Graffiti or art? Posters mystify area residents

MYSTERIOUS GRAFFITI CAPTIONED with the letters “EMSWID” has appeared all over Middlebury and Vergennes, especially on traffic light control boxes in the area of Middlebury’s Court Square. This is apparently an image of a character in the film “Pulp Fiction.” Independent photo/John S. McCright

MIDDLEBURY/VERGENNES — If you live in or visit Middlebury or Vergennes, you’ve likely seen the new graffiti in town.

Or is it guerrilla art? People who have seen the work may disagree on what to call it.

Two pieces have popped up repeatedly in downtown Middlebury over the past six months, sometimes accompanied by the letters “EMSWID.” One depicts a pair of white hands on a black background, reaching for a bottle labeled “40.” The other shows a woman with black hair and a bloody nose, identified as Uma Thurman’s character, Mia Wallace, in the 1994 movie “Pulp Fiction.”

The works challenge the usual definition of graffiti because instead of the spray paint, the Banksy-esque designs appear to be posters printed on oversize paper or even large stickers. But they definitely have a street-art vibe about them.

Independent photo/Emma Pope-McCright

The first image of the hands reaching for the “40” bottle was noticed on a sign outside the former Connor Homes building on Route 7 South in Middlebury last summer, but it has since been removed. Then later in the summer it appeared on the former Maverick gas station by the entrance to Middlebury Union High School, and it is still high up on the north wall of the closed business.

The graffiti has also appeared in Middlebury on big traffic light switching boxes around Court Square, in front of the Middlebury Inn, and at the intersection of Court and Cross Streets, as well as on the concrete under the Cross Street Bridge. In the past month the “40 bottle” image appeared on the canopy of the new Amtrak passenger rail platform near Maple Street, and was partially torn down on Jan. 7.

And Middlebury isn’t the only location for these public statements.

Det. Sgt. Jason Ouellette of the Vergennes Police Department confirmed that similar graffiti has also appeared on the underpass on North Main Street and on the Ferrisburgh-Vergennes passenger rail station just beyond the underpass at the Park-and-Ride lot on Route 22A. He has also seen the image popping up on Hinesburg Road in South Burlington. Others said they have seen it at various locations on the Route 7 corridor between Rutland and Burlington.

Though graffiti is not uncommon, these particular designs have been especially perplexing to locals. In a Dec. 31 post to Front Porch Forum, Middlebury resident Peg Martin asked, “Does anyone know what E M S W I D stands for or what it all means? I wonder if the locations are specifically chosen …? So far I have zero clues re anything.”

THIS POSTER OF hands reaching for a bottle labeled “40” recently appeared on the side of the Amtrak rail platform near Maple Street in Middlebury, one of a series of graffiti pieces that have puzzled locals since June.
Independent photo/Emma Pope McCright

The Addison County graffiti has also drawn attention further afield in a forum on the internet discussion and community website Reddit.

On Nov. 30, user MapleMechanic asked a Vermont-focused Reddit forum if the posters they had seen around Addison County were “graffiti or an art movement/project? They’re popping up everywhere I drive.”


The Independent has also received several inquiries about the mysterious graffiti from local residents. On our Facebook and Instagram pages, some speculated that the images were meant to raise awareness about addiction and substance abuse issues since the bottle could represent a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor, and the “Pulp Fiction” character is overdosing in the scene depicted. One commenter said he had seen a man putting up one of the posters on the Vermont Federal Credit Union dumpster in Middlebury late at night.

Commenters were divided over whether the posters were an interesting artistic mystery or simply an eyesore.

THE POSTER ALSO appeared above the former Maverick gas station in Middlebury.
Independent photo/Emma Pope-McCright

“If you don’t get permission it’s vandalism, no matter the message,” Middlebury resident Lana Gingras commented. “It may be considered ‘art’ until it’s your mailbox, fence or property not solicited by you.”

Matthew LaValley agreed, commenting “I had one put on my dumpster at my business… I wish they had asked before coming on to private property and doing it.”

Several people called it “hideous.”

Jackie Botala counters with, “Art is art. The mystery of it is part of draw to it. We keep watching for more.” Angie Poppy added, “Why do graffiti and fine art have to be different. Why can’t it be both?”

Several commenters pointed out that the message of this art, er, graffiti, or whatever, is not clear, and they want to know the meaning.

Kristin Alana Tracy posted, “Nobody can really tell you the meaning of art except the artist themselves. Art is up for interpretation. What you may see could be totally different from what someone else sees. That’s why art is so wonderful!”

Pointing to the mysterious letters, Elizabeth Power Robison hypothesized, “M.S.W.I.D. is likely a reference to the flash sprite Mario and Sonic Worlds In Danger,” an adventure video/homage to the Nintendo and Sega video game characters. But that doesn’t explain the “E” at the beginning of the string.

Despite local curiosity, the identity of the graffiti artist remains unknown. In response to MapleMechanic’s question on Reddit, another user claimed that “This artist goes by ‘Judy’ (and) has been active in Vermont for a couple years.” However, their claim is unsubstantiated.

Det. Sgt. Ouellette suspects that the artist is part of a local “graffiti community,” and that the cryptic images may be related to other graffiti in the area, specifically the word “Darko” which has been appearing in the Vergennes area.

Ouellette says that while the graffiti is “lightly on the radar” of local law enforcement, there is no indication that the message behind it is harmful or malicious.

“I don’t think there’s any violence behind it,” he said.

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