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Mr. Chad and Kilroy live again

After 60 years in retirement, the world's all-time number one graffiti subject, Mr. Chad, has been resurrected in England, while in the United States, where he was known as Kilroy, he may appear on a postage stamp. He's a funny little man with wide-open eyes and a huge U-shaped nose, peering over a wall. During World War II, this comical cartoon figure appeared in the most unlikely places around the world.

In Britain and many other Commonwealth countries, Mr. Chad appeared on walls of buildings, on shop windows, and in newspaper cartoons. Below him were the words: WOT - no sugar? (or tea, or cigarettes, or whatever else was in short supply).

Mr. Chad was also known as Mr. Foo, Phoo, Flywheel, Clem, Private Snoops and The Jeep.

After researching Mr. Chad's mysterious origin, Michael Quinion wrote in World Wide Words: "It is said that it was the invention of George Chatterton, a British cartoonist, about 1938. Mr. Chatterton’s nickname was Chat and the shift to Chad is easy to imagine."

To the delight of world wide web surfers old enough to remember WWII, Mr. Chad has now re-appeared on the Internet, "to defend Britain."

"Mr. Chad is proud to come out of retirement and serve his country once again," his website announces. "Mr. Chad thought he could put on his slippers, light his pipe, sit in his rocking chair, and take life easy." But now he finds he has to protest against the slaughter of more than 10 million animals resulting from the European Union's response to the threat of F & M (foot and mouth disease).

A year or two after Mr. Chad became a popular figure in Commonwealth countries, Americans serving in the armed forces adopted his image, renamed him Kilroy, and took him with them wherever they went. Instead of Wot, no sugar? the caption became Kilroy was here.

"The cartoon usually associated with Kilroy... is originally British, named Mr. Chad, and apparently predates the Kilroy phrase by a few years," said etymologist Dave Wilton. "Some time during the war, Chad and Kilroy met, and in the spirit of Allied unity merged, with the British drawing appearing over the American phrase."

Kilroy was everywhere. "The outrageousness of the graffito was not so much what it said, but where it turned up," author Charles Panati wrote. Kilroy was scrawled on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, the Arc de Triomph in Paris, the Marco Polo bridge in China, huts in Polynesia, and a girder on the George Washington bridge in New York. There were contests in the US Air Force to beat Kilroy to isolated and uninhabited places around the globe.

"The most daring appearance occurred during the meeting of the Big Three in Potsdam, Germany, in July 1945," said Panati. "Truman, Attlee and Stalin had exclusive use of an opulent marble bathroom, off limits .to everyone else. On the second day of the summit, an excited Stalin emerged from the bathroom sputtering something in Russian to one of his aides. A translator overheard Stalin demand, 'Who is Kilroy?'"

Civilians too spread the Kilroy message. On several occasions, newspapers reported pregnant women being wheeled into the delivery room, with the hospital staff finding "Kilroy was here" written across their swollen bellies.

In December 1946 the New York Times credited James J. Kilroy, a welding inspector at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, with having given birth to the craze that swept the world. Usually, it said, inspectors made a small chalk mark which welders used to erase, so that they would be paid double for their work. To prevent this, Kilroy marked work he had inspected and approved with the phrase "Kilroy was here" in more durable crayon.

The graffito became a common sight around the shipyard, and was imitated by workers when they were drafted and sent around the world. As the war progressed, workers opened void spaces on ships for repair, and the mysterious Mr. Kilroy's name would be found there, in sealed compartments "where no one had been before."

The Transit Company of America held a contest in 1946, offering a prize of a real trolley car (tram) to the person who could prove himself to be the "real" Kilroy. James Kilroy, one of 40 contestants, took with him officials from the shipyard and some of the riveters to help prove his case. He won the trolley car, which he gave to his nine children for Christmas, and set it up in their front yard as a playhouse.

Patrick Tillery, of Pensacola, Florida, has named his very interesting and comprehensive war veterans' website Right now, he's urging vets to support a campaign by the US Naval Shipbuilding Museum in Quincy to persuade the US Postal Service to issue a special commemorative stamp bearing Kilroy's nasally enhanced image.

Pensacola print and radio personality Don Priest commented: "If Daffy Duck deserves a stamp, Kilroy Was Here surely does!".

Today, the most famous graffiti character in his UK homeland (and he's now invading the US) is Banksy, who has been described as "Britain's most notorious and inventive arts terrorist." Although he hides his identity, he's a young artist whose real name is said to be Robert Banks. His spray paintings and anarchistic art activities amuse, amaze or annoy millions of observers in both countries.

In the Dallas Morning News on July 23, Michael Precker noted that since Banksy arrived in New York last March:

  • A painting of a colonial-era military figure holding a can of spray paint, with antiwar graffiti in the background, turned up at the Brooklyn Museum.
  • A small portrait in a gold frame of a woman wearing a gas mask was discovered on a wall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • The Museum of Modern Art briefly displayed a Warholesque painting of a can of soup – cream of tomato from the British chain Tesco.
  • At the Museum of Natural History, a real beetle encased in glass sported little fighter jet wings, missiles and a satellite dish.

Precker says Banksy told the New York Times: "I've wandered 'round a lot of art galleries thinking, 'I could have done that,' so it seemed only right that I should try. These galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires. The public never has any real say in what art they see."

The nation's capital, Washington DC, is adorned or disfigured by graffiti bearing the name Borf, the work of John Tsombikos, an 18-year-old Washington, DC art student arrested with two other young men in the small hours of July 13. Next day, Washington Post staff writer Libby Copeland reported:

The mysterious, ubiquitous and eminently destructive graffiti artist known as Borf was arrested yesterday after waging a months-long campaign that may have been intended to enlighten Washington, but mostly just confused us.

Many who saw Tsombikos's graffiti -- including a huge five-foot-high Borf face that appeared on a Roosevelt Bridge sign this spring, and a 15-foot "BORF" above a Dupont Circle cafe -- might suggest that, far from making the world better, he cost the city of Washington a lot of money...

Some people were enraged and others were cheered by that mischievous Borf face and by the whimsical sayings like "BORF IS GOOD FOR YOUR LIVER," or "BORF WRITES LETTERS TO YOUR CHILDREN."

In Australia, the single word "Eternity," in elegant copperplate script is Sydney's best-known graffito. It was the work of Arthur Stace, a homeless alcoholic who, after seeing the light, spent nearly 40 years inscribing his one-word sermon in yellow chalk on hundreds of Sydney footpaths (sidewalks) and buildings.

Millions of TV viewers worldwide saw a huge illuminated Eternity sign on the harbour bridge, during the fireworks display after the opening of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.



Story first posted August 2005

Copyright © 2005

Eric Shackle

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