching we will learn”—which brings us to Robbie Conal attending a dinner party at the home of friends in New York City. His fellow guests are mostly other middle-aged practitioners of various disciplines. One is lamenting the detrimental effect of technology on language, complaining that “kids these days” (yikes!) communicate in some kind of primitive patois, part text message, part hip-hop slang, and that writing, as we know it, is in danger of dying of malnutrition as a result. Several other diners (the author included) “Harrumph!” and “Hear! Hear!” their agreement like parliamentary backbenchers, until Conal interjects.
“That’s not what’s happening.”
Without raising his voice, he has everyone’s attention.
“They’re speaking a new language,” he continues. “You just don’t understand.”
Robbie Conal speaks with the dual authority of an artist who teaches drawing at USC and a teacher who makes art every day on the street. He is best known for unflattering drawings of political figures, which he reproduces in poster form and, with the help of nocturnal guerilla postering crews, plasters directly in the eye line of America’s morning commute. Working alongside students and young activists across the country, he has earned their trust and respect as well as that of the graffiti crews with whom they regularly compete for wall space.
And he has kept his ears open. “They’re speaking a meta-language.”
I’m not sure what he means, so I ask him. “You mean like meta-physical?”
He says “Yeah! Exactly like metaphysical. It’s like Chinese pictographs.”
Communication in the 21st century is by necessity both rapid and concise. The seemingly cutesy lexicon of the text message (R U OK?) is actually about expediency, and art on the street becomes a single unbroken line applied from the heart through a handheld aerosol can in less than the time that it takes for the police to arrive.
Don’t try to tell Robbie Conal that this generation of American kids doesn’t care about what’s going on in the world. He knows better. He’s out there and he’s listening and (miracle of miracles) they’re listening to him.
Later, with nobody around but Conal and myself, I ask him, “Is that why you teach?”
He laughs and shakes his head. “No-o-o! I’m a vampire, man! I’m feeding off of them!”
—Steve Earle is a musician and writer.