American Graffiti.

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

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 freethinkers@nerosoft.com.

Pride.

nashville

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.

Show, Don’t Tell.

A few weeks ago Linda of Half A 1000 Miles sent me a link to a video description contest. The contest seemed pretty simple: write a narrative description of a short film for the visually impaired. I did that, after I watched the video three or four times and then paused it about every twenty seconds to stop and write out a description of what was going on. That may sound challenging and it is. Per the contest rules I tried to time the narrative to follow the action which meant I also stopped to read what I was writing out loud while watching what was happening on-screen.

And since this was aimed at the visually impaired I thought it would be best to avoid adjectives, especially colors. Depending on how and when they lost their sight, or how much sight they have, color may not mean anything to them. Or it might. And while I was emphasizing verbs which push a narrative along the value of adjectives is they slow a narrative down. It was a hard balance to strike.

It also reminded me that while a picture may be worth a thousand words a thousand words don’t necessarily add up to a picture.

That reminds me of the line parroted in every creative writing class I’ve ever taken: Show, don’t tell. No one seems to ever catch the irony that we’re never given examples, but that’s another story.

Anyway here’s the video. I think it’s very funny and clever and illustrates why I find graffiti so interesting much better than I can say.

Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to freethinkers@nerosoft.com. I won’t call the cops on you or anything.

It’s All Connected.

savethebees

It isn’t just what an artist says. It’s how it’s said.

One definition of art–and, I admit, it’s far from being the only definition–is the aesthetic reinterpretation of the world around us. Joseph Brodsky said, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “aesthetics is the mother of ethics.” He meant linguistically–both words are derived from the same source–and also more philosophically. My own interpretation of that is that art makes us better people because it makes us see the world around us in different ways and this, in turn, makes us more connected to the world around us.

Street artist Louis Masais’s painting Save The Bees is both aesthetically and ethically powerful.

It’s an ecological statement. Bees are currently threatened worldwide and as a cornerstone species their extinction could have a ripple effect that would change global ecosystems. It threatens to affect even our lives as we know them, if not our very existence, because of the role bees play in pollinating food crops.

That would be the “ethics” part of his painting–the underlying subtext, but consider the “aesthetics”, how he’s chosen to make the statement. He didn’t write out a text explaining what’s happening to the bees. He could have–others have and it’s a good way to get the message out–but instead his painting incorporates a giant bee onto the corner of a building. And rather than just a trompe l’oeil painting he’s incorporated smaller paintings of flowers into its head, thorax, and abdomen. The bee is one of nature’s works of art and creating art is in our nature. Art doesn’t just mimic nature; it’s our way of defining and understanding it. It connects us. And we have to ask ourselves, do we really want to turn a corner into a world without bees?

Granted this is only one interpretation of this particular work, and Masai has painted several public murals of bees and other endangered animals to raise awareness. This particular one just happened to be the first one I saw when it was posted by Twitter user @CarlForrest. And it made me feel connected.

Thanks also to Karen of Chronicles Of A Boob for sharing it with me.

 

The Heart Of Design.

heart1Five hundred years ago the same artists who create graffiti now would have been carving gargoyles, making stained glass windows, and painting frescoes for cathedrals. A thousand years ago they would have been illuminating books. That’s a real stretch but I do think the driving force behind at least some graffiti is that there aren’t enough outlets for people with a need to create. In the Baroque and Rococo periods especially there was a lot of call for craftspeople to decorate every square inch of just about every surface. Economics and social changes brought an end to that and most modern design is driven by function with a belief that anything extra is superfluous. There have even been art movements that sought to strip items down to just rationality and functionality. I’m looking at you Bauhaus—and I don’t mean the band.

I still think there’s a deeply human impulse to decorate and this is a really roundabout way of saying I absolutely love the heart painted on a storage container. Whoever did this has taken a bland, utilitarian, mass-manufactured object and made it unique. At least they’ve added something interesting to it.

heart2I’m not so in love with the car parked in front of it that made it difficult for me to get a clear shot but, hey, people gotta park. And almost every car on the road has bumper stickers, and some have eyelashes or Rudolph noses and antlers around Christmas or have been decorated in some way. Like I said: there’s a deeply human impulse to decorate.

heart3The way the heart is drawn is very interesting to me too. The artist didn’t use conventional spray paint but something thicker, giving it a rough texture. The arrow is also pointing upward. Heart and Cupid iconography are really big subjects I won’t go into but logically a fired arrow moves in an arc, which is why they call it “archery”, but that’s another story. For an arrow to go straight up through something it has to be fired really hard and from a low angle. That does make some sense since Cupid is usually portrayed as a child.

Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to freethinkers@nerosoft.com. I’m not kidding when I say I’d love to get them.

cupid

A Matter Of Taste.

discoI once heard an art critic tell a bunch of art students, “Some mornings I want tomato juice and some mornings I want orange juice. If you give me orange juice on a morning when I want tomato juice I won’t like it. It doesn’t matter if it’s the best orange juice in the world. I still won’t like it.” He then went on to say that some of their works he was going to look at were going to be orange juice and that they should keep in mind that today was a tomato juice day.

My first thought was, “What an asshole.” But then I thought a little more about it and realized he was admitting that his judgment was fallible. He also admitted that his opinions were not objective and were sometimes shaped by factors that had nothing to do with what he was looking at.

I still think, what an asshole, but that’s tempered a little bit by understanding the deeper implications of what he said.

Years later I got asked to write art criticism for a little magazine—so little it folded after its second issue, but that’s another story. At the Sarratt Art Gallery there was an exhibit of paintings by Margo Kren. It was her “Snook’s Jazz” series, named after her husband and inspired by her visits to New Orleans. And that was about all I got from the exhibition catalogue. I missed the opening so I never got to talk to her.

At first I felt like I was being given tomato juice and let me say right now that I don’t like tomato juice. There is no morning, afternoon, or evening when I want tomato juice. And I started writing a review that was pretty critical, but since I was working on it during lunch breaks I only had a short time to look at the paintings and write so I kept going back. And a funny thing happened. I started looking more closely at the paintings and found depth and detail I’d missed earlier. The online versions don’t really capture the paintings, how large they are, or an interesting recurring motif: thick blobs of paint like candy dots.

The more I looked at her work the more I liked it and I ended up writing a really positive review of the paintings.

It’s an experience I’ve kept in mind ever since because it reminds me that my first impression may not be the right one. If I give something another look I just might develop a taste for it.

Sometimes I Wanna Be An Anarchist.

The word “anarchy” gets used a lot to describe riots and other chaotic events but that’s not really what it means. Technically it’s not what “chaos” means either, but that’s another story. “Anarchy” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “without a leader”. It just means a system where everyone only looks out for themselves and there are no rules.

anarchy1I’m generally a fan of rules. Without them things tend to break down and a game of Sorry! can quickly turn into a game of Sorry I Ripped Up The Carpet And Stuffed It In Your Face Until You Bled! and while this can make the game more interesting in the short term in the long term it usually results in a parental figure taking it away.

anarchy2Anyway I do think it’s good to challenge the rules sometimes, to force ourselves to think about why we have rules in the first place, and whether the rules we’re following are still useful or if they’re just something we do out of habit. Graffiti is against the law but why? I can think of a lot of reasons, starting with I don’t want somebody spray painting stuff on my house, but are there exceptions? There’s graffiti carved into the pyramids and other ancient monuments that was done thousands of years ago so it’s become history itself. And what are the rules of graffiti? Mostly people think of graffiti as painted, and that’s reflected in one of the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Words or images marked (illegally) in a public place, esp. using aerosol paint.” But that could include stickers, signs, posters…graffiti could be any kind of mark made in a public place. The problem with making the definition overly broad, though, is it then loses all meaning and spitting on the sidewalk becomes graffiti. I believe graffiti is an art form and I have a pretty broad interpretation of what art is, but there have got to be some standards and some rules or the whole thing would descend into anarchy.

Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to freethinkers@nerosoft.com. You can be credited or remain anonymous. Whatever you want the rules to be.

Thistle Do.

thistleWhen I was four or five years old I had a weird fascination with thistles. I even tried to grow a thistle by sticking it in a flowerpot with some dirt where it died almost immediately. I’m not sure what it was I liked about them but I think it’s because they were distinctive, easy to identify, and such a badass plant. I could almost hear them talking and they always sounded tough. Thistles, I thought, could push their way in anywhere and with those spiky leaves.

I’m talking about the American thistle, by the way, which is a little bit different from the Scottish thistle, although the same idea applies. You wouldn’t want to step on either one barefoot, although I still liked thistles even after stepping on several in my bare feet. I always figured it was my fault for intruding on their space.

When I look at thistles now I still see a badass plant. Everything will flourish under the right conditions but thistles occupy spaces other plants don’t want. And I see something that keeps coming back regardless of what anyone else thinks. And I see something that from a distance might seem ugly because some people don’t want it there but that when examined closely has profound beauty.

That metaphor may be a bit of a stretch, but then beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

thistle1

Inspiration, of course, takes many forms.

thistle2

 

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 freethinkers@nerosoft.com!). 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 freethinkers@nerosoft.com. 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.”

-Stendhal

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 freethinkers@nerosoft.com. 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.

%d bloggers like this: