Before I Die

Before I Die is a participatory public art project that reimagines our relationship with death and with one another in the public realm. After the death of someone she loved, Chang went through a long period of grief and depression. Her inner world didn’t feel like it belonged outside at all, and she realized how much we avoid discussion of death. She wanted to start a conversation, so she covered a crumbling house in her neighborhood in New Orleans with chalkboard paint and stenciled it with the prompt, “Before I die I want to _____,” so anyone walking by could pick up a piece of chalk, reflect on death and life, and share their personal aspirations in public.

By the next day, the wall was entirely filled out and it kept growing: Before I die I want to… see my daughter graduate, sing for millions, abandon all insecurities, get my wife back, eat more everything, be someone’s cavalry, straddle the International Date Line, tell my mother I love her, see the leaves change many times, be completely myself. She understood her neighbors in new and enlightening ways, and she remembered that she is not alone as she tries to make sense of her life. The Atlantic called it, “one of the most creative community projects ever,” and thanks to passionate people around the world, over 3,000 Before I Die walls have now been created in over 70 countries, including Iraq, China, Brazil, Kazakhstan, and South Africa.

Revealing the community’s longings, anxieties, joys, and struggles, the project explores how public space can cultivate self-examination and empathy among neighbors and compassionately prepare us for death and grief. By developing our own comfort talking about grief and death, we can help change the culture around it, from one full of death denial to one where we encounter death in a way that compassionately prepares us as individuals and as a community. The project has also inspired dozens of remixes that offer new ways to engage with the people around us. The Before I Die book is a celebration of these walls and the stories behind them. See more on the project site and follow the latest Before I Die walls and reflections on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

2011, New Orleans, LA. Chalkboard paint, spray paint, chalk, abandoned house. 41′ x 8′. With permission from the property owner, residents of the block, the neighborhood association’s blight committee, the Historic District Landmarks Commission, the Arts Council of New Orleans, and the City Planning Commission. Installation assistance by Kristina Kassem, Cory Klemmer, Anamaria Vizcaino, James Reeves, Alan Williams, Alex Vialou, Earl Carlson, and Gary Hustwit.

Santiago, Chile. Photo by Bernd Biedermann
Tokyo, Japan
Brooklyn, NY, USA. Photo by Shake Shack.
Townsville, Australia. Photo by Kim Kamo.
Kunming, China
Savannah, GA, USA. Photo by Trevor Coe.
Budapest, Hungary
Cordoba, Argentina. Photo by Jenny Carden.