A Legacy of Question Marks

(not part of the October 2010 set)
On a Monday morning in October 2010, physical education students running laps at Walnut Creek Intermediate School rounded the baseball field to be greeted by the face of an old man tagged on the backstop. “I am Maligmus,” the words on the top and the bottom of the stencil said, “The Seer of Dreams.”

The face was not unique to WCI. Maligmus was tagged at a handful of locations in the downtown area. Because the image was public, its audience was broad. The graffiti’s size varied, as well as the captions. The one on the floor of a staircase landing in a parking garage near the movie theater said, “It's not worth it.” The same words accompanied another, on the Iron Horse Trail near Las Lomas High School.

Sunday morning, a man stopped to ponder one behind Safeway, which said, “I used to be young.” The man asked a passing teenager, “What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know,” he answered.

The teenager was seventeen-year-old Gavin Powell. Gavin had been up late the night before with his friend Matt Miller, and a lookout, toting supplies and spreading Malgimus around Walnut Creek. However, such activity is illegal (surprise!), and the fruits of their labor, after being photographed and chronicled by the WCPD, were painted over by municipal authorities. The life of that crop of the old man’s face was short, like its creators.’

The tall, concrete walls of the canal that cuts through Walnut Creek bear legitimately spray painted warnings to, “Stay out / Stay alive.” Gavin and Matt underestimated the merit of these signs when, on February 19, 2011, they got in a raft on the rainiest day of the year and consequentially drowned. Two days later, the front page of the Contra Costa Times featured a large photo of emergency workers carrying a tarp, heavy with corpse, away from where they found Matt, and a headline announcing the recovery of both bodies.

Which made a lot of people sad. Parents of adolescents suffered momentary paralysis upon hearing the news, because, as one woman from my prayer group put it, “That’s what teenagers do.” The painful coupling of an admirable, adventurous spirit unhampered by the anxiety of death, with the brutal lack of common sense wasn’t lost on most. A spell of shared grief descended on the high school; much worse spells onto those who knew them best.

The deaths’ untimeliness sped up and amplified gestures of symbolic immortality. There was a handsomely attended candlelight walk (400+ people), and also handsomely attended memorial services. An outdoor classroom was built in their honor about a year later. Hikers can find their names inscribed on a plaque on a bench in Shell Ridge Open Space.

Maligmus, in silent memory of the artists responsible, didn’t have any names attached; this was no graffiti equivalent to a plaque on a bench. And that’s okay. “This [Maligmus] was not something intended for artistic accolades,” said Aidan Herrick,* Gavin’s best friend. “It was done as a statement and was a work for the people. They [Gavin and Matt] would have been content if no one knew.” About the original artists’ interpretations, Aidan said, “Maligmus was meant more than anything to reflect the things in the viewer’s life, things that they felt were burdens, and the old man and the ‘it’s not worth’ it played into it by showing the result of worrying, in a way.”

One of the few that still remain.
For a brief time in summer 2011, Maligmus started mysteriously started popping up around town again, inviting more people to stop and wonder, “What does it mean?” This time the graffiti did not vary in size of caption. The head alone was roughly 35x25 inches, and every single one of them said, “It’s not worth it.” I asked around for others’ takes on the meaning of the old man. I couldn’t achieve the breadth that a more public audience could provide, but I purposefully asked a wide variety of people, including but not exclusive to a pastor, a preschool teacher, an engineer, a professor, and a few students of different disciplines.

Some thought it was a political statement. Other viewpoints contrasted; for example, the stubborn and enduring desire to keep living versus the pointlessness of going on once you’re “obsolete.”

A significant portion viewed Maligmus as a cautionary tale, a call to make good choices. Or that it could be the face of a man who invested his time and energy in something that didn’t work out in the end.

Although the cautionary tale response recurred, the majority of those I queried interpreted “it” to be “life.” This idea of life not being worth it provoked a few short, but strong answers: “Despair,” “Hopelessness,” “It’s too early in the morning…” One person even saw Maligmus as a man who was going to hell (no, it wasn’t the pastor who said that). I hope I’m not the only one who sees the irony of these carpe diem kids’ legacy being so strongly associated with despair.

Among those who had the “despair” interpretations were some who delivered passionate defenses that life is worth it. Retired dancer Jane Sullivan began her decree with, “In one word: wrong.” Jane said the face was that of a man who had made a choice to give up. One of the cheeriest people Sullivan knows is also one of the oldest. Although this person has plenty of things to gripe about, despite her problems and the excruciating pain she experiences on a daily basis, she make the courageous choice to greet life with a positive attitude.

Rene Salazar, animation major at Academy of Art University, had similar sentiments. He said that the face was one that “I may as well be wearing when I feel something isn’t worth my time and effort. It sends me the message: ‘If you are wearing this expression, do something else!’” However, Rene also “really like[s] this piece of art. It makes me not want to give up. It makes me not want to waste a minute of my life doing something my heart isn’t into. It’s holding up a mirror, and it’s up to me to be honest with myself and decide if that's an accurate portrayal of my reflection. I want to defy it.”

Strain Zero's Maligmus

* Aidan is the bassist and singer of Strain Zero, a local band who adopted Maligmus as a logo of sorts. So much ownership was taken that the aforementioned bassist took it upon himself to Photoshop the face, narrowing the head and making the features more “symmetrical.”


  1. A very thought-provoking post. I did not know the connection with the graffiti and the boys who died in the canal. Beautifully written!

    1. Thanks, Jamie! And thanks again for contributing!

  2. What an interesting and meaningful post, Kathryn. It is difficult to fathom such accidents occurring anywhere, especially in our own neighborhood. I find the reaction to graffiti --- both the artist's and the public's --- fascinating. The reasons for the art, the messages meant, the messages interpreted. Thank you very much for sharing --- it sounds likes you know these young men. *hugs*

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Noel! And the cyber hug! :-P

    I didn't know Matt all that well, but I was briefly acquainted with Gavin. I was Aidan's girlfriend at the time of the accident, so I got to see a lot of the devastation close up.