In 2011, on the side of an abandoned house in New Orleans, a chalkboard appeared with a simple, unfinished sentence stenciled on it:
“Before I die I want to…”
Apart from that, all that was needed to turn this wall into a work of art was a small box of colored chalk and hundreds of passers-by.
Over the course of several days, slowly at first but then steadily growing as more people heard about the project, people came to write their hopes and dreams on the wall.
“Before I die I want to speak Spanish.”
“Before I die I want to finish my novel.”
“Before I die I want to cure cancer.”
Artist Candy Chang first came up with the idea for the Before I Die chalkboard after the death of a close friend.
“Her name was Joan, and she was a mother to me,” said Chang in a TED talk on the art project. “Her death was sudden and unexpected. And I thought about death a lot.
“This made me feel deep gratitude for the time I’ve had and brought clarity to the things that are meaningful to my life now. But I struggle to maintain this perspective in my daily life. I feel like it's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, and forget what really matters to you.”
A Before I Die chalkboard in Washington DC. Photo by Elvert Barnes.
That’s why Chang, with the help of a few friends and a can of chalkboard paint, turned the side of an abandoned house into the first Before I Die wall. The idea behind the project was to bring people together by inviting them to examine what matters in life, what makes them who they are and what the meaning of life is for them.
“I didn’t know what to expect from this experiment, but by the next day, the wall was entirely filled out, and it kept growing,” she said.
“I want to master the trumpet.”
“I want to take a commercial flight to the moon.”
“I want to see the end of racism.”
A Before I Die installation in Manchester, U.K. Photo by Fee Plumley.
Chang’s inspirational art project has been recreated across the world, with more than 3,000 Before I Die walls in 78 countries, including Iraq, China, South Africa and Brazil. Although every ambition written in chalk is unique, there are so many common hopes and fears expressed across these thousands of simple chalkboard walls that show we are all looking for meaning.
“Death is something that we’re often discouraged to talk about, or even think about, but I’ve realized that preparing for death is one of the most empowering things you can do,” says Chang.
“Thinking about death clarifies your life.”
“I want to see a peaceful Mexico.”
“I want to plant a tree.”
“I want to stop wanting.”