American Graffiti.

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

Following In Whose Footprints?

002In February 1855 a series of mysterious hoofprints terrorized parts of Devon in rural England. The hoofprints extended up to one hundred miles and appeared in one or two nights which meant something mysterious was traveling across the country at a remarkable speed.

Or was it?

I first read this story in third grade, in a pamphlet that was supposed to test our reading comprehension. It tested my credibility too. How quickly did people who lived as far away as one hundred miles from each other in rural communicate? How quickly could they get from one place to another? Where was the evidence? What did these “hoofprints” really look like? None of this information was included.

I wanted to believe. I really wanted to believe. The problem was there was just no evidence.003

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Here there is evidence. Footprints have been left in concrete. This wasn’t just a case of someone making a footprint in wet cement either. Someone—or several someones—deliberately added a different type of concrete, a different color, marking out footprints. They don’t go a very long distance but there’s still that lingering question: why?

Here the problem is not lack of evidence but simply lack of answers.

 

 

 

 

As for those mysterious hoofprints I blame Claude Rains.

The Signs Are Everywhere.

sign

But Dorothy they did not harm at all. She stood, with Toto in her arms, watching the sad fate of her comrades and thinking it would soon be her turn. The leader of the Winged Monkeys flew up to her, his long, hairy arms stretched out and his ugly face grinning terribly; but he saw the mark of the Good Witch’s kiss upon her forehead and stopped short, motioning the others not to touch her.

-L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz

Suddenly he lifted an elbow and flared his nostrils as he snuffed the chill moist air. “There’s a taint in the fog tonight,” he announced.

The Mouser said dryly, “I already smell dead fish, burnt fat, horse dung, tickly lint, Lankhmar sausage gone stale, cheap temple incense burnt by the ten-pound cake, rancid oil, moldy grain, slaves’ barracks, embalmers’ tanks crowded to the black brim, and the stink of a cathedral full of unwashed carters and trulls celebrating orgiastic rites—and now you tell me of a taint!”–Fritz Leiber, The Cloud of Hate

Prepare you, generals:

The enemy comes on in gallant show;

Their bloody sign of battle is hung out,

And something to be done immediately.

-William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act V, sc.1

“I saw a sign on a guy’s garage that said ‘Don’t even think about parking here’. So you know what I did? I sat right there and I thought about it. I yelled up at his window ‘Hey buddy, I’m thinking about it. Go ahead, call the cops. I’ll just tell them I was thinking about something else.'”–Paula Poundstone

“A sign,” he said, “a sign.”

“It is this,” I answered, producing from beneath the folds of my roquelaire a trowel.

-Edgar Allan Poe, The Cask of Amontillado

Rocky Horror: I woke up this morning with a start when I fell out of bed.

Chorus: That ain’t no crime!

Rocky Horror: And left from my dreaming was a feeling of unnameable dread.

Chorus: That ain’t no crime!

The Rocky Horror Show, “Sword of Damocles”

“And I assure you there is a mark on the door—the usual on in the trade, or used to be. Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward, that’s how it is usually read.”–J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

In fact, very few people on the face of the planet know that the very shape of the M25 forms the sigil odegra in the language of the Black Priesthood of Ancient Mu, and means “Hail the Great Beast, Devourer of Worlds”.– Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens

“It’s a sign all right. We’re going out of business.”–Janine Melnitz, Ghostbusters

His Other Hobby Is Stuffing Things.

001Normally misspelling irks me but for some reason I like Syko. I’ve seen Syko’s tag around a few places, but I especially like this one because the dark design on the bright red is very striking. And I like the name “Syko” because it feels like this is someone reclaiming “psycho”, a term that used to be extremely derogatory. There’s still some stigma attached to mental illness but I think—and hope—we live in a culture that’s getting over it. And the stigma isn’t nearly as great as it once was. If you’ve read A Separate Peace by John Knowles think about how ‘Leper’ Lepellier is regarded when he’s kicked out of the army for being “psycho”. It’s a terrible insult and he’s treated very differently because of it.

Or there’s that famous film psycho. All I have to do is say Norman Bates and I bet you hear those squealing violins that suggest someone who’s dangerously unstable.

Source: Wikipedia

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could stay sane through the horrors of war but being declared “psycho” could affect a person’s ability to get a job, have a place to live, and how they were treated generally. It was at one time a label with such dark and profound power that only a brave few were crazy enough to take it on, to wear it with pride. And I think we’ve benefited from the example they set.

Source: TV.com

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Some graffiti I find profound and thought provoking. The aesthetics, or even just the placement, speaks to me in the same way more traditional art forms do. Furthermore some graffiti seems to carry heavy implications and raises questions about public space, its use, its value, and the human desire to express ourselves.

And some of it just makes me laugh.

012And now…it’s time for Throwback Saturday!

A Matter Of Time.

Most art—the stuff you see in museums, anyway, is intended to last. I think the artists themselves hope their work will stand the test of time. Michelangelo, Phidias, and even Picasso must have thought they were carving out a little niche of eternity, creating things that would still be around long after they were dust. There are exceptions—explaining pictures to a dead hare, for instance, has got to be a one-time thing—but paintings, sculptures, and other works will hopefully last.

For graffiti artists it’s different. They’ve got to figure that anything they make will be wiped out, that it won’t last. They’re not working in a studio and they don’t have a chance of getting space in a museum. That makes a work like this one even more impressive to me.

008The artist put time and thought into this mural, and while it’s been there for several months there’s no telling how much longer it will last. The building that currently has this work on it is next to a construction site. There was a church there until a couple of years ago when the congregation decided they didn’t like the neighborhood and sold it. Then it was knocked down and some apartments are going up there. This secondary building still stands, for now, but I don’t think it’ll be long before it goes too.

001005004This is just a couple of blocks away from a public library, a consignment place that sells weird things, an old bookstore, a fantastic little coffee shop that’s basically the size of a walk-in closet, and a few thrift shops and some other things. It’s a neat little area. I know it will all change eventually, but I hope it doesn’t happen for a very long time.

This is the consignment store. The coffee shop is right next door.

This is the consignment store. The coffee shop is right next door.

As for the mural itself, well, every time I look at it I hear Indiana Jones: It belongs in a museum.

 

Lookout.

“Have you seen the faces?”

My friend Jamie and I were having lunch. I had just told her about my “American Graffiti” series. That’s when she brought up “the faces” on a wall along I-440. No, I hadn’t seen them. I was intrigued.

“All right,” she said. “We’re going for a ride.”

Check please!

I recognized the stretch of interstate–it’s one I’ve been down several times. I remembered it because of this house:

graffitihouseIt’s had better graffiti on it in the past. Notice, too, the washes of color down the wall on the right.  Every time I’ve zipped by I’ve thought about trying to figure out where that house is and whether I can get to it to take some closer pictures. Then I move on and forget about it. I see a lot of really good graffiti–incredibly well done, elaborate stuff–from moving cars. Most of it is on buildings. Some of it is on train containers that run parallel to the road. Someday I’m going to go to a train yard and get pictures of some of the amazing graffiti on trains, but that’s another story.

Some graffiti I see in really surprising, even dangerous, places, like underpasses. That brings me to the faces. They’re on the wall that runs alongside the interstate. I’m not sure how Jamie spotted them in the first place. She tells me some have even been painted over. It’s not surprising to me that I’ve never seen them before. Even when I’m not driving I’m usually looking straight ahead, and unless you turn to look straight at them you’ll miss them.

facesEmbiggen the picture and you’ll see the reflection of my hand and my phone as I quickly snapped a picture–Jamie offered to drive by again, but she’d done too much already. Here’s more detail:

facesdetail

Clearly these were created with stencils, but what’s more impressive than the technique is the location. Someone literally risked their lives, or at least really serious injury. And this particular artist’s work–at least I think it’s the same artist–has cropped up elsewhere, specifically at bus stops around town. I’ve shared this picture before:

martinstop

I thought this was just a clever tribute to Steve Martin’s history with Nashville, but now I feel it’s gone beyond that. By placing more of these pictures in hard-to-reach and easily missed places I think the artist is making a subtler, weirder statement. I’m just not sure what it is. All I can say for certain is thanks for the ride, Jamie.

Mind The Gap.

006I cut down an alley on my way to nowhere in particular–one of my favorite places to go, but that’s another story. I almost missed this bit of graffiti on the roof of a building. It’s not much to look at. It’s probably just a gang sign and may even have been there for a while since gentrification is driving gangs out of the area–there goes the neighborhood. And, walking back the other way, it wasn’t as well-hidden as I thought at first. What got my attention is the placement. It’s not impossible, or even that difficult to get to. The alley behind the building is elevated so the roof is actually below eye-level, depending on how tall you are. I’m five foot six and just barely look down on the roof from the alley, if that gives you some idea.

What’s impressive is that someone had to leap over a gap of about five feet to land on the roof. The gap plummets down about fourteen feet into a very tight enclosure with bricks, grass, and some broken bottles and other trash. And there’s no easy way to make that jump. In retrospect I wish I’d taken a picture of the gap itself to give you some idea, but here’s the top of the cast iron stairway that leads down into the enclosure:

015That should give some idea of how hard it must have been for the artist–and, yeah, I’m using that term very loosely–to make that leap. And whoever it was probably did it at night. There are a few businesses around and the alley is pretty open–several parking lots back up to it–but I’m pretty sure it’s not a well-lit area. And the individual had to cross all that roof space. I’d give it a medium level of difficulty.

Here’s that building from the front. It forms a strip that includes a bar, a local LGBT resource center, and a restaurant that specializes in brunch. Hopefully that’s as far as gentrification will reach.

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Keep Looking Up.

003In 1879 amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and his eight-year old daughter discovered prehistoric paintings in a cave near Altamira, Spain. The first time I heard about this I was told it was the cave that was called Altamira because they had to look up—the name roughly translates into English as “look high”, or, more accurately, to look from on high, since Altamira is on a mountain. The person who told me all this had their facts really mixed up, but whenever I think about prehistoric cave paintings, paintings that date back more than thirty-thousand years, I feel kind of like I’m floating. Looking back through that much time is like looking down from a very high point.

There’s something really impressive about any graffiti placed high, even if the graffiti itself isn’t that impressive. Maybe it’s because I’m not a big fan of heights, but I admire the effort it took an artist to climb up somewhere and leave their mark. In the example above it’s not particularly high, but graffiti is illegal, and whoever climbed up there was more exposed than they would have been if they’d just worked on the lower walls.

Here’s a more impressive example of high graffiti, snagged from Google Maps because I haven’t been able to get a decent picture of my own. The bus is in the foreground but should still give some idea of how high the piece on the left is.

busgraffitiCave paintings and graffiti in high places also makes me think of the poem Memory Cave by Yusef Komunyakaa from his book Thieves Of Paradise.

A tallow worked into a knot

of rawhide, with a ball of waxy light

tied to a stick, the boy

scooted through a secret mouth

of the cave, pulled by the flambeau

in his hand. He could see

the gaze of agate eyes

& wished for the forbidden

plains of bison & wolf, years

from the fermented honey

& musty air. In the dried

slag of bear & bat guano,

the initiate stood with sleeping

gods at his feet, lost

in the great cloud of their one

breath. Their muzzles craved

touch. How did they learn

to close eyes, to see into

the future? Before the Before:

mammon was unnamed & mist

hugged ravines & hillocks.

The elders would test him

beyond doubt & blood. Mica

lit the false skies where

stalactite dripped perfection

into granite. He fingered

icons sunlight & anatase

never touched. Ibex carved

on a throwing stick, reindeer

worried into an ivory amulet,

& a bear’s head. Outside,

the men waited two days

for him, with condor & bovid,

& not in a thousand years

would he have dreamt a woman

standing here beside a man,

saying, “This is as good

as the stag at Salon Noir

& the polka-dotted horses.”

The man scribbles Leo loves

Angela below the boy’s last bear

drawn with manganese dioxide

& animal fat. This is where

sunrise opened a door in stone

when he was summoned to drink

honey wine & embrace a woman

beneath a five-pointed star.

Lying there beside the gods

hefty & silent as boulders,

he could almost remember

before he was born, could see

the cliff from which he’d fall.

Carved In Stone.

Some of the world’s oldest examples of graffiti are carved in stone. There are ancient Egyptian monuments that have been partially defaced because some ancient-but-not-as-ancient Greek guy chiseled “Stavros was here” into them. I think about that every time I see someone’s name or something scrawled in concrete even though that doesn’t require a chisel, and concrete was largely, though not exclusively, used by the Romans.

Also writing in concrete requires being at just the right place at the right time.

Or the right place at the wrong time. Source: "Blazing Saddles", copyright Warner Brothers.

Or the right place at the wrong time.
Source: “Blazing Saddles”, copyright Warner Brothers.

What’s surprising is how quickly concrete wears down. It seems like it would be a more long-lasting form of graffiti, but, looking down, I found that in places with heavy foot traffic examples of it disappeared pretty quickly. Still there are some places where it lasts. Here, for instance, is a bit next to Nashville’s own Exit/In:

stone1

I found this just a few blocks away. I think it’s more recent and already shows signs of wear:

stone2And then there’s this that directs people to The Red Door Saloon, a funky little dive near Music Row.

stone3

 

 

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