American Graffiti.

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

Free For All.

“I really thought if I ever learned to draw properly I would try to change the world for the better.”

Ralph Steadman

I first saw this mural in Cincinnati from a moving car, which is funny because I don’t know where to start with it. In fact I was so excited when I saw it I almost jumped out of the car, and that was before I realized it was by Ralph Steadman. Steadman is best known for his work with Hunter S. Thompson, a long collaboration that began with Steadman providing illustrations for The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved. Steadman’s slapdash style looks decadent and depraved, at least from a distance, but up close is exquisitely detailed. He combines accidents and precision, an interesting contradiction given that Steadman himself seems very contradictory. His art is often brutal and angry, raging at state of the world, and yet he also does commercial work. You may not be able to buy an original painting by him–he’s really very reluctant to sell his work and has said, “If anyone owns an original Steadman it’s stolen”–but copies are cheap and easy to find.

Among other things he’s done the labels for Flying Dog beer, and it’s not surprising that when my friend James, who was driving the car I’d later almost jump out of, and I were perusing the beer aisle of a store I pointed some out to him. He’s lucky he can find Flying Dog beers since they’re no longer available in Tennessee, and I once drove a really long way to find some. Then I sent them an e-mail describing my ordeal and got a really nice reply and they sent me a t-shirt, but that’s another story. He’s also a prolific author of numerous books.

As for the mural, it is an original Steadman.

Who owns it, though, or if it’s really owned by anyone, is another question. Public murals are contradictory in themselves: they’re commissioned and approved and an artist gets paid but once done they belong to everyone who happens to pass by. You don’t have to go into a gallery or museum; most of the time if you see a public mural it’s an accident, but hopefully an accident that makes your world a little better.

This reminds me of that great quote from Winston Churchill, “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Dragon Soup.

Nashville’s Fannie Mae Dees park is a local curiosity. Created in the 1970‘s as part of the urban renewal craze it’s named, ironically, after a woman who opposed its development and other changes to the neighborhood around it. Its real attraction is the sculpture at its heart which has earned it the nickname “Dragon Park”, although the sculptor originally called the work a sea serpent. It was built by Pedro Silva, a Chilean-born New York artist who earned national attention for his whimsical benches around Grant’s Tomb. Meant to revitalize the area he employed local graffiti artists and when Silva came to Nashville he enlisted the help of local volunteers, using a few rough sketches but mostly improvising. Near the Vanderbilt hospital complex it’s attracted a lot of visitors over the years, including R.E.M. who took pictures in the park for the cover of their 1987 album Document, so I guess it’s not just a local curiosity.

Anyway right now the dragon is in trouble, in need of repair and closed off to the public while funds are being raised for restoration. And a curious thing has happened: the walls put up to block off public access have become canvases for local graffiti artists. A lot of graffiti now covers the walls, and most of it is…not very good.

In fact most of it might be unintentionally contributing to the fundraising because people will want to get rid of it. I’d like to see the dragon come back too. It’s an important piece of Nashville history. And yet, while it’s good that most of the graffiti is temporary, some of it is pretty good.

It may even be good enough that it deserves to be recognized as part of Nashville’s history too.


It’s Only Money.

Source: iSpotTV

Whenever I see graffiti used in advertising, like in a recent Coca-Cola ad, it makes me laugh. Graffiti is supposed to be worthless, or maybe even less than worthless as far as people who think it brings down property values are concerned. And then advertising comes along and uses graffiti to make money, and presto, it’s worth something, at least as long as it’s being used to push a product. If it’s advertising of course it’s not technically graffiti, it’s just advertising that’s made to look like graffiti. It’s masquerading as graffiti, but to me the lines there get kind of blurry. Is advertising any less of an art form than art? Let’s consider that from a few different perspectives, starting with Bill Hicks, the ultimate artistic purist who famously said, “Do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call.” And there’s long been criticism of product placement in movies. A 2016 post over at Assholes Watching Movies considered the myriad forms that’s taken, and if you want to go even further back the June 11, 1990 issue of Time had a backpage essay by y called “These Foolish Things Remind Me Of Diet Coke” that imagined product placement in everything from Shakespeare to the Bible, and also the Eric Maschwitz and music by Jack Strachey standard that’s been covered by everyone from Billie Holiday to Bryan Ferry, but that’s another story.

At the other end of the spectrum artists have been singing for their suppers probably as long as there’s been art. Going way back the Greek poet Pindar (c.522–c.443 BC) would write lyric celebrations of anyone who paid him. The more money you gave him the longer your poem would be, and yet now he’s regarded as a great artist and his poems are hated by students of the classics because his Greek is so damn hard to translate.

Source: iSpotTV

And more recently selling out isn’t necessarily seen as a bad thing. Artists have gotta make a living after all. Some artists have even raised seeking fame and fortune to an art form in itself, primarily Andy Warhol, who the critic Robert Hughes said, “went after publicity with the voracious singlemindedness of a feeding bluefish”, a sharp contrast to earlier artists who were usually surprised to find themselves the subject of any public attention. And to quote another comedian, Steve Martin said,

I love money. I love everything about it. I bought some pretty good stuff. Got me a $300 pair of socks. Got a fur sink. An electric dog polisher. A gasoline powered turtleneck sweater. And, of course, I bought some dumb stuff, too.

In fact it’s a fairly recent notion, traceable to the Romantic period, that artists are beholden only to themselves and their principles. Where did this idea come from? Probably at least in part due to the rise of advertising. Art is a refuge from a world that wants us to consume, or is it? I’m not talking about the price of a painting or even a song download. I’m talking about something much more abstract. If you buy into the idea that art–any art–means something, that it conveys an idea, a message, then it is trying to sell you something. The difference is that good art isn’t going to push a specific principle or idea. Instead of telling you what to think good art gives you a range of perspectives and treats an idea with enough ambiguity that you’re left to make up your own mind.

At least that’s my opinion, for what it’s worth.





What’s In A Name.

Why would someone go to all the trouble of printing up stickers with what look like letters and sticking them up around town? Presumably this is someone’s personal symbol, a stylized version of their initials, and that got me thinking. We all know Shakespeare, or rather Shakespeare’s character Juliet, said, “What’s in a name?” but Shakespeare, or rather Shakespeare’s character Iago, says, “But he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him,/And makes me poor indeed” although Iago isn’t exactly a trustworthy fellow and he’s in another play, but that’s another story. The writer Idries Shah also has a very funny story in his book The Natives Are Restless about the time he was in a market in Beirut and found a man selling “An Idries Shah signature” for about twenty pence in local currency.

When I asked for one the man concentrated for a moment, and then inscribed my name on crimson paper in gold ink, with many a flourish. It looked far more impressive than the real thing. Why, I asked him as I pocketed it, did he not sell originals? It seemed that they were ‘difficult to get, he is a most busy man, you see.’ Was a copy as good? ‘Ya Sidi, O Sir! Most people here cannot even write…’

Would the man whose signature he was forging, this Idries Shah, I asked, not object to such a trade?

‘Such a man, Sidi, written about in the newspapers, and a man of learning, undoubtedly a man of generous habits, surely would not grudge me a living?’

No, I supposed not. Besides, I reflected, next time I felt like being a bit reckless, I could write my name down a few times on a piece of paper–and throw it away. Even twenty pence is money.

This got me thinking even further about language, especially written language. February 21st, 2018, was the 190th anniversary of the first publication of The Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper published in both English and in the Cherokee syllabary created by the Cherokee Sequoyah who felt his people needed a written language.

Written language depends on a collective agreement about what symbols represent, just as spoken language depends on a collective agreement about what’s represented by sounds we make with our face holes, although language is also by necessity flexible and many words change meaning over time. So what I’m getting at is maybe those stickers aren’t meant to represent a person but a new and, for me anyway, unpronounceable name for whatever they’re stuck on. After all, what’s in a name?


One of the fascinating things to me about art history is the way decorating styles have changed over the millennia. In most cultures decoration—which I’ll just define broadly as little fiddly bits added on to something that don’t really need to be there but make it look nicer—is used to some degree or other. In Europe decoration really reached its height in the Baroque and Rococo periods with decoration getting so elaborate I’m not sure the eye could take it all in, and in a lot of cases there were details that were missed. Once, while I was visiting a late Baroque cathedral in Austria, the tour guide pointed out a carving on the armrest of a pew of a couple in the 69 position, and it probably went unnoticed for a really long time because it was dark wood and there was so much other stuff around it. And eventually there’d be a decline and some movements, particularly in architecture, aimed for more utilitarian designs, such as the Bauhaus which had an aesthetic based on straight lines and little decoration but then moved into singing about Bela Lugosi, but that’s another story.

Even the sparest, least decorated art can also be very emotionally effective. Some people point to Mark Rothko’s large blocks of color and say, “Well, hell, I could do that,” but his paintings can be very haunting and up close reveal a lot of detail in the brushwork. It’s also worth noting that he designed a special building with carefully controlled lighting to give people a very specific experience of seeing his paintings.

Because graffiti is illegal it usually has to be quick and dirty—as opposed to elaborately carved couples in flagrante delicto which would be long and dirty–or at least quick, so there’s not a lot of time for decorating, but I always appreciate it when it adds a little something to an otherwise bland space.

All You Need Is Looking.

From up close it looked like a random scribble. There wasn’t anything unusual about that. I see a lot of random scribbles on benches and walls and gas meters. Most of the time they’re done in pen although sometimes they’re done in paint. And I always wonder when they’re done in paint why the person who made them even bothered. Then I think maybe they were practicing. Or maybe they’re gang signs, although that seems unlikely. The random scribbles are so, well, random, and so generic I can’t imagine any gang being able to identify them as their own.

“Is this one of ours?”

“Beats me. They all look like that.”

The random scribbles, I always think, lack more than purpose. They lack passion, intent, a desire to share something.

And then for some reason I crossed the street and looked back, and I was glad I did. What looked like a random scribble turned out to be something a lot more interesting. Maybe it was still someone practicing, or maybe its distinctive look was intentional. The mark at the end certainly seemed to signal more to come.

Looking back I could see passion, intent, and a desire to share something, and I was glad I gave what I thought was nothing another look.



Finding My Way.

A few years ago I got a gig writing art criticism for a small magazine. I’m not sure what the editors were thinking. I’d taken a few classes, but as far as being an art critic I was mostly self-taught. Still I was excited. I’d seen an exhibit at a local gallery that I thought was amazing and I thought I could say a lot about it so I went back to the gallery, notebook and pen in hand, and the exhibit was gone. It had been replaced by another, a series of paintings. And I couldn’t make sense of them. It also didn’t help that I didn’t know anything about the artist aside from a brief bio on the gallery wall, and I started wondering if I’d made a mistake. I was doing the job pro bono even though I wasn’t a pro and feeling less bono every minute. And then a couple of things happened. For one thing I remembered a piece I’d read by the art critic David Sylvester. Sylvester was an interesting character. In spite of not having any formal art education himself Sylvester managed to become a major art critic, promoting the work of artists like Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. He was a friend of Alberto Giacometti, and for a while worked as an assistant for the sculptor Henry Moore. He lost the job because he and Moore spent so much time arguing about art neither one of them could get any work done, which makes me think that if you’re working for a major artist you should agree with whatever their opinions are, unless that’s not what they want in which case agree to disagree, but that’s another story. Anyway I remembered that in one piece of criticism Sylvester started off by admitting he didn’t know anything about the artist, but he sort of muddled through, mostly by describing the artists’ works on display and extrapolating some ideas.
And so I did the same thing.

And the funny thing is the more I looked at the works in the gallery the more I liked them, the more I felt I understood them. The great Yogi Berra said “You can observe a lot by watching,” and it’s true that you can also see a lot by looking.

Give ‘Em An Inch.

A problem some people see with graffiti is that it might encourage more, and worse, crime in an area. It’s the broken windows theory of crime—the idea that a bad environment is responsible for crime. It goes sort of like this: one broken window in an empty building will encourage people to break more windows and next thing you know you have hooliganism running amok which sounds bad in spite of the fact that “hooliganism” and “amok” are fun words to throw around, especially if you’re playing Scrabble where they’re worth a lot of points, but that’s another story.

The broken windows theory has, depending on whom you ask, been discredited. I don’t think it’s ever been completely discredited because crime is a complicated thing and it’s impossible to point to a single factor that causes or contributes to it, or to even find a specific set of factors.


And sometimes I think that a little graffiti can make something you wouldn’t stop to look at or think about more interesting. It can actually improve an area.

Being There.

Some friends and I were walking through Gorky Park, the actual park, not the 1983 film, although it is interesting to me that one of my favorite comedians, Alexei Sayle, has a small role in the film. He gets shot in the head and because the special effects technicians got a little overzealous when they shot the shooting he was left temporarily deaf. While he was sitting around the set recovering Lee Marvin sat down and talked to him for about half an hour and all Sayle, who was understandably starstruck, could do was smile and nod politely.

My friends and I had just been to a Marc Chagall exhibit at a Moscow museum which, at the time, was a pretty big deal. This was 1991, the Soviet Union had collapsed less than a week earlier, and Chagall’s paintings were being shown in his native Russia for the first time since he left in 1923. It was striking to me that even though Chagall himself wouldn’t live to see it his paintings had outlasted the Soviet Union. And even though I really loved the Chagall  paintings I’d seen in books this was the first time I’d ever seen his pictures in person. No matter how good a reproduction may be it can never capture the feeling of being in front of an original painting, seeing its size, the brushstrokes, and the colors unfiltered.

Because it was snowing and because we were in a park we decided to build a snowman, although we didn’t pretend he was Parson Brown, but if we had and he’d asked, “Are you married?” we would have said, “Holy crap, it’s a talking snowman!” but that’s another story. Since we didn’t have coal or carrots we used kopecks for the eyes and nose and mouth. Some Russian kids gave us weird looks. As we walked away I looked back and saw them examining the snowman. I figured they’d take the kopecks but they didn’t touch it.

On the metro going back to the hotel we sat across from a boy who might have been seven or eight.

“Would you like a piece of candy?” one of my friends asked. He gave her a blank look. She held out a lollipop from her candy stash. He took it and politely muttered “Спасибо.” He then took out a red plastic pencil case and put the lollipop in it, keeping his head down. The rest of the trip he kept moving around the lollipop and his pencils, a smile pushing out at the corners of his mouth.

Every once in a while I think about that kid and how he must be grown now, and I wonder if any memory of us has melted away, like the lollipop and the snowman, or if he remembers that, if he feels lucky to have been there.

Pardon My French.

When I was young one of the most popularly quoted lines among my peers was “Hell is other people” from Sarte’s No Exit. In college it was posted on the door of every dorm room, or at least every third dorm room, or maybe it was just a few on every floor and it just seemed like it was everywhere.

The problem is it was almost always misquoted, or rather misunderstood. Sure, Sarte wrote in French, and the play was originally called Huis Clos, so, yeah, anyone who said “Hell is other people” was, strictly speaking, quoting a translation of the original, but the important thing is that Sarte was one of the major figures of the Existentialist movement, and even though one of his characters says, “Hell is other people,” or something like it, the author of Being And Nothingness believed that it is our perceptions that shape the world. If Sarte knew how many kids were going around saying “Hell is other people” it would probably make him say, “Merde.”

A character from the TV show Justified put it much more succinctly: “If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”

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