American Graffiti.

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


face1Most graffiti is a person’s name or nickname–what’s commonly known as a tag. And when you think about it a name, especially when elaborately drawn, is more than just a word. It’s a picture. It says as much about how the artist sees him or herself as a self-portrait would. And it’s the most personal expression an artist can make and have a history that spans artists as different as Rembrandt and Kahlo. So it was really interesting to me that someone tagged a couple of different places with what I think it a self-portrait. It’s a caricature and not realistic, but it’s meant to be a self-portrait. At least I think it is since as usual I don’t know the artist and I can’t ask them about it. So I’m just speculating, but bear with me here.


What made me think of the connection between signatures and self-portraits wasn’t just the fact that this graffiti is a face rather than the usual name. I also thought of Salvador Dali’s massive painting The Ecumenical Council, from his religious period, finished in 1960 when he was fifty-six. In his youth Dali had been an ardent atheist but later would meet Pope Pius XII and converted to Catholicism.

Source: Wikipedia

Or did he? Scholars interpret this painting at representing the union of Heaven and Earth. The figure in the upper center is believed to be God whose hand is up because no one can look on the face of God. The interesting thing, though, is Dali’s self-portrait in the lower left. He’s painted himself as a painter. This has been interpreted as his substitute for a signature. And yet Dali signed most of his paintings with just his name. Self-portraits are extremely rare in his work. He occasionally painted himself as a child but almost always facing away from the viewer. In a few of his early surrealist works he painted himself or figures that represented him but with a hand over the face.

Maybe this is really Dali’s not so subtle jab at religion–suggesting that the real creator is the artist. Isn’t that blasphemy? Well it might have been a blast for Dali anyway. Yes, he went though the motions of converting to Catholicism but at a time when being an atheist among artists was common, even expected. He claimed to support Franco then the Spanish monarchy when most artists were joining the Communist party or at least claiming to be apolitical. I think he did these things solely to shock people, and throwing a little blasphemy into his work was his way of playing both sides. He didn’t take anything too seriously.

I know I’m not saying much about graffiti here, especially not the graffiti pictures above, but I am trying to tie graffiti into the more respectable world of serious art criticism and art history. Why? Because I think it’s funny that it shocks some people who take art way too seriously.

It’s Complicated, But Not Unusual.

It’s not unusual for bloggers to hit on similar themes at the same time. What is unusual is that I happened to run across graffiti that seemed to speak to the theme that I felt three of my favorite bloggers had in common recently. Admittedly it’s also not unusual for me to extrapolate wildly and tie together completely unrelated things which meant that sometimes in English classes my interpretations of stories and poems were so wildly off the mark one of my teachers suggested I stop freebasing banana peels in the parking lot at lunch, but that’s another story.

This week Ann Koplow of The Year(s) of Living Non-Judgmentally is at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and while she writes daily about a variety of subjects and started the week with Wishes. But more broadly there’s something significant about her time there right now because her son is going to be attending the University of Edinburgh.

That’s why it struck me that Gilly, whose blog is Anything Except Housework, has a post contemplating her empty nest, and reflecting on her time raising two boys and what she might have missed, but more importantly she reminds herself of the need to remember the good she’s done.

And Chuck Baudelaire of Always Drunk contemplated moments that changed her life, moments that led her to where she is now.

All three were reflective and I somehow had all three in mind when I saw this:


And it made me think about how quickly a life can change but every moment is complicated. Every moment is embedded in every other moment. Singling out one is like extracting a crystal from a matrix.

If the connection seems vague it’s because, like I said, it’s not unusual for me to tie unrelated things together, but maybe that’s because everything really is related.

And that also reminds me of a joke. A guy goes to the doctor and says, “Doc, every time I pass a park I start singing ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ and every time I see a cat I start singing ‘What’s New, Pussycat?'”

The doctor says, “It sounds like you’ve got Tom Jones syndrome.”

The guy says, “Tom Jones syndrome? I’ve never heard of that. Is it rare?”

The doctor says, “It’s not unusual.”

Attention, Attention.

attention“Here and now, boys,” the bird repeated yet once more, then fluttered down from its perch on the dead tree and settled on her shoulder.

The child peeled another banana, gave two-thirds of it to Will and offered what remained to the mynah.

“Is that your bird?” Will asked.

She shook her head.

“Mynahs are like the electric light,” she said. “They don’t belong to anybody.”

“Why does he say those things?”

“Because somebody taught him,” she answered patiently. What an ass! her tone seemed to imply.

“But why did they teach him those things? Why ‘Attention’? Why ‘Here and now’?”

“Well …” She searched for the right words in which to explain the self-evident to this strange imbecile. “That’s what you always forget, isn’t it? I mean, you forget to pay attention to what’s happening. And that’s the same as not being here and now.”

That’s from Island, Aldous Huxley’s last novel. It’s not as famous as Brave New World, which is a shame. Huxley said that his earlier novel was a failure because it only offered a choice between two insane societies. There had to be a third way and Island was it: a novel set on a small Pacific island that has developed a good and just and sane society. Sanity, though, isn’t self-sustaining–it takes some effort. The island’s mynah birds, trained to say “Attention, attention,” and “Here and now, boys, here and now” provide gentle reminders to be mindful of the present, to be aware.

In a small well-organized society that’s easy but it’s not hard to imagine the whole program breaking down on a larger scale and the mynahs dropping f-bombs eventually fading to background noise. The problem with Huxley’s ideal society is there’s no room for jokers, tricksters, or chaos–which makes it far from ideal.

Both Brave New World and Island raise big questions about the nature of freedom and its limits but neither one really offers any answers. Answers are beyond any single person, but the key to finding the answer is to first know what the question is.

Maybe the question is down there in the weeds.

Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to, located in a small island somewhere.

By The Numbers.

number269Most graffiti consists of words, or a single word, and the most striking examples are always elaborately drawn. Maybe this distracts from the message but I always think it emphasizes it. Even when I don’t know the meaning, or even if it’s just a person’s name or their tag, how it’s being said is just as interesting and important as what’s being said.

Numbers, on the other hand, are really unusual in graffiti. That’s part of what makes this piece so interesting to me. I also really love the vivid and sharply contrasting colors.

And then there’s the question of meaning. What’s being said here? I think it’s a little risqué—or maybe a lot risqué, depending on how sensitive you are. The meaning here, I’m pretty sure, is it takes two to tango. And to do other things.

If you think you’re missing the joke here’s an alternative version that was nearby. Apparently the artist took at least one practice run before the final work.

number269aSeen any graffiti? Send any number of pictures to

And now here’s a fun little number.

Words, Words, Words.

It always intrigues me when someone tags something with a single word–usually a noun or adjective that’s not a name, or is it? Wittgenstein and other philosophers have puzzled over language, how it shapes our thoughts, how shapes the way we see the world, how it can even be limiting. Language allows us to express thoughts but philosophers have said it can also limit our thoughts. The most pessimistic say that it can even be a mental prison, and while different languages can express different perspectives the best we can ever do is change cells. But a single word can also inspire thoughts, can, at the very least, make us look around and a single word, without context, can open up meanings.





If We Spirits Have Offended…

Back in April I shared this. It’s a former fast food restaurant that shut down a couple of months earlier and became a kind of gallery of graffiti. That’s one of the things I liked about it. It also seemed to attract some pretty good graffiti—the artists really put some thought and work into their designs rather than just scribbling tags. There was even some strong use of color against the restaurant’s black and white exterior.

This is what it looks like now.


Maybe it’s just me but it seems harsh and unnecessary to have covered up the graffiti. What harm was it doing? What damage did it cause? Well obviously somebody was bothered by it but who? Or should that be ‘whom’? I can’t remember how that applies to the dative case.

Anyway there is a fairly nice Italian restaurant on the other side of the street from it and I suppose some of the patrons might have been offended by the graffiti, but the side that faces this place is the restaurant bar and the most offensive thing there is the limited selection of craft and local beers, but that’s another story. And I can’t imagine the power lunch crowd looking up from their martinis to even notice the ramshackle burger shack across the street, let alone being offended by it.

Is there anything even offensive in the words themselves? It’s hard to say because everything is potentially offensive to someone. Some people get their knickers in a twist over the word “semprini” while others are upset by words like “knickers” or “twist” and, let’s face it, everything is potentially a euphemism. As Melanie Safka sings,

Freud’s mystic world of meaning needn’t have us mystified.

It’s really very simple what the psyche tries to hide:

A thing is a phallic symbol if it’s longer than it’s wide

As the id goes marching on.

Glory glory psychotherapy, glory glory sexuality,

Glory glory now we can be free as the id goes marching on.

And yet it’s not like someone painted cod and cabbages,

And there’s considerable construction on the block where the hash slingers used to abide. It seems unlikely that it’ll be long before the former patty pantry will be knocked down in favor of something else, possibly residential since the area is saturated with vendors of victuals.

Maybe the person who decided to cancel the composition wasn’t really upset, but if they did take offense could they give it back?



Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to Or don’t. Either way I won’t be offended.

Press On.

press1Technically this isn’t graffiti but it is the sort of thing that leaves me wondering what the difference is between graffiti and, well, this sort of thing, which I’m pretty sure is a commissioned mural. At first I thought it was to mark a parking space for someone who’s a little too much of a fan of the Tennessee Titans, but it’s on the side of the Corner Bar on Elliston Place. This particular stretch is heavily graffitied—in fact I’d guess at least a third of the graffiti I’ve featured has come from around just one block of Elliston Place, and it was partly the inspiration for starting this whole series of graffiti-themed posts in the first place.

Anyway I’m including it because it does at least seem to be done in the style of graffiti and the artist may have started by doing graffiti. There is precedent for this. Some graffiti artists get hired to do “legitimate” work because somebody saw their tag and liked the look of it. But as the old saying goes the one who picks the piper calls the tune, but probably the piper was picked because their playing was preferred. And if you have a bunch and they’re all drunk then you have your pick of pickled pipers, but that’s another story.

What piques my interest here is that, as I said, whoever commissioned the painting is obviously a big fan of the Tennessee Titans. And that’s okay, although I’m not sure this particular use was licensed or approved by the Titans organization. (I’ve asked. I’ll let you know if I get an answer.) Sports teams, corporations, and other entities can be very sensitive about how their logos, trademarks, mascots, and other paraphernalia are represented.

And for me personally I try to avoid wearing clothing with obvious corporate logos, mascots, or paraphernalia. Sure there are things I’m a fan of and I will wear, say, a Doctor Who t-shirt, but always with a tiny twinge of regret. If they want to run a commercial or put an ad in a magazine or on a billboard they have to pay for it. Why do I have to pay for the privilege of advertising for them? I feel the same when I mention a business–even a local one, like, say, a bar.


press3Aside from all that I like some of the fun touches the artist added. I like to think these were creative additions that weren’t specifically paid for. And the painted button is very provocative..





Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to No pressure.


Source: East Nashville News

Source: East Nashville News

Because I usually write positively about graffiti that might give the impression that I’m fine with vandalism and lawbreaking. I’m not. Just because I think there’s graffiti that’s very artistic, well-done, aesthetically pleasing, whatever you want to call it doesn’t mean I’m all for letting anyone tag anything anywhere. It’s just that it’s complicated. Sometimes I look at graffiti and see a person with an intense need to express themselves but no other place to express themselves. And a lot of the places where I see the most artistically interesting graffiti are abandoned, or at least unused, buildings, places with blank walls. Adding a little color and some vibrant language makes these places better. It makes them a little nicer to look at. The same is true of dumpsters which are ugly, utilitarian things. A little graffiti can make them interesting and unique. It can make them into works of art.

At least that’s what I think and I know that sort of thinking puts me on a really slippery slope, but I think there’s got to be a balance between totalitarianism where expression is subject to approval from some overarching authority and chaos where everybody can do whatever they want and there’d be a lot of wanton destruction.

Two recent stories made me think about the need for limits.

First there’s the story of Casey Nocket, a graffiti artist who used acrylic paint, which is really hard to remove, on natural monuments in US national parks. I’ve done volunteer work in parks, including cleaning up trash left behind by thoughtless people. These are places people go to when they when they want to escape the urban world. And nature’s changing these areas enough as it is. These are spaces that have been set aside to be preserved.

I consider this “bad” graffiti no matter how aesthetically interesting it might have been. How do I make that distinction? It’s complicated.

The other event was even closer to home. A dancing bear mural painted on an East Nashville building by artist Leah Tumerman was splattered with white paint. This isn’t even a case of graffiti, really. The building’s owner asked Tumerman to paint the mural. And the white paint was presumably some unknown person’s way of showing displeasure with it. Or maybe they just wanted to put their own mark on it. Some people love the mural and some people hate it but that shouldn’t be a reason to deface it.

Tumerman, with the help of some volunteers, is now fixing the mural and incorporating the vandalism into the mural. And her sister has a strongly-worded rant about the situation that I think is brilliant. It is a nice Art 101 lesson that cuts through my own woolly thinking.

So what’s the distinction between graffiti, street art, and vandalism? It’s complicated. I don’t want to say that anything good comes out of vandalizing natural monuments or a public mural because I don’t want it to sound like I approve because I think they’re terrible things. But it does make me stop and think about why I consider them terrible things. It makes me stop and think about why there should be limits, and maybe that is something good. And maybe I could get your help with my woolly thinking too. Feel free to splatter your own opinions in the comments section. Maybe I’m overcomplicating all this.

And seen any good or bad graffiti? Can’t decide which it is? Send your pictures to Maybe I’ll still be just as confused.

Artists Without Borders.

This week’s graffiti is a reader submission from Michelle whose blog Still Not A Journal is fantastic and hilarious and great for those of us who’ve never been to the Southern hemisphere but hope someday to see Australia in all its deadly* glory.

australiangraffiti3What’s fascinating about these graffiti examples, though, is that they wouldn’t be out of place in any major city in the United States. Or Canada, or probably Europe. They raise an interesting question. What is it that makes so much graffiti aesthetically similar? Part of it is probably pragmatism—taggers have to work fast, which makes the size and multiple colors in these works even more amazing. Another aspect, though, is that I think—and I’m going out on a very narrow limb here—there’s a great deal of influence from the “New York look”. For a variety of reasons graffiti exploded across New York and other urban centers in the 1970’s, and while many regarded it as a public nuisance it was also considered by some to be a new art form. It helped, I think, that New York became a major world art center—arguably even the world art center—in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

australiangraffiti2This could, in part, be traced back to The Great Depression. The Works Progress Administration, started in 1935, hired artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem De Kooning, who would go on to found the Abstract Expressionist movement, centered in New York, and while the Pop Art movement of the 1960’s had partial origins in London its biggest successes would come out of New York—specifically Warhol’s Factory. And while graffiti was an art movement that started on the streets some of its practitioners—such as Basquiat, who’d work with Warhol, and Keith Haring–would move into studios and galleries.

australiangraffiti4So there’s a thumbnail version of about half a century of art history with the point that a lot of graffiti conforms to a specific aesthetic that may have started in one part of the world but has spread all over. And a shared “look” is a way artists compliment—and complement—each other. Every work of art is an individual expression but it’s also a collection of influences. Art is never created in a vacuum and, if it’s placed in a public place it’s meant to be enjoyed by a wide audience, and speak to a wide audience.

There’s the old saying that all politics is local. Grammatically speaking that should probably be all politics are local, but that’s another story. All art is also local too—but, just like with politics, what catches on in one part of the world can have profound implications for the rest of the world.

australiangraffiti1And now a little music to influence you.

*Great whites, jellyfish, spiders that scare even me, unrelenting desert, dingoes, Vegemite—Australia is a continent that takes Nietzsche’s principle of “That which does not kill me makes me stronger” and is determined to make the strongest people on the planet.  

And, hey, seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to



Source: Metro Nashville Government Facebook page. Photos by Mayor Megan Barry.

Sometimes when I see graffiti or street art I see desperation. I see someone who wants to speak, who has a need to share, but who has no other place to make a statement.

A few days after the horrific shooting in Orlando I walked down to a couple of blocks of Church Street in Nashville that are home to the clubs Tribe and Vibe, to Blue Gene’s, and Out Central, an information and meeting space for the LGBT community. There’s WKND, a “hang site” in the space that used to be Out Loud!, one of Nashville’s last independent bookstores. There’s also Suzy Wong’s House of Yum, owned and operated by former Top Chef competitor Arnold Myint. Suzy Wong is also Myint’s drag queen alter ego.

I went down there expecting to find memorials, tributes, handwritten statements—the kind of spontaneous expressions that spring up around a place when there’s a tragedy. I expected to find them because as soon as news came out about the shootings at Pulse, the gay nightclub, before we knew Omar Mateen’s identity or that he was a Muslim, before we knew what weapons he used, one fact was clear: this was an attack on LGBT people.

In LGBT Clubs in American History: Cultural Centers, Safe Spaces & Targets, an article in Billboard Magazine, Barry Walters says,

Since Stonewall and well before, gay clubs have been our schools, our places of worship. Nightclubs are where we’ve long learned to unlearn hate, and learn to become and love our real selves. They’re our safe spaces; places where music and dancing and the joy of our collective togetherness unlocks our fears and extinguishes our lingering self-loathing.

Closer to home I remembered the Nashville Scene article Last Call At Juanita’s, about the closing in 1995 of this city’s first gay bar, and its origin in 1953:

Shortly after Juanita’s opened, however, a former Leopard Room patron nervously drew Brazier aside one night to ask her a question. “Miss Juanita,” he is said to have asked, “would you have any problem with me bringing in some gay men?”

“Why, no!” Brazier supposedly responded, laughing. “I like everyone to be happy!” And thus Juanita’s became Nashville’s best-known haven for gay men—and, Nashville being a Southern city, Juanita Brazier was rechristened “Miss Juanita.”

I was surprised to find that area of Church Street looked the same as usual. The places there, I thought, are safe spaces for the LGBT community, places where people can go and be out in every sense of the word. I know the LGBT community isn’t monolithic, that it’s composed of individuals with different experiences and views–and that’s true of any “community”–but I still expected something.

Then I learned about an event I’d missed–a vigil in downtown Nashville, organized just hours after the shooting. It was organized with the help of Nashville’s mayor Megan Barry who took the pictures above. City and state buildings–buildings where, it should be noted, the rights of LGBT people are still under attack–were lit with the rainbow colors of the Pride flag. It may have been an attack on the LGBT community but the expressions of grief and condolence were offered by the larger community we’re all part of. It was a solemn reminder that LGBT people are not separate; they’re our friends, our family. And there are LGBT people of every race, every class, and, yes, every religion. For many faith is about how they love, not whom.

Maybe people didn’t feel a need to make statements on a couple of blocks of Church Street because so much of the city of Nashville, because the heart of the city of Nashville, was a place where people could come together openly.

Pride Month is a celebration primarily for LGBT people who have been excluded, shunned, and harassed, but to have such a public display of concern and solidarity was a chance for everyone to feel pride.

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