Graffiti in Caltech’s Catacombs

Half Life in the caves


Last week I had the opportunity to explore the massive network of inaccessible basement passageways of the California institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California. I love exploring caves and dark places–but this location contains a long ethnographic record of a most fascinating segment of the population: the top tier science student. I entered through Guggenheim Laboratory’s room 27, and snapped anything I found interesting.

I found reproductions of Egyptian Hieroglyphs, a path of white rabbits, dinosaur footprints stenciled on the floor, half life symbols, and heart wrenching expressions that spoke to man’s inability to know all. The pains of love lost were also a hot topic.

The place was hot (over 90F) and smelled as though the wastes of a million experiments since 1934 had wafted through the air. From where I entered, the passageway seemed to go on forever in two directions.


The first bit of writing was covered by pipes, but I could get the gist:


…for the sake of that elusive
an attempt
to survive the
flames of society’s
to be a permanent mark
on that but mortal
-2/5 Penye

The scientific ivory tower must wear heavy on the hearts of men like Penye. How does one who seeks truth (or seek to make a difference) sustain himself in the fiery forge of society?

Save one broken bottle of Strongbow, there was no trash to speak of. The caves–which have probably entertained thousands of students by now–must feel somewhat sacred. Some writings convey the ‘specialness’ of the underground:




Very few markings can be successfully dated. Here’s “Impeach Nixon” (1972) and “One Gulf” (vietnam?)


Many drawings convey taste in TV or music. Several people just copied down lyrics to songs they liked. One wrote “The Love you take is equal to the love you make.”



Fans of Nikola Tesla no doubt.


But the topic of love inspired largest writing, and the most intriguing windows into campus life:


In a 30 foot long large-lettered sob story, I found:

“I don’t believe in Love
I need to forget her face
I see it still”


There were lots of dinosaur footprints, and over 50 ‘white rabbits’ that didn’t particularly lead anywhere:



And some ‘ancient’ art:



There were no shrines to instant lunch or ramen, but I did find


Via Ideotrope, someone found written in the steam tunnels:

Five hours ago they gave me my diploma.
It’s over. It’s over. It’s over. It’s over.
And I just want to sit here and cry.
Does anyone understand how I feel?

– anonymous ‘Techer, 1977

Places like these where anonymity, a sense of belonging, and the irresistible urge to get something of one’s chest converge make for an incredible environment. Everything is permanent, privately inscribed, and public only to a small group of future visitors. What do most visitors of the steam tunnels do? If everyone who visited since 1971 wrote their name, would there be 5 thousand? 50,000? 100,000?

via Langabi we find:

A room down an access ladder, labelled with “Hell”, and “Beware of the leopard”, and furnished with table, chair, and some pretty crazy graffiti. Historically a target of Harvey Mudd College students, infiltrating Caltech.
A computer graveyard, at the end of a rubble-filled and pitch black deadend, behind an old wooden door. The end of the tunnel is blocked off with black plastic bags, with a sign that says something like “2006 frosh [first years] only”. I need to explore it when I have more light than just my cellphone screen.

  • Want to explore yourself? Can’t help you, but maybe this will mean something to you.
  • To see all the photos from this trip, click here. (slideshow) For a collection of graffiti I’ve photographed, mash here. If you want to translate the hieroglyphs, take a look at the big version here. And if you know of other unique graffiti, tell.


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