Kilroy Was Here
Graffiti is defined as “writings or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface, often in a public place.” It goes back to ancient times and has been found in the ruins of Pompeii, in the Catacombs of Rome, and on walls in ancient Egypt. In is usually considered to be defacement and vandalism, and is often a crime.
However, some graffiti rises above the rest in its aesthetic quality, the message it conveys or other unique characteristics, leading it to gain public acceptance. The graffito commonly known as “Kilroy Was Here” is an example of this. In fact, it gained such acceptance and popularity that it is the only example of graffiti which has been officially memorialized in one of D.C.’s national monuments or memorials. And it was this memorialized graffiti that was the destination for this lunchtime bike ride.
There are two examples of “Kilroy Was Here” on the outside of The National World War II Memorial, which is located on the National Mall between The Lincoln Memorial and The Washington Monument in Downtown D.C. However, most people do not know of the graffiti’s existence or location, which makes it all the more interesting to me. So while I was visiting the memorial, I watched as hundreds of visitors mulled around the arches and state pillars which are arranged around the granite memorial’s grand plaza and fountain, but not one person made their way to the back of the memorial behind the wall of stars. It is there, near the backs of the Pennsylvania and Delaware pillars, behind gold-toned gates, in grated areas designed for service and maintenance access, that the Kilroys reside.
The origin of Kilroy is open to discussion or argument, and much has been written about the beginning and proliferation of the now-famous cartoon depiction of a man with a bald head peering over a fence that hides everything except his eyes, his long U-shaped nose, and often his fingers gripping the top of the fence, accompanied by the proclamation, “Kilroy Was Here.” But perhaps the most credible story is the one which was detailed in a 1946 article in the New York Times.
As reported by The Times, an American shipyard inspector named James J. Kilroy was most likely the man behind the signature. As he inspected the riveting in newly constructed ships, he chalked the words on bulkheads to show that he had been there and performed his inspection. To the troops in those ships, however, it was a complete mystery. They didn’t know who Kilroy was or why he had marked their ships. All they knew about him was that he had “been there first.” So as a joke, they began placing the graffiti wherever they and other U.S. forces went, then claiming it was already there when they arrived. Kilroy became America’s super service member who always got there first. The tradition continued in every U.S. military theater of operations throughout World War II, and it became a challenge to place the logo in the most unlikely places. The marking gained momentum throughout the war, and spread to the civilian population. Following the war, both service members and civilians continued to scrawl versions of the graffito throughout the world. But the mania had peaked during the war. It lingered for a while, but the joke eventually died out as memories of the war faded.
Although Kilroy Was Here is quite possibly the most prolific and well-known graffito in history, it surpassed being relegated to the category of mere graffiti. Over the years he has become part of popular culture. Examples of Kilroy may be found in movies such as “Kelly’s Heroes” and “On Our Merry Way,” and in television shows like “M*A*S*H,” “Home Improvement” and “Seinfeld.” Kilroy has even been the subject of poems, novels, and songs. And there have reportedly been sightings of him on the Statue of Liberty, the Arch de Triomphe in Paris, the Marco Polo Bridge in China, huts in Polynesia, at the top of Mt. Everest, and scrawled in the dust on the moon.
Kilroy can be seen in thousands and thousands of places. However, he is apparently difficult to find at the National World War II Memorial. But now that you know how to track him down, I recommend that you make the effort to find him the next time you visit the memorial.