A memorial sign to Emmet Till lies at the Emmet Till Interpretive Center Museum in Summer, Mississippi. Now riddled with bullet holes from 2016, it serves as a reminder of the horrific murder of Till—the fourteen-year-old African-American boy who was accused of whistling at a white woman in 1955. When first erected in 2007, the marker was stolen and never found. This is the third time the marker has been vandalized in a decade.
The thought of why someone would vandalize has often crossed my mind as I’ve witnessed a previously pristine piece of artwork being vandalized by an anonymous person. The feelings of seeing vandalized art can range from confusion, sadness, anger, and helplessness. What is going on exactly in someone’s head when they decide to commit the act?
The reasons for vandalizing artwork are diverse and range from those that are obvious—political or personal vengeance—to ones that are vague and not as easily grasped. On February 9 of this year in Melbourne, a popular street filled with graffiti was recently vandalized. Paint was sprayed all over the walls mindlessly, destroying several works of art. Helpless onlookers looked on in horror as art that must have taken hours to create was destroyed in minutes by anonymous vandals.
On a Friday morning in October 2019, Edmonton street artist AJA Louden painted a mural of climate activist Greta Thunberg. His intent was to keep the conversation of climate change going after Thunberg gave an impassioned speech at the Edmonton climate strike. A portrait that took over two and a half hours to paint was barely recognizable by Sunday afternoon. Buried under several layers of spray paint, were two distinct messages: “This is oil country” and a message in French telling Greta to leave Canada topped off with a slur and crossed-out eyes.
Not many psychologists have researched the psychology behind vandalism, especially acts of vandalization that seem to have no clear purpose. A journal article published in 2018 in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences discusses the relationship between sadism and vandalism. Just as sadomasochism refers to individuals who receive pleasure from giving and receiving pain, sadovandalism defines someone who receives pleasure from destroying a piece of art or an object that they know people ascribe meaning to. The study concluded that individuals who possess sadistic tendencies are more likely to engage in meaningless vandalism.
The conclusion of the study leaves room for several reasons other than sadism which vandalism can be attributed to such as ideological vandalism. The subjects of the pieces memorializing Greta Thunberg and Emmet Till both have audiences which strongly oppose what the two individuals have been made symbols of. The continued vandalism of remembrance works and their eventual restoration almost seems to be the physical manifestation of the continual fight for progress and the resistance to it. It is also important to note that vandalism is not always a result of negative intentions and can, in certain situations, even argued to be good and necessary, a loud and clear opposition to authoritarian governments.
In October last year, the family of Emmet Till put up the fourth memorial. Made of steel and weighing five hundred pounds, it is covered in acrylic panel three-quarters of an inch thick and looks visually similar to the previous memorial. However, this time it is bulletproof.