The Story

Artist Candy Chang shares the story of how the Before I Die project came to be.

I created the first Before I Die wall on an abandoned house in New Orleans after the death of someone I loved. Joan was like a mother to me for fifteen years. She was the one who encouraged me to pursue my creative dreams when I was a confused teenager. Her death was sudden and unexpected, and there were still so many things she wanted to do: learn to play the piano, live in France, see the Pacific Ocean. After the shock of her death, I struggled for a long period with grief and depression. Everything felt meaningless. My inner world didn’t feel like it belonged outside at all.

With time I felt gratitude for the time we had together and I found clarity in my life by contemplating death so much, but I struggled to maintain this perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to you. I noticed how much we avoid talking about death.

I lived a block away from an abandoned house that had been collecting dust and graffiti for years. I wondered if I could make it a nicer space for my neighborhood. I wondered if I could make a tribute to Joan by creating a space to restore perspective. After making many civic experiments in public space, I made space for an emotional one, cutting a homemade stencil that said, “Before I die I want to _____.” With help from old and new friends, I painted the side of this crumbling house with chalkboard paint and stenciled it with this prompt so that anyone walking by could pick up a piece of chalk, reflect on death and life, and share their personal aspirations in public.

It was all an experiment and I didn’t know what to expect. Because it was cheap to make, I thought it was no big deal if it didn’t work out.

New Orleans, Louisiana

By the next day, the wall was entirely filled and it kept growing: Before I die I want to… see my daughter graduate, sing for millions, abandon all insecurities, get my wife back, see my students become teachers, eat all the carbs I want, be someone’s cavalry, straddle the International Date Line, follow my childhood dream, be ok with not understanding, hold her one more time, see the leaves change many times, be completely myself. The gamut of humanity was on full display, and the wall became an honest mess of the longing, pain, joy, insecurity, gratitude, fear, and wonder you find in every community. I understood my neighbors in new ways and I saw how much I was not alone as I tried to make sense of my life.

Thanks to the people who passed by and shared their reflections, this neglected space became a constructive one. Neighbors introduced themselves while reading through the day’s responses. Strangers who ordinarily had little to do with one another began taking care of it. Some people donated chalk while others helped wash the wall once it was filled to the brim. “People are around all the time,” said the grandmother who lived across the street. “The block is safer now.”

Ten months later, the wall in New Orleans ended for the happiest of reasons: a new owner renovated the property and the house became a home again. But this wasn’t the end of the project. I received hundreds of messages from people around the world who wanted to make a wall with their communities, so I developed a step-by-step guide and resources. Today, thanks to passionate people around the world, over 5,000 Before I Die walls have been created in over 75 countries and over 35 languages.

It has been one of the greatest experiences of my life to see this little experiment grow into a global project. It grew because it’s simple to make and so many of us want to create spaces in our communities to reflect with one another. I originally created prompts in public space because I’m an introvert who wondered if the quieter people could share just as much as the loud ones, but over time I learned that this anonymous prompt also offers a rare space to share honestly and vulnerably in public without fear of judgment. Seeing some private corner of your psyche reflected in someone else’s handwriting on a public wall can be incredibly reassuring on an individual level. It’s also a step towards seeing ourselves in each other.

This project is everyone’s now, and I am continuously inspired by the reasons people have created walls, the creative ways they’ve made them, and the responses on these walls that remind us how much we are not alone. You can read many of these stories in the Before I Die book. The responses also reveal how much our shared struggles and desires far outweigh our differences. From China to Iran, from Brazil to South Africa, the same themes emerge: We want to love and be loved. We want to help others. We want to travel the world. We want to see our loved ones thrive.

Since the first Before I Die wall, I have become passionate about the role of ritual in public life. Loneliness is a public health crisis. Anxiety is on the rise. Distractions are bombarding us. Society feels increasingly polarized. These are alarming trends, but I believe our shared spaces can play a vital role in our emotional health. Many other people do too, and if we continue to question what our public spaces can be, our built environment can offer profound moments of communion and kinship.

 

As I Age

Nashville, Tennessee

Happiness Is

Nairobi, Kenya

I Run Because

San Francisco

When I Graduate

Atlanta

Lebanon Would Be Better If

Beirut, Lebanon

Energy Enables

Brussels, Belgium

I Go Downtown Because

Tacoma, Washington

My Dream Is

Rio de Janeiro

Today I'm Grateful For

Vancouver

I Love Heraklion Because

Heraklion, Greece

I Design Because

San Francisco

If You Knew Me

Atlanta

Over

5,000

Walls

In

78

Countries

And

36

Languages

Africa
Kenya
Nigeria
South Africa

Asia
Armenia
Azerbaijan
China
India
Iran
Iraq
Israel
Japan
Kazakhstan
Kuwait
Kyrgyzstan
Lebanon
Malaysia
Pakistan
Philippines
Russia
Saudi Arabia
Singapore
South Korea
Taiwan
Thailand
United Arab Emirates

Australia & Oceania
Australia
Fiji
New Zealand

europe
Austria
Belgium
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bulgaria
Czech Republic
Denmark
Estonia
Finland
France
Georgia
Germany
Hungary
Ireland
Italy
Kosovo
Latvia
Lithuania
Macedonia
Netherlands
Norway
Poland
Portugal
Romania
Serbia
Slovakia
Spain
Sweden
Switzerland
Ukraine
United Kingdom

north america
Canada
Costa Rica
Cuba
Dominican Republic
Guatemala
Haiti
Jamaica
Mexico
Panama
United States

south america
Argentina
Bonaire
Brazil
Chile
Colombia
Curaçao
Ecuador
Paraguay
Peru
Venezuela

Interested in creating a wall? Learn more.

Visit our archive of walls from 2011-2017