Before I Die is a global art project that invites people to reflect on their lives and share their personal aspirations in public space. This project was started by Candy Chang on an abandoned house in New Orleans after she lost someone she loved. Learn more here. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to you. After I lost someone I loved very much, I thought about death a lot. This helped clarify my life, the people I want to be with, and the things I want to do, but I struggled to maintain perspective. I wondered if other people felt the same way. So with help from old and new friends, I painted the side of an abandoned house in my neighborhood in New Orleans with chalkboard paint and stenciled it with a grid of the sentence “Before I die I want to _______.” Anyone walking by could pick up a piece of chalk, reflect on their lives, and share their personal aspirations in public space.
It was an experiment and I didn’t know what to expect. By the next day, the wall was bursting with handwritten responses and it kept growing: Before I die I want to… sing for millions, hold her one more time, eat a salad with an alien, see my daughter graduate, abandon all insecurities, plant a tree, straddle the International Date Line, be completely myself… People’s responses made me laugh out loud and they made me tear up. They consoled me during my toughest times. I understood my neighbors in new and enlightening ways, and the wall reminded me that I’m not alone as I try to make sense of my life.
After receiving many requests, my friends and I created a toolkit and project site to help people make a wall with their community. You can also download all files for free to remix or create your own stencils. Thanks to passionate people, over 250 Before I Die walls have now been created in over 20 languages and in over 50 countries, including Kazakhstan, Portugal, South Korea, Denmark, Australia, Kenya, Argentina, and South Africa. They have been a constant source of inspiration and therapy for me. Each wall is unique and reflects the people of that community. Each wall is a tribute to living an examined life.
Our public spaces are as profound as we allow them to be. The historian Lewis Mumford once wrote that the origins of society were not just for physical survival but for sacred things that offer “a more valuable and meaningful kind of life.” At their greatest, our public spaces can nourish our well-being and help us see that we’re not alone as we try to make sense of our lives. Regularly contemplating death, as Stoics and other philosophers encourage, is a powerful tool to restore perspective and remind us of the things that make our lives meaningful. Each passerby is another person full of longing, anxiety, fear, and wonder. With more ways to share in public space, the people around us can not only help us make better places, they can help us become our best selves.
Update Sept 22, 2011: After seven months, the first wall comes to a happy end: the house will be turned into a home again thanks to new owners. We painted over the wall and stenciled one last thing – something Wendell Pierce said a few months ago that has stayed with Candy since: “Our thoughts are to the individual as our art is to the community.” It was ready to go but from the ashes come more.