Filed Under student practices

The Cullen Tower as Memory Place

When a resistive place-making practice by students becomes institutionally condoned, whose memory place is it?

The Cullen Tower holds a significant position as a memory place at Southwestern as it is part of one of the oldest buildings on campus, currently referred to as the Roy and Lillie Cullen building. Since the building’s completion in the spring of 1900, the Tower has cemented itself as an icon of Southwestern as a whole, existing through various iterations of the logo, promotional material, and university merchandise.

This popularization of the Cullen Tower as an icon in campus memory inspired a tradition early in the building’s history where students would infiltrate the Tower and inscribe their names, love letters, or words of advice to other students. These messages span through the spiral stairwell to the top floor of the Cullen Tower.

Despite being discouraged by the administration for decades, the practice of leaving personalized graffiti in the Tower before graduation day persisted, effectively establishing itself as a tradition amongst the student body. While this tradition has been maintained, over its century-long history it has seen a multitude of changes in implementation and popularity that have fundamentally changed the way signing the Tower works.

This entry deconstructs the evolving role of graffiti in the Cullen Tower as a memory-sharing practice, its influence in establishing a campus culture, and the dispute between student versus institutional memory-sharing practices in establishing the collective memory of Southwestern.

Graffiti as a Memory-Medium

Graffiti is a form of visual communication characterized by its transgressive presence in public space. It ranges from detailed artistic murals to simple words tagged on buildings. Scholars who study graffiti distinguish between public and private graffiti, where both are characterized as unauthorized, yet they are distinguished by who has access to make do and witness the graffiti. Public graffiti exists in visible, accessible spaces, while private graffiti is inscribed inside buildings, connoting that there is a privilege in who has access to this form of memory inscription. This analysis uses this distinction to reveal how the practice of graffiti in the iconic Cullen Tower highlights how authority functions as a force in university collective memory and culture.

Through various Megaphone articles, student conversations, and class discussions, students have often criticized the lack in self-generated campus cultural tradition at Southwestern, something that would unify the experience of current and former students. Such a phenomenon seems surprising for a school that bills itself as Texas’ first university. This relative lack of recognizable traditions is likely caused by an inability to establish and maintain replicable experiences within the small, constantly shifting student body.

Despite this context, the prospect of getting to leave your mark on the University through the Cullen Tower has survived. I argue that the image of graffiti as a transgressive practice combined with a unified desire of the student body to initiate unique cultural practices solidified the tagging of the Tower as a collectively recognized Southwestern tradition.

The affect of visibility

Returning to the notion of public versus private graffiti and its influence on viewer reception, the graffiti in the Tower skews this idea by questioning what is public and how this prospect of visibility effects not only the viewer’s reception, but the creation of the graffiti itself. The inside of the Tower is inaccessible to most of the student body, so one might argue that the graffiti in the Tower is private. This assumption was true for most of the 1900s, where the experience of the inscriptions was exclusively available only to those who ventured into the Tower unauthorized.

Generations of students who surreptitiously made the journey up the Tower experienced the materialized presence of the identities and emotions of former students in an embodied way through their inscriptions on the Tower. This process of experiencing past emotions through affect thereby influenced more people in their practice of the tradition as they considered how their graffiti would then be experienced by future students.

Then, the practice drew together generations of students not only by making their connection to each other across time palpable, but also by reinforcing their connection to each other as fellow transgressors—students acting on their own to create a collective memory of themselves as a student body without the permission or encouragement of the adults in charge.

This all changed in 1998, however. While the accessibility of the Tower has not changed in a practical sense, Southwestern did change who is officially granted access through the implementation of the Seniors for Campaign fund in the Spring of 1998. The campaign itself began in 1995, when the class of 1998 proposed that any graduating student who contributed to the fund should gain the authorized privilege of signing the Tower at a university sanctioned event.

This transition identifies any graffiti created after 1998 as public while also affirming that the pre-1998 graffiti connotes a more authentic representation of the private practices of the student body. Logistically, nothing changes in that students ascend and inscribe their message in the Tower before they graduate. However, the acceptance of this practice by Southwestern as an institution connotes that current and future students will see examples of and take part in the tradition as an official University tradition. When the tradition was an anti-authoritative act, students knew it was both transgressive and fragile, meaning that for those students who might have the opportunity to take part in the act in the moment, they could never assure that the practice would be available to future students—to witness or to add to.

Graffiti and the Institution

A further examination of this shift in the Tower graffiti from private to public space leads to a conversation regarding how graffiti itself as a traditionally anti-authoritative or at least resistive practice operates once it has been incorporated into an institutionalized tradition. In the context of Southwestern, pre-1998 graffiti artists affirmed their place as alumni by incorporating memories through their graffiti. While one could argue the same could be said for post-1998 graffiti, I suggest that the institutionalization of the transgressive practice of graffiti reduces its capacity to mediate authentic memories.

Many who study the material culture of social activism argue that non-traditional forms of activism might “stick” in the memories of observers more effectively than traditional forms of activism. This “stickiness” is carried through the platform’s ability to express personal emotions and expand on them through others in the web as well as their observers. Building a campus memory through individual inscriptions in the Cullen Tower creates this stickiness by using the transgressive medium of graffiti to create a collective memory of the student body.

Contrarily, institutionalizing the practice of graffiti makes this tradition lose its stickiness by taking away its transgressive nature. This reduction in stickiness has consequences for both its practitioners and its observers as it becomes normalized within the Southwestern community. By taking part in the institutionalized graffiti of the Tower, students perpetuate a memory that feels authentic in their practice of the tradition, yet it becomes inauthentic in relation to the resistive nature of graffiti itself through its mediation as a university-sanctioned practice, thereby diminishing its ability to hold and transfer the same kinds of intense memories and emotions across generations of Southwestern students.

Graffiti as Authority

Authority is a theme I have touched on tangentially throughout this analysis. By defining and identifying the role of authority in this context we can deconstruct how “top-down” institutional traditions compare to collectively established traditions “bottom-up” in creating an authentic campus culture that resonates with the student body. While I maintain the argument that pre-1998 graffiti is a form of private graffiti, I also suggest that its practice serves as a form of memory work, a process that allows people create new public memories and maintain a sense of belonging within a memorial landscape.

As an icon of Southwestern and a part of the oldest building on campus, the Cullen Tower represents the university and its pride as the oldest university in Texas. By physically altering the space and inscribing new memory onto it that is at least parallel to institutionally-produced collective memory if not also resistive to it, students who took part in this practice pre-1998 materialize an antagonism to a top-down form of institutionalized memory. Seeing it this way provides a way to question which histories they want to remember and invoke through their label as Southwestern students and alumni.

I propose that this act operates similarly to the initiation of graduating students into contributing alumni through the Seniors for Campaign fund. In taking part in the transgressive process of infiltrating and reclaiming the Tower through student-run memory work, pre-1998 graffiti practitioners essentially initiated themselves as alumni that contribute to the campus community by showing the student body how the interrogation of institutionalized memory creates the foundation for a campus culture that actively reflects the nature of the community and its collective memory.

Although I argue that post-1998 graffiti maintains an inauthentic memory, I suggest that it also classifies as a form of memory work. While not completely antagonistic to the memory work of pre-1998 graffiti, post-1998 graffiti conducts memory work that uses the words and actions of the individual to promote the message of the institution. By using the image of the individual to portray a message that is manipulated by the authority of the institution to feel like an authentic, self-generating practice, students creating post-1998 graffiti conduct memory work that promotes the voice of an individual that is always aligned with the official voice of the institution. And when current and future Tower-signers see that all those previous individuals performed this institutionalized commemorative ritual themselves, it reinforces the sense that students are “being Southwestern” organically, not because it is something promoted by the institution itself.

The institutionalization of Tower-signing reveals how more students became incentivized to take part in the tradition. However, referring to Southwestern as an institution in such an indeterminate manner simplifies the intricacies of what it means to participate in it as a member of the community. After the introduction of the Seniors for Campaign Fund, which has now been rebranded as the Tower Society, campus affinity groups could begin promoting the practice and integrating it officially into their memory-sharing traditions without suffering negative consequences from the institution.

This change is apparent in the Tower through the inscriptions that identify a student’s Greek Life affiliation or sports team next to their name and graduating year. Although these groups need approval from administration to operate as individual students, they have organized themselves independently of the institution to assert the value of their own collectives within the larger collective of Southwestern. This reveals one way that students might use the privileges granted by administrative authority to promote messages that primarily reflect the interests of the student body.

As the university grows and continues to accept a wider demographic of individuals, students seeking community either gravitate towards established affinity groups, or create their own with the hopes of finding like-minded people. Despite the small student population, these groups manage to effectively diversify the campus experience, making it difficult to organically produce traditions that represent the larger collective. Returning to the effect of this dispersal in the context of the Tower-signing, I suggest that a consequence of its official authorization emphasizes this divide in the graffiti in the Tower, inadvertently further actualizing the intangible nature of the feelings of division amongst the student body.

Ultimately all the graffiti within the Cullen Tower represents a collective memory of Southwestern, one where individual memories are very literally gathered together to form a larger collective memory on the interior walls of the Tower. However, by examining the intricacies in the context of the different types of graffiti in the Tower, we start to see one reason for the widespread notion of cultural absence at the center of campus culture that has impacted current and former students. In examining the distinction between vernacular and institutionalized memory-sharing practices, this analysis aspires towards promoting more dialogue within the student body that questions what it means to represent an institution as an individual, and how representations of the university as an institution influence us as members of the Southwestern community.


Cullen Tower signing publicity photo Source: Southwestern website Creator: unknown Date: circa 2010s
Cullen Tower Construction, 1900. Source: Sou'Wester Yearbook Creator: unknown Date: 1901
First known Cullen Tower graffiti (Hal Corry, 1912) Source: Megaphone Creator: unknown Date: 1997
Senior Tower Day 2015 Source: SU Website Creator: unknown Date: 2015



Shawn Maganda '24, “The Cullen Tower as Memory Place,” Placing Memory, accessed July 25, 2024,