American Graffiti.

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

You Decide.

Back in the ’80’s when the ‘M’ in MTV still meant “music” they had an occasional feature called “Smash Or Trash?” They’d run a music video–remember those?–and ask viewers to call in and vote on whether it was “a smash” or “trash”. Local radio stations did it too. Memorable songs that I remember hearing for the first time as a “Smash or trash?” are Love Shack by The B-52s–smash, obviously, Don’t Worry, Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin–again, smash, and She Drives Me Crazy by Fine Young Cannibals. Yeah. Smash. In fact I can’t remember any that were “trash”.

Anyway, here’s your chance. Smash or trash?



Out Of Order.

There’s an extra second tacked on to the end of 2016 because after millenia of calendar-making and time-keeping we still have to make adjustments and anyway we’re using a solar calendar that’s adapted from a lunar calendar originally created by the Romans which they discovered was unreliable, for long-term record-keeping anyway, since the winter months would gradually shift into summer and vice versa.

The whole idea of calendars is pretty arbitrary anyway, our small attempt to bring some regulatory order to a universe which isn’t interested in our timetables. As a kid I thought it was strange that the new year fell right in the middle of winter when it seemed like it would make more sense to have it occur at a change of seasons, and a lot of other cultures thought the same thing. It seemed like a contradiction to start over right in the middle, but contradictions, like calendars, are completely artificial constructions that the universe isn’t interested in. We think of hot and cold or dark and light as opposites, but they’re really simply different coexisting and overlapping states, and when you get right down to it even anti-matter can be created from matter; it exists within matter. Some scientists think the pre-Big Bang universe contained 51% normal matter and 49% anti-matter and it was a collision of the two that started everything and spread everything that we are and can see all across space. If that’s true then it’s pretty amazing to think that not only are all the stars and planets merely 1% of all matter that once existed but that the proto-universe was so full that you never had to worry about the buffet running out of crab legs, but that’s another story.

I know this is all crowded with a lot of strange and seemingly unconnected ideas but the point is whether it’s arbitrary or not enough of us recognize the end of one year and the start of a new one that it influences our consciousness and is seen as both an end and a beginning, opposites colliding.


Winter Trees.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

My favorite part of A Charlie Brown Christmas is the tree—that sad, stunted little tree that I’m pretty sure was just a branch of a larger tree that fell off and that someone nailed to a couple of boards and then placed it in the sale knowing some sucker could be conned into buying it.

I didn’t mean to get quite so dark there. Really it’s the sadness of the tree that’s its charm, which is what I think Charlie Brown sees in it. He sees something that, like him, has a good heart in spite of its outward grotesque and misshapen appearance.

I didn’t mean to get quite so dark there. The point is he takes that tree because he realizes it needs love.

Also I like to think he picked it up because this was just a school play and probably extremely poorly funded so it’s all he could afford. I imagine there was a scene left on the cutting room floor where the other kids are complaining about the tree and Charlie Brown snaps, “Okay, it looks like crap, but it was twenty-percent off!” But that’s another story.

When I speculated about the symbolism of why evergreens are always picked to be Christmas trees there was an element I forgot: appearance. If you wanted to bring something into your house and decorate it you wouldn’t pick a deciduous tree with only a few dry brown leaves clinging to its skeletal branches even if it made symbolic sense. But I think the trees that lose all their leaves and sleep through the winter deserve attention, even deserve a little love, too. Apparently I’m not the only one.



Art Rules.

deer1What are the rules of graffiti? Maybe I should rephrase that: are there any rules of graffiti? Well there are some things that are pretty consistent. Most graffiti is painted–usually spray-painted. Most of it’s not very good, at least from an aesthetic standpoint. Most of the time it’s just a name, if that–a lot of graffiti is just illegible scribbles. Sometimes it’s a tag meant to mark gang territory. Most people consider graffiti an eyesore that’s hard to get rid of, and that’s why you frequently find it in out-of-the-way places.

And then there’s this paper cut-out of a fawn, pasted to a wall just a few doors down from the Belcourt Theater in Nashville’s Hillsboro Village–one of the busiest districts in the whole city. There are several shops within just a block, including the independent bookstores Bookman and Bookwoman, a coffee shop, stores selling haute couture, and the Pancake Pantry which is supposed to be the best breakfast place in the city but I wouldn’t know because I don’t have the patience to stand in line on the sidewalk for three hours but that’s another story.

What I’m getting at is this isn’t a sweet picture. It’s subversive, a rule-breaker. It violates the standards. It’s deceptive in its simplicity. It’s–dare I say it?–dangerous.

Yeah, I shouldn’t dare. I’m stretching it a bit, like a rubber band around a running rhino. Maybe you need some extra convincing. What if I told you that a few blocks down the street, in a run-down area of abandoned buildings, gang tags, empty alleys, and cheap apartments there was another deer exactly like that one?


deer2Yeah. Breaking the rules. Or following them. Either way you can see it as a subtle transposition of the rule of graffiti or a work of sweetness and innocence, the sort of thing that puts you in the holiday spirit.

Taking Up Space.

Several times I’ve talked about graffiti as an expression of frustration, as if it serves some purpose. And every time I do that a voice in the back of my head reminds me that without talking to the artist I really can’t know what the intent was. And for that matter it’s kind of presumptuous to assume there was any intent at all beyond the desire to make something. Academics and critics get hung up on meaning and interpretation because, well, it’s a way of taking up space.

Art is also a way of taking up space. Whatever its intent or however you interpret it art is what it is. It serves a variety of purposes or it serves no purpose at all, unless you consider expressing an idea to be a purpose. And the expression of the idea is made so that it occupies physical space.

That’s what I thought about when I saw these great pieces featured on BoingBoing, made by the Italian street art collective Collettivo FX.


Source: BoingBoing

Source: BoingBoing

Source: BoingBoing

They use the space they occupy, adapting and using the empty space too. And the first one strikingly has “All true” in Italian written over it. All that we see is truth, and all that we see is art. What an interesting idea.

It’s A Gift.

It started as a joke. I noticed a fair amount of graffiti as I was out walking around and I thought it would be fun to take pictures of it and write about it in a tongue-in-cheek critical way, adding references to art history and art criticism. I’ve always kind of wanted to be an art critic, and have written some serious pieces for magazines, although there’s a lot of art out there that I just can’t take seriously.

penguin1And then something happened. I started to see graffiti seriously. I started to realize that there were people behind these anonymous works that popped up in different places, and they were people with something to say. A lot of them have no other place to say it. They don’t have studios or even necessarily enough money to buy the materials to put their ideas on canvas, and even if they did they wouldn’t reach as wide an audience as they can by putting their work out there in public spaces.

penguin2I’ve stretched the definition of graffiti since I started doing this more than a year ago but I’ve tried to keep one thing consistent: whether it’s really graffiti or not I’ve tried to write about works that are publicly visible, that potentially anyone could see. And it occurred to me that a lot of the artists who share their work are giving the city, the world, a gift. I hope by highlighting that I’m giving something back.


Scratching An Itch.

I think a lot of graffiti is crude, even ugly, because it’s an expression of frustration. Someone’s pissed off at the world and can’t do anything about it so they deface something. Or they’re just bored and channel their energy into a scrawl, a scribble, into destroying something. The idea that destruction is a creative act goes back at least as far as Nietzsche’s ideas about Dionysus and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin who said, “The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” This was adopted by Picasso and Braque who created Cubism as a way of destroying and recreating the way art is visualized, but that’s another story.

I thought about all this when I was sitting in a laundromat and noticed something. It seemed like an expression of frustration and boredom, but I realized that such dark feelings can still produce something beautiful. Sometimes defacing isn’t destruction; it’s creation, it’s revelation. It takes an empty space and makes it better.

laundrylaundry1And on another note hail and farewell Leonard Cohen. Here’s his expression, I think, of some of the same feelings.


Artist Billy Martinez at work.

Artist Billy Martinez at work.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to meet artist Billy Martinez as he was working on a mural on Nashville’s Elliston Place. Martinez has an art career that goes back decades and started his own publishing company, Neko Press, in 1997.

While his work in comics and magazines, as well as his stand-alone paintings, are bold and dramatic, often featuring powerful women, this mural is subtler but still just as bold, just as intense. It’s dominated by a black skyline. Rather than deliberately painting the Nashville skyline—in fact there are parking signs up and down Elliston he could have used as sketches, ones with Nashville’s infamous “Batman Building”—he offered a more generic view. And instead of lights he put it in total darkness. The only color, the only light, comes from behind the unbroken row of buildings. This makes the two figures at the edge, where the sidewalk and parking lot next to Smack Clothing, intersect, even more striking.

billymartinez2And the figures themselves are a study in contrasts. Johnny Cash, born in Arkansas, made Tennessee his home for most of his life. As a major figure in country music he’ll always be associated with Nashville and its history. He emerged from the darkness of a rural background in search of the spotlight and found it, and yet, interestingly, in the mural he’s somber, contemplative, focused on his music.

billymartinez3Bettie Page, on the other hand, is fierce and direct, fixing passers-by with her gaze. Former Nashville Scene editor Jim Ridley wrote an appreciation of Page a few years before her death in 2008 and described her as someone who “who deflected the ravenous gaze of strokebook buyers with a look of defiant self-possession”.

Born in Nashville she, like Cash, sought the spotlight, but her career was shorter and she was an underground figure—a pinup girl and a Playboy playmate in the much more sexually conservative 1950’s. She retired from modeling and disappeared into obscurity. She would be “rediscovered” as a new cult following developed in the 1980’s. Although she would profit from her resurgence ater spending several years in poverty, unaware of her own fame, she herself still seemed to shun the spotlight.

It’s not available online but I remember she gave an interview for the Nashville Scene in 2005, when The Notorious Bettie Page hit theaters, but refused to be photographed. A picture that accompanied the interview showed only her hands.

All that makes this mural, seemingly so simple, and something most people will likely just walk by, an intersection of art and history.

I Still Have Plans.

Every work of art, no matter how bleak, cynical, angry, pessimistic, carping, or misanthropic is still a testament and a call to hope. Every dystopian view from Orwell to Atwood, from The Twilight Zone to Black Mirror, is not meant to discourage but to inspire us. A hopeless work of art is an oxymoron because the very act of creating is an effort to capture a moment to preserve it for the future. The very act of creating art is a statement of faith that there will be a future.


Or am I being overly optimistic?


The Power of Words.

Many cultures, religions, and societies ascribe great power to words. Inscriptions and incantations can heal, hurt, or even create. A simple change to a word can change its meaning, can give it power–or take it away.

There are many variations on this. While most contemporary magicians no longer say “abracadabra”, at least not ironically or unless you’re Steve Miller,  its influence lives on in Harry Potter’s avada kedavra. I’m more fascinated by an older story, that of the Golem in Jewish folklore, a creature built of clay and brought to life to act as a servant and protector. In some tales the Golem was brought to life by inscribing the Hebrew word emet (truth) on its forehead and then stilled by removing the first letter–aleph–to change the word to met (dead). The legendary Golem of Prague, created in the late 16th century by Rabbi Loew as a servant then protector of the Jews against persecution by Emperor Rudolph II, was animated by a magic shem placed in his mouth. The Golem could then be stopped by removing the shem. In a more recent addition to the legend the same Golem was given the power of speech.

Finally, I can talk! This is the voice I’ve got? Sounds like I should be selling egg creams in Brighton Beach. That’s what we call Jewish humor. You don’t have to understand it ’cause the words sound funny. Meshuggeneh. Hilarious!

Source: Simpsons Wiki

Source: Simpsons Wiki

But that’s another story.

What got me thinking about this was, ironically, not a magic incantation but a smaller, more mundane change to an inscription that nevertheless spoke to the power of words, how, like clay, their form is not fixed but can be shaped and reshaped into something entirely new. And if that’s not magic I don’t know what is.


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