American Graffiti.

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

Everybody’s A Critic.

junkIn many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

If you’ve seen the film Ratatouille you recognize those lines spoken by the appropriately named critic Anton Ego. I think about them sometimes when I write about graffiti. I’ve been writing about it for a year now. That seems like a long time even though the older I get the faster years go by, but that’s another story. I didn’t think I’d write this much, but I’ve found a lot to write about, and I’m especially grateful to those who’ve sent me their pictures (side note: please send your graffiti pictures to!). Sometimes I’ve had to fudge it and write about things that aren’t graffiti, but when I started I really had no idea how much there was out there.

Even though I’m not a professional critic–just a guy who knows a little bit about art–it’s made me think a lot about what it means to be a critic. And I’ve thought about why I skip over some graffiti I see. Some of it I just don’t like, and even though I’m a critic I try to take the if-you-can’t-say-something-nice-keep-your-big-bazoo-shut approach. Something Anton Ego doesn’t say is that professional critics often move in the same circles as the artists, musicians, cooks, et al they criticize. Sometimes they know each other. If criticism–especially negative criticism–seems personal it’s because it likely is personal. It’s the critic’s way of saying, “You can do better.” Criticism, even professional criticism, is just an opinion, but at best it’s an informed opinion, and its purpose should be to either enlighten the audience or to push the artists to be better.

At least that’s my opinion. What do you think?

Source: Disney Wiki

Surprise me.

Anyway I plan to keep writing about graffiti, and, by the way, if you see any please send your graffiti pictures to And I’ll try to keep these words of Anton Ego in mind:

Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.

“Poli” Meaning “Many” and “Tics” Meaning Small Bloodsucking Arachnids.

stendhal1“Politics in a literary work, is like a gun shot in the middle of a concert, something vulgar, and however, something which is impossible to ignore.”


Sometimes I think using art to make a political statement is a dangerous business and can even undermine what art should do. Using art to make a specific political statement makes the art itself ephemeral; if it achieves its goal of changing the status quo the work ceases to have any value.

Yeah, I know it’s not even close to that simple.

The more I look at this particular work too the more I realize it’s not a simple political statement. There’s a level of ambiguity here. Is the artist calling for fewer guns and more love, or saying that if there were fewer guns there’d be more love? Correlation doesn’t always mean causality.



What’s even more interesting to me is the placement. Here’s where I found it:

stendhal2This particular railroad overpass that marks where Wrenwood Drive becomes Nebraska Avenue. Technically they’re one street, but Nashville is one of those cities where sprawl has led to a lot of spots where one street simply turns into another and renaming them and fixing the maps is a political matter.

I got the close-up by standing in a parking lot and using the zoom feature on my camera. Standing out in the road is a bad idea under any circumstances but this is also an area where cars zoom through. That brings to my mind how much art is a matter of life and death. Depending on how you look at it there’s no such thing as an apolitical work of art.

That reminds me of a joke: two Romanians are sitting in a bar. One of them says, “Fifty-four” and the other laughs. Then the other says, “Ninety-six” and the first one laughs. The bartender overhears this and asks, “What’s with the numbers, guys?”

One of them explains, “Under Ceaucescu we had all these political jokes we couldn’t tell without getting arrested. We gave the jokes numbers so we could share them without telling them.”

The bartender smiles and says, “Oh, I get it. Hey guys–twenty-seven!”

They look at him blankly and then one says, “You know, it’s not the joke so much as how you tell it.”

Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to Let me know if you’d like to be credited or if you’d like to remain completely anonymous. It’s all in how you tell it.

Black, White, And Read All Over.

palimpsestThe first time I heard the word “palimpsest” I thought it was like a pimple, or at least some kind of swollen mass. It’s not a word I run across a lot in spite of how omnivorous my reading habits are, although at the time I was reading a lot of Henry Miller and he liked to throw it in at least five or six times in every book. And from the context it always seemed like a big swollen mass of stuff. Fortunately my old friend the Oxford English Dictionary set me straight. The use I think Henry Miller had in mind, and one that’s pretty common, is a a writing surface that’s “reused or altered while still retaining traces of its earlier form; a multilayered record”.


Source: Wikipedia

Chalkboards, dry erase boards, and the crossword puzzles I do in pencil so I can go back and erase my mistakes are also palimpsests. Sometimes the old words are effaced and replaced, but it’s the “multilayered record” definition that always interests me, and this particular graffiti made me think about the word. There seems to be a certain amount of respect among graffiti artists. Mostly they don’t write over each others’ tags. There’s an exception to every rule, of course. I count at least four different tags here, one which I’m pretty sure was explicitly written over another one.

There’s also quite a bit of color too–black, yellow, and purple, all on a background of white and a black and white checkered wall. That got me thinking of how all graffiti already is a palimpsest. In academic parlance any object–and that includes buildings and train cars–can be “read”.

The building is a defunct fast food joint but by using it as a canvas the artists have overwritten that with their own meaning.

On the opposite wall there’s this circular window where, if you embiggen the picture and look carefully, you might be able to see the chain’s name. The neon no longer glows and has been overwritten by something new.


Art must survive.

Seen any graffiti?Send your pictures to You can be credited or remain completely anonymous and unless you specify otherwise none of your contact information will be shared with anyone.

How Do You Say…

seoulfoodI know this isn’t graffiti. It’s a food truck and their logo has a certain distinctive style that looks, hey, kind of like graffiti. And that was probably intentional because the Funk Seoul Brother food truck serves “Seoul food” and it’s riffing on African American, and in particular inner city urban, culture. I don’t want to bust their chops for it because I think it’s funny and, in my opinion, it’s like some kinds of fusion cuisine. It’s a cultural blend that works.

Others may disagree, but that’s what the comments section is for. I’m open to alternative viewpoints.

What’s interesting is I saw the food truck on the same day I read about a sportscaster getting some flak for a t-shirt he wore highlighting how certain sports teams mascots make fun of other–especially Native American–cultures.



Yeah, I think I’m treading on really thin ice here, but I’m both trying to approach the controversy thoughtfully and relying on the fact that this blog is only read by a small number of intelligent people and while I wouldn’t mind a wider audience I don’t want to end up on The Internet Ruined My Life.

Several years ago I went to an opening of an exhibition of photographs of Native Americans. These were contemporary photographs, not old ones. People asked the photographer questions and some would say “Indian” and then correct themselves and say “Native American”. Finally one person said, “What do they prefer to be called?”

The photographer replied a little pointedly that “they” are individuals but that most didn’t care if they were called Indians or Native Americans as long as they were treated with respect.

That reminds me of my favorite Simpsons lines, from the episode “Homer’s Phobia”, when Homer, speaking to the gay character John, voiced by John Waters, says, “Queer. That’s what you like to be called, right?” And John replies, “Well, that or John.”

I’m not really sure where I’m going with any of this which I could use as one of half a dozen reasons for not bringing any of this up. Questions of cultural appropriation and even cultural fusion are difficult and risky because they’re emotionally charged. If I don’t say anything, though, it might seem like I’m not interested in listening and learning. Silence may lead to the assumption that I don’t think about these issues and am closed to alternative viewpoints.

Words, Words, Words.

Before he became a successful artist Jean-Michel Basquiat wrote graffiti. With his friend Al Diaz and a few others he wrote brief, cryptic, sometimes barbed statements like “Playing Art With Daddy’s Money”, always signed with the tag SAMO—short for “Same Old Shit”. People who walked by and saw these messages must have wondered about them and who was behind them.

This particular work, written on the glass window of a car showroom that’s been sitting empty for decades, makes me think too.

haloUnlike one of SAMO’s lines there’s nothing pointed about it. And it may be purely coincidental that HALO is so close to SAMO , and given that “She wears the mornings well” is more personal than pointed this probably isn’t a tribute to Basquiat but rather something completely original.

In fact it seems more like a one-line poem and makes me think all kinds of things. Who is she? When she “wears the mornings” is she hiding something, and doing it so well no one knows? No one, that is, except for the artist. Some graffiti emphasizes the visual, but here it’s all about the words and what they conjure up.

Seen any graffiti? Email your pictures to Let me know if you’d like your submissions credited to you or if you want to remain anonymous. 

Do It Again.

tag1Earlier this week I went to a talk by Julian Barnes. He read his story The Silence about the last years of Sibelius’s life. I didn’t realize Sibelius wrote seven symphonies and then went silent for nearly thirty years, although Barnes said “about seventeen seconds” of an 8th symphony does exist. As far as is known he wrote very little during that period, although one night late in his life Sibelius’s wife found him burning manuscripts.

Barnes said that made him think about the point in any artist’s career when they should give up because everything after that is going to be “repetition and diminution”. And there have been other cases of artists who created extraordinary work then simply walked away. At thirty-six Duchamp turned his attention almost entirely to chess. Rimbaud wrote more poetry than some poets will produce in their lifetimes before he was twenty-one then walked away from it.

Because I think of art as a compulsion the idea of artists who just quit is something I have a hard time wrapping my head around. And this raises an even tougher question: when artists are known do they feel greater pressure to evolve, to not do the same thing again and again? Or do anonymous artists feel the same pressure to keep challenging themselves? And I realize it must vary from artist to artist.

It’s an interesting question for me because I see a lot of repetition in graffiti. Artists create a distinctive tag that doubles as their work and their signature. They get known by repeating the same thing again and again. Because so many are anonymous, though, it’s tough to track how many change, how many evolve, and how many challenge themselves to keep doing something new.




All Art Is Local.

butteryGraffiti is transgressive, anti-social, even violent, right? Maybe it isn’t always. I’ve featured local artist BUTTER here before, but with a smaller, less elaborate tag. For this particular work the artist has gone all out and created something big. And it’s in another part of town from the earlier tag, although I see BUTTER all over the place. And butter, but only in stores. If I saw actual butter, or even margarine, or “oleo” which I think is contractually required to appear at least once in every crossword puzzle ever created, out in the streets that would be weird.

Anyway this got me thinking about how some graffiti artists form a community. Sometimes when I see two or more tags in the same place or close to each other I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’re the same color. Artists working together in the same area may share materials, even ideas. Generally we may have romantic notions of the lone genius toiling away at a masterpiece but that’s rarely, if ever, the case. Artists work together, they influence each other, and their work becomes part of the community. Even when it’s not sanctioned by the property owner, even when it’s graffiti, art that is publicly on display is part of the community. I realize for some people that’s a concern. They’re bothered that graffiti will just encourage more graffiti. For me, though, that’s why I try as much as I can to highlight graffiti that I think is interesting, that has aesthetic value. I don’t want to encourage anyone to break the law, but if there’s something I can do as a critic I do want to encourage artists to be better.

Yeah, sometimes graffiti is just gang tags, but I think it’s that cool that I see BUTTER all over the place.

Fill In The Blanks.

fillintheblank1It’s not exactly aesthetically pleasing but I like the way this work works on my imagination. This isn’t really an example of pareidolia but there’s just enough there to imagine a face to go with the hair and eyebrows. And I’m pretty sure it’s meant to be Steve Martin’s face. That’s based on the fact that person or persons unknown has painted Steve Martin’s face on a wall along I-40 (which I wrote about previously) and placed metal cutouts of his face on various bus stops around town. I don’t know why they picked Steve Martin although he does have a bit of history here in Nashville and even mentions Exit/In in his autobiography Born Standing Up, but that’s another story.

What really intrigues me about this particular work though is its placement. It was hard for me to get a picture that would give you a good idea of how unusual its placement is but it’s on a solid concrete wall next to a fast food place. It’s just off Hillsboro Pike in Green Hills, a pretty affluent area of town that’s known for its massive traffic snarls. At almost any time of day if you go to Green Hills you can count on a lot of time just sitting around in traffic. For the record I did not take this picture while driving but parked and was standing on the sidewalk across the street.

In the midst of all this overcrowded space someone saw this stark empty wall and decided to add something to it, and what they added encourages us the viewers to think, to imagine, to fill in the blanks.

Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to You’ll get full credit. Or not. It’s up to you.

Hidden In Plain Sight.

hidden1Placement of a work of art is incredibly important. Artists want their work to be seen and seen at its best. When Mark Rothko began working on paintings for the Mark Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas he worked to find ways to recreate the light in his New York studio. The project’s initial architect even left because of creative differences. Rothko simply refused to budge when it came to the specific quality of the light he wanted.

Anyway it’s a given that artists want their work to be seen, that they want their work to be as visible as possible, right?

So why then would three different artists put their work in a narrow space between a couple of buildings where it’s unlikely anyone would see it? It’s an even more difficult question when two of the works are especially elaborate. The third, in the middle, is by “UH”, whose tag I’ve seen in other spots around the city.

It’s especially frustrating to me because there’s just not enough space to get a decent picture.

hidden2It looks like they all also used the same color, a stark black. Maybe it was unintentional but it’s a reminder that nothing about art is as simple as black and white.


But What Does It Mean?

nopeburger1I took this picture last year and put it aside because I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I think it’s a really interesting piece of graffiti. The elaborate font is striking as is the color choice. Compared to the other graffiti around it this piece is really something special. But what does it mean?

It’s in an area that’s undergoing rapid development, right across the street from J.J.’s coffee shop (where I found some other interesting graffiti) in fact, where new apartments are going up all over the place and competing for space with restaurants, and local restaurants are competing with chains muscling in. It’s on the side of a building that was a small real estate office before it was taken over by a nearby comic book store that used it for overflow stock and then it was a tattoo studio. Now the building’s undergoing serious renovation and while they’re not knocking down the walls there’s no telling what’s going in there next but given the area’s gentrification it’s probably something expensive.


The fence around the construction site makes it hard to get a good picture of it now.

So is it a statement of futility in the face of local history and culture being ground up into a bland “nope burger”? Or am I overreaching in an effort to make sense of something that’s meant to be purposely senseless?

I’m going to get a little meta-critical here and say that the major role of a critic is to make sense of culture, to explain things in a way that will make them fit into a cultural narrative. That’s what makes professional critics useful even though the only difference between a professional critic’s opinion and the opinion of somebody on the street is the professional critic’s opinion is usually better informed. Better informed doesn’t necessarily mean better, but that’s another story.

And even though professional critics are paid to offer opinions I think even they sometimes have to admit they don’t know what to say about something.

I’m not a professional critic, just a guy with some opinions who can embellish those opinions with what I know about art, but I look at this and I have no idea what to say except that I like it. Professional critics may feel differently.



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