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CULTURAL ICONS

In the private life of each individual lies a unique story...a history of who they are. Suppressed by the world's expectations and standards, an individual must often find unique outlets of self-expression in order to stand out and make his or her story heard. Each culture has developed forms of expression that are easily recognizable and identifiable. These cultural icons are a visual representation of an object, scene, person or abstraction produced on a surface (wordnet). People who are disapproving of these icons that are carefully painted throughout cities, parks, and the diverse population will never truly realize the full potential of the stories hidden within.
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The ways people publicly express their feelings is different in urban areas than in nature. Graffiti is a common form of expression. Whether it is identifying themselves with a group or sharing an opinion, the artist uses paint to display their thoughts. Although many people think of graffiti as only vandalism it is also another form of art.




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The artist Banksy, expresses political feeling with his graffiti art. As in this picture, he along with many others who do graffiti art, is not afraid to express his opinion (Collins, Lauren). In fact, he is now well known for being a political activist. Well-known all over the world, graffiti is a symbol for suppressed voices to tell their story.

Tattoos are another symbol of a story being told. Just like the Umuofians in Things Fall Apart, people use themselves as a canvas for expression (Achebe, Chinua). For example, the women would rub red clay on the walls of their huts and on their bodies for special occasions. In America and other parts of the world, tattoos are a symbol of something important in someone’s life. Whether it's a name, event, or symbols with hidden value, tattoos are something to ask people about. A picture is worth a thousand words, but these pictures are worth a million to whomever they are on.
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*Tattoos expressing personal experiences and political feelings.

People also carve personalized icons into objects found in nature to symbolize their hidden story. The initials of two innocent lovers inscribed within a heart can often be found on the bark of trees in the privacy of shady wooden glens, the underside of park benches, or any surface pleasing their fancy. In the musical Oklahoma!, a young cowboy named Curly sings of how he carved his and his girlfriend Laurey's initials "on that tree" when he was younger ("Oklahoma"). Curly remembers exactly which tree has the initials carved thereon, which illustrates how important that small icon is to him even though many years have passed since he placed it there. Similarly, in the book Anne of Green Gables, written by Lucy Maud Montgomery, children carve special hearts into the schoolhouse wall. The children refer to them as "Take Notice" messages to draw attention to "who likes whom", which is ironic since they are only about twelve years old ("Anne of Green Gables"). Rarely do these innocent displays of affection turn to hoped-for "happily ever afters" as people grow older, but they cause excitement and gossip while they last. Another example is found in the book Where the Red Fern Grows, written by Wilson Rawls. The main character, a young boy named Billy Colman, buys and trains two hunting dogs and decides to name them names he finds carved into a heart on a tree ("Where the Red Fern Grows"). Although he doesn't know the story behind the names, he is able to create a whole new story with them. Oftentimes, the creators of these special hearts are unable or unwilling to share their story with the world, so they carve their memory into a place where it will remain for ages. For the creators, it becomes a reminder of the moment they shared but remains a puzzling mystery for those who find it and attempt to decipher its meaning.

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The African tribe of Umuofia in Chinua Achebe's novel "Things Fall Apart" also has symbols unique to their culture. For example, their court system consists of personages called egwugwu, disguised men impersonating the spirits of the clan's deceased ancestors. To the clan, the egwugwu were symbolic representations of the wisdom and justice of the clan. However, to the white men who infiltrated their society and attempted to change every custom the Africans had established, the egwugwu simply appeared to be twelve crazy men dressed up in costumes (Achebe, Chinua). This further shows how icons familiar to one culture are often viewed with completely different significance and value to a different culture. Other cultures who are unaccepting or unrealizing of the importance of a symbolic ritual or icon in a culture may also belittle the culture for holding the icon in such esteem. It is important that as you learn about unique cultural symbols you try to accept them with an open mind for what they are rather than what they appear to be. If possible, try to take off the "American lense" and wear the lense of the culture you are studying to better understand them and their unique icons.

The earth itself is also a major pallete for self-expression that many people recognize. The first time I hiked to Table Rock I was shocked by the amount of graffitti and garbage I found. I didn't realize that these remnants left by previous hikers could actually be seen as something as value. As I looked at the names spray-painted and etched into the hard rock surface, I thought about how countless numbers of people had created a permanent mark and reminder of their story in the place where I was standing. Another example of a legacy, created by the etching of names into rock over a long span of years, is Independence Rock. As pioneers trekked across America to the West, they added their names to the rock's smooth surface. In 1840. Father Peter J. DeSmet appropriately named this place "The Register of the Desert" ("Independence Rock"). As the years have passed, this historic site has preserved the histories of these determined pioneers and their unique story hidden behind the carved letters of their name.








Stories are told through so many mediums. Whether painted, carved, or inked onto a surface, cultural icons yearn to express their story. Instead of holding in our story or allowing it to be suppressed by others' expectations and opinions of us we can make the decision to openly share it with people. This opportunity should be greatly appreciated. Although we are sharing the world with 6.9 billion people, each of us has a unique and important story. We should try to change our perspective of the world to be more positive and, instead of looking around a big city or small wooded park and criticizing it for any vandalism, think about how many people have made memories and marks of their individualism in that very place. Ask people about their personal symbols and pieces of art important to them. You never know that the hidden story they share with you may change the way you live your own.



Works Cited:
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. United Kingdom: William Heinemann, 1958. Print.




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Collins, Lauren. "Banksey Was Here." New Yorker., 14 May 2007. Web. 8 December 2010.

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Princeton University "Icon”. WordNet. Princeton University. 2010. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://wordnet.princeton.edu>




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