American Graffiti.

Some people call it ugly. Some people call it art. I call it urban enhancement.

Feelin’ Good Is Good Enough For Me.

This picture is taken from Google Maps and, as you can see, it’s Farrell Parkway in Nashville, Tennessee—specifically the spot where it runs under a railroad and also I-65. It’s not the graffiti on the train car that interests me, though—it’s the lack of graffiti under the tracks.

When I was a student at the nearby John Overton High School this was “The Bridge”. The bus I rode took me and lots of my fellow students down this road way every day. At the time, though, it looked very different. At the time The Bridge was covered with elaborate graffiti. A lot of it, including a huge mural of Grecian columns, stayed there for years—maybe even decades, although it was kind of a rite of passage for Overton students to make their mark on the bridge. Well, it was for most students anyway.

One night when my parents were out of town I had a bunch of friends over. Because I was a geek this wasn’t a party—this was a bunch of guys spending most of the evening playing D&D, maybe watching a movie or two, and eating up pretty much every scrap of food in the house. And then around two a.m., bored and hopped up on sugar and caffeine, my friends decided to explore the basement and dug out half a dozen or so cans of spray paint that dated from the Eisenhower administration.

“Let’s go and paint the bridge!” one of my friends said. Everyone thought this was a great idea. Well, everyone except me. I knew my parents had asked the neighbors to keep an eye on the house and even though I was pretty sure the neighbors would all be asleep at that time I was still wary. So all my friends piled into a car and left me alone. I sulked around the house and listened to the radio, discovering Janis Joplin for the first time.

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…

When my friends got back they told me the ancient paint cans had been dry so we put them back where we found them. One of my friends spun an elaborate yarn about how they’d been caught by the cops and arrested, which I knew wasn’t true since they’d only been gone an hour, but it still sounded funny.

Sometimes the saying that as you get older your greatest regrets aren’t the things you did but rather the things you didn’t do is true. Even though the paint cans were dry I wish I’d gone with my friends. I wish I’d at least tried to leave my mark on The Bridge.

Since I still live in Nashville I’ve been over The Bridge regularly and I’ve noticed that for several years there’s been no graffiti at all, something confirmed by Google Maps. I guess painting The Bridge is no longer a rite of passage. I wonder what’s replaced it, and what, in a few years, some lonely kid who’s a student at Overton will look back on and regret not doing.

The Eyes Have It.

Most of the graffiti I look for is big and bold and colorful, the large exciting pieces that really stand out, but there’s something to be said for subtlety, even if it should be said quietly. During the 18th century when neoclassicism became all the rage the monuments and statues of ancient Greece and Rome were admired for their subtlety and restraint. What people didn’t realize at the time was that in their heyday Greek and Roman statues and monuments were painted with gaudy colors, making them a lot less subtle. Downtown Athens and Rome weren’t that different from, say, Times Square, Picadilly Circus, or the Las Vegas strip, but only in the daytime since neon lighting hadn’t been invented yet. The muted quality of classical statuary came from the fact that the paint had faded and flaked off or washed away.
To get back to my point about subtlety, though, I really get a kick out of finding something that was intentionally meant to be discreet, that could easily be overlooked. Sometimes it’s the small things that can make a surprising difference to the way we see the world around us, and when I find something interesting I want to yell, HEY, LOOK AT THIS THING!

Quietly, of course.

Contrast.

Is there honor among thieves? That’s debatable–hey, we’re talking about thieves after all. Is there honor among taggers? It seems like it. Often in areas where I find a lot of graffiti it’s separated. No one paints over anyone else’s work. Well, there are exceptions to every rule.
This particular spot is in a graffiti gallery, a very popular spot where there’s some competition for space and where taggers sometimes even insult each other. That’s not pictured.
One of the frustrating things about not knowing the artists involved is I don’t really know whether they purposely created contrasting works here, and it does seem like it was intentional rather than accidental. One doesn’t completely cover up the other which you’d expect, and also the choice of sharply contrasting yellow and purple seems intentional–they’re complementary colors.
That reminds me of a joke. A guy is sitting at a bar and hears a voice say, “Hey, nice shirt.” He looks around but doesn’t see anyone. Then he hears another voice. “That’s a great tie too.”
He says to the bartender, “Hey, I keep hearing these voices say nice things.”
The bartender says, “Oh, yeah, that’s the peanuts. They’re complimentary.”

Ones That Got Away.

One of the most frustrating things for me as a graffiti collector is that so much of it gets away undocumented. It’s even harder when it’s something really amazing, something truly beautiful, that then disappears before I can get a picture of it. Yes, I have gotten some things. There was this:

This is what it looks like now:

It still annoys me that there are some truly spectacular examples of graffiti that were wiped out before I could capture them. You’ve probably heard the saying that writing about art is like dancing about architecture. There’s a lot of dispute about who first said that, although Quote Investigator has done a pretty good job of tracing it back—maybe—to Martin Mull. Every time I hear that I think I’d really like to see some dancing about architecture, so I’m going to write about art, and to make it even worse I’m going to write about art that no longer exists.

First there’s this spot near Powell and Armory Avenue in Nashville, where the road loops around. For a few months the word LOVE and an enormous heart was painted on the wall. The letters covered the wall which should give you some idea how big it was. In fact the whole thing was so huge you could see it from the I-65 overpass, and while I’m not often out that way every time I saw it I thought, I’ve really got to get a picture of that. The problem is every time either my wife was driving and there was no good angle for me to snap a picture or I was driving and, well, I like to keep at least one hand on the wheel. Last Friday as we were going that way I noticed the entire thing had been painted over with a drab gray.

Source: Google Maps. I don’t have any pictures of my own.

Nearby, on I-65 itself, or on the side really, there was a huge mural of tropical flowers. This is the one I think I will always regret the most. Anthuriums, orchids, hibiscus, and maybe even some that were purely fictional, in vermillion, lavender, aqua, and emerald jostled together on this wall under an on-ramp.

Source: Google Maps. Again no pictures of my own, but you can see where it was and how big it was.

It was beautiful and always made me happy. It brightened up the area, but someone, maybe some petty public worker, decided it needed to be wiped out. You can see where it’s been painted over and that might give you some idea how big it was.

And that’s the interesting thing. They were both large works in areas that are really difficult to get to—even dangerous. Whoever made them put a lot of work and thought into them. They gave these dull spots life and color. Now that they’re gone they remind me how ephemeral some things are.

Outlaw Art.

Why is graffiti illegal?

Well, I can think of a lot of reasons, and even some really good reasons why it should be, but I also think there should be exceptions, allowances, variations, accommodations, accessions, codicils, deviations, aberrations, and maybe even some digressions allowed.

Most of my thinking about graffiti as art is shaped by the fact that quite a bit of it is art, even if only in the sense that images and/or words painted on a flat surface is a form of art, but I’m also influenced by a short documentary I saw as a kid about graffiti artists in New York. And these truly were artists. There have been a few graffiti artists who’ve become internationally famous—Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat are, I think, the two most prominent examples—but the artists featured in the documentary were still, mostly, working on the streets. And yet the exposure they were getting and their dedication was enough that they were given studio spaces and materials where they could work legally. They were in a catch-22, though: they had to be known on the streets, they had to break the law and risk being arrested, to become well-known enough to be treated as bona fide artists.

And to make it even more complicated there’s another layer: I think some artists want to break the law, they want to be troublemakers and not do what’s expected.

I have trouble fitting those artists into my larger framework because even though I think they deserve to be included in the exceptions at the same time if an exception is made for them then that undermines their outlaw status, doesn’t it?

There are no easy answers here so I’ll just say that it’s really interesting to me that this particular artist has been putting up these metal images of Steve Martin for years now–the bandana is a new variation.

Previously:

And it’s even more interesting that this particular piece is placed just a block away from the historic Exit/In where Steve Martin used to perform before he became famous. He even mentions the place in his autobiography Born Standing Up:

One night at the Exit/In I took the crowd down the street to a McDonald’s and ordered three hundred hamburgers to go, then quickly changed it to one bag of fries.

Is there a law against that?

Art Is Therapy.

A college friend of mine majored in art therapy. Her dream was to be a full-time artist, but, as we all know, that would be an extremely difficult path with almost no chance of success, so she chose art therapy as a viable career option that she hoped would still allow her time to work on her own art. Just once I’d like to hear someone say, “You should take some art or photography classes, just in case that whole corporate accounting thing doesn’t work out,” but that’s another story.

While part of studying art therapy was psychology and even some medical training there were also art classes and critiques of her work. She had a painting of fish in a pond that was really amazing, with the water mostly transparent but just enough of a reflection of trees and sky that you could see it. I’d never before appreciated that while it can be difficult for a painter to capture what we can see it’s even tougher to capture what we can’t see. It’s one thing to capture bright colors and bold textures, but conveying a smooth, transparent surface is a whole other level.

A major art critic came to campus to look at students’ works and before he went in he made a short speech.

“Some mornings I want tomato juice for breakfast,” he said. “Some mornings I want orange juice. If you give me tomato juice on a morning when I want orange juice I won’t like it. It doesn’t matter if it’s good tomato juice. It doesn’t matter if it’s the best tomato juice in the world. I still won’t like it because what I want is orange juice.”

This was a very revealing statement to me. Of course art criticism is personal. It doesn’t matter how much you know about art. A critic who admits that their views are subjective, who is aware of their biases, is, in my admittedly biased opinion, the best kind of critic.

He looked at my friend’s painting and said, “Some people here are giving me tomato juice and some people are giving me orange juice. This is pineapple juice. It never matters how good it is. I hate pineapple juice.”

A critic who admits that their views are subjective and doesn’t care is, in my completely objective opinion, the worst kind of critic.

And even though it wasn’t directed at me I felt angry about what he’d said. I took it personally.

Because I liked the painting his comments were an indirect swipe at my judgment.

Several of us got together later to console my friend, but she didn’t need consoling. She was channeling her frustration into a whole new work, a weird sculpture built out of yarn and strips of copper. She called it Superman On LSD In The Middle of Mardi Gras.

If there hadn’t been a personal connection, if I hadn’t known her or how she was feeling when she made it, I might have seen it as tomato juice—and I hate tomato juice. Instead I looked at it fully aware that I couldn’t be objective but that was okay. I liked it. It made me happy, and that was therapeutic.

How ya like them pineapples?

Hidden In Plain Sight.

Every artist wants their work to be seen, right? Actually if there’s one thing I’ve learned after years of studying art it’s that the one thing that’s true of art is there are no absolutes. There are artists who work in silence, who work only for themselves, creating works that may not be found until after their deaths—obvious examples being Van Gogh who only sold a couple of paintings in his lifetime and for the most part wasn’t trying to please anybody but himself, and Emily Dickinson who, although she tried to publish a handful of poems, did most of her work in private.

And at the other end of the spectrum there are artists who deliberately seek fame and attention; although this is largely a modern phenomenon there have probably always been artists who courted the rich and powerful, even if it meant doing the bidding of the king and his court.

One of the interesting things to me about graffiti is it seems to fall somewhere in between. Artists create works that are publicly visible but they’re usually very personal. Take this, for instance.

Yes, there are a lot of layers to “very personal” art. No artist, no matter how personal their art, is working in a vacuum. They’re influenced by other artists, by history, by the world around them, and by myriad other factors. Why’d you choose that design? It’s sort of what other people do. Why’d you choose that color? Maybe it was all that was available. In fact there have been fads for certain colors because they became available—blue began to appear more in 19th century Japanese prints, for instance, because of the discovery of a new blue pigment, but that’s another story. Every work of art represents a number of choices, but only some of those choices are deliberate on the artist’s part—there are also a lot that are made by circumstances.

To get back to my point about artists wanting their work to be seen, though, here’s a broader view of where that piece is located.

The work is pretty large and the artist deliberately placed it high on a building on Nashville’s Charlotte Avenue, which is a major street with lots of traffic. But it’s placed on the side of the building, facing a side street that most people won’t take unless they live in the neighborhood or take a wrong turn. And even then you really have to be standing in just the right spot to see it. One of the reasons I didn’t get a closer picture, aside from all the NO TRESPASSING signs and fences and some guy looking at me suspiciously, is I couldn’t see a way to get closer and still be able to see the work, aside from climbing up on the building, and maybe I should have asked that guy, “Hey, could you give me a leg up here, and maybe also a ladder?”

There are a lot of reasons the artist probably chose that exact spot—most of them not really choices but rather a matter of circumstances, but I like to think there was some intention there, that the answer to, “Why’d you choose that spot?” would be, “Because I wanted people to make an effort to see it.”

Now here’s an Emily Dickinson poem.

#930

The Poets light but Lamps —

Themselves — go out —

The Wicks they stimulate

If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns —

Each Age a Lens

Disseminating their

Circumference —

 

Torn.

I’m deeply conflicted about this. On the one hand this is a picture of an advertisement. These ads have started showing up on sidewalks around the city and at first I thought they were an interesting art project, and then I realized, no, they were advertisements. Yes, I believe advertisements can be art, but I also cling to this Romantic notion of ars gratia artis, even though that phrase itself has been coopted by a major movie studio. And I also realize that artists have got to eat and if at least some couldn’t make a living by creating art, even if it often means playing the tune they’re paid to type, there’d be a lot less great art in the world.

On the other hand advertising is supposed to send a single, simple message. It’s supposed to tell you what to think—or rather what to buy—and I believe art should raise questions rather than provide answers. Any art that gives you a simple unvarnished idea is, in my opinion, very bad art.

And on the other hand—I’ve lost count of my hands here—something interesting has happened. This advertisement has been partially torn in a way that subtly changes its meaning. It’s presumably an accident, and that does raise a lot of questions. The tradition of “found art” is one that has a fairly long history—although not nearly as long as Romantic notions like ars gratia artis, but still there’s room for debate about whether art always has to be something that’s made or whether it can just happen. The idea that art is always created with a plan, that artists are in control, can be a source of comfort in a cold and chaotic universe, but even some of the most detailed and crafted works of art started as, or benefited from, accidents. Every artist has more misses than hits, and if every work of art had to start from a deliberately conceived plan there’d be a lot less great art in the world, and the fact that we can sometimes benefit from accidents can also be a source of comfort, especially in a cold and chaotic universe. Creating art, just like living life, means maintaining some semblance of control while at the same time accepting that accidents will happen and adapting to them as best we can. As a friend of mine in high school put it, “When life gives you lemons make orange juice.”

As I was turning all those over in my head and my approximately nine hands I walked past a restaurant where Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner, a song that I remember from high school, was playing. Actually it was the DNA remix that came out after I’d graduated, and which was created without her permission, but Vega liked it. The song sounds simple, even improvised, but is carefully structured. I felt like the universe, cold and chaotic as it is, was pushing me to write this, but on the other hand I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.

 

Just Keep Looking.

And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

From Beyond Good & Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, as translated by R.J. Hollingdale

I’m tempted to say that somewhere along the way art went from being purely decorative to having to mean something. And then I have to take a step back and take a really deep breath because, well, first of all I’d have to clarify which artistic tradition I’m talking about–probably a Western European one, and even then I’d have to really narrow down the definition of “art” because even though there have been works–mostly paintings and sculptures–we could call strictly decorative aesthetic touches are still often added to everything from tables to teapots so even those things could be–and sometimes are–treated as works of art, especially if they’re really old.

And speaking of really old things the book The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists by Gregory Curtis devotes almost all of its space not to analyzing what the cave paintings may have meant but rather how what archaeologists and art historians think the cave paintings meant has changed, and changes, depending on who’s doing the looking.

And to get back to my naïve assumption that at some point art went from being decorative to having “meaning” if I had to pin down when exactly I might have thought that happened I’d say it occurred with the invention of photography and the birth of Impressionism and then Fauvism and really took off after World War I when art–at least in Western Europe–split into a million different isms and people started to need a philosophy degree to understand why a bunch of squares or scribbles should be considered great art.

Except it’s not that simple. Throughout art history, and throughout art traditions around the world, art has often “meant” something, but what it means has been determined by both cultural context and the eye of the beholder, which raises the question, if a work of art can mean anything, does it really mean anything?

And that’s when I start to wonder, am I looking at art or is it looking back at me?

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