American Graffiti.

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

Down, Up.

001A long time ago I learned an important lesson. I can’t change how other people think or act. I can only change how I respond to others. It’s a revelation that led me to try and always think about things from other people’s perspectives. Stopping to think about other people’s motives has made me, I think, a happier person and, I hope, a better person.

That’s what I thought about when I saw the giant DOWNER scrawled on a building. Graffiti makes some people angry, and I get that, but think about it from the perspective of the artist here. Maybe this was someone expressing frustration, asking for help. And they’re doing in purple, a color that, in literary symbolism, is traditionally associated with royalty and wealth but also spirituality and transformation.

Or maybe purple was all they could get their hands on and DOWNER was just something they thought would be fun to write.

Either way I’m not going to let it change how I feel about it.

Poetry In Motion.


Photo provided courtesy of Tripping On Air

This week’s graffiti is special in a lot of ways. First and most important it’s the first reader submission: this one comes courtesy of Tripping On Air which is a fun and inspiring blog.

And this is a fun and even inspiring piece of graffiti. The artist labels it a haiku. Technically it would be more appropriate to call it a senryu since haikus are traditionally about nature while senryus are about people. Except both haikus and senryus have that 5-7-5 syllable structure and this has more of a 6-4-6 structure. Here it is:

J’ai dormi dans des trains,

je t’y ai fait,

l’amour, comme dans un rêve

And here’s my translation:

In trains I have slept.

It was in them I loved you,

As though in a dream.

Yeah, I went with the 5-7-5 structure although technically senryus are also supposed to be humorous. I’ve never forgotten the first senryu I ever read even though I don’t remember where I read it: “As he feels her up/she has turned her attention/only to the cat.”

So anyway the graffiti is breaking all kinds of poetry rules but that’s okay. Poetry can be an unruly art form that has to break the rules and there’s nothing that breaks the rules like graffiti.

And this graffitied poem also makes me think of a longer poem about love on a train. Here’s Carolyn Forché’s For The Stranger from her book The Country Between Us. You can also go here to hear her read the poem.

Although you mention Venice
keeping it on your tongue like a fruit pit
and I say yes, perhaps Bucharest, neither of us
really knows. There is only this train
slipping through pastures of snow,
a sleigh reaching down
to touch its buried runners.
We meet on the shaking platform,
the wind’s broken teeth sinking into us.
You unwrap your dark bread
and share with me the coffee
sloshing into your gloves.
Telegraph posts chop the winter fields
into white blocks, in each window
the crude painting of a small farm.
We listen to mothers scolding
children in English as if
we do not understand a word of it–
sit still, sit still.

There are few clues as to where
we are: the baled wheat scattered
everywhere like missing coffins.
The distant yellow kitchen lights
wiped with oil.
Everywhere the black dipping wires
stretching messages from one side
of a country to the other.
The men who stand on every border
waving to us.

Wiping ovals of breath from the windows
in order to see ourselves, you touch
the glass tenderly wherever it holds my face.
Days later, you are showing me
photographs of a woman and children
smiling from the windows of your wallet.

Each time the train slows, a man
with our faces in the gold buttons
of his coat passes through the cars
muttering the name of a city. Each time
we lose people. Each time I find you
again between the cars, holding out
a scrap of bread for me, something
hot to drink, until there are
no more cities and you pull me
toward you, sliding your hands
into my coat, telling me
your name over and over, hurrying
your mouth into mine.
We have, each of us, nothing.
We will give it to each other.

Seen any graffiti? Email your pics to Recent history has shown I’ll give you full credit.

It’s Not Black And White.

003The question “What does it mean?” in regard to any work of art is, in my opinion, overrated. I’m not saying it’s unimportant, but if an artist is trying to say something that can be summed up in a simple sentence or two they can just come right out and say “Don’t play with razor blades in the middle of the interstate”. The more important question, I think, is, “Do I like this?” If you like something then it has some kind of meaning for you even if you can’t put it into words. And if you like it maybe you’ll try to understand what the artist’s intentions were, what meaning the work had for the person who created it and what, if anything, they hoped to convey. Maybe knowing what the artist wanted to convey will help you understand why you like a specific work.

I always wonder about the artist’s intentions with any graffiti I see but I’m especially fascinated by these two words. From the handwriting I’m pretty sure it’s the same person. What did they mean here?

The Oxford English Dictionary helps a little. “Abate” can be a noun that means “Diminution, reduction”, or a verb meaning “To put an end to” or ” To take possession of land between the death of the owner and the accession of the heir, thereby keeping the legitimate heir out of possession”. It can also mean ” Of a falcon, hawk, etc.: to beat or flap the wings, to flutter”.

All those definitions are listed as obsolete which is weird because I’m sure I’ve heard the word “abate” used, or maybe I’m just hanging around obsolete people.

So what is “erge”? Even though it’s kinda funky I’m pretty sure that second letter is an “r”. This would be a lot easier to figure out if it were an “d” because I know what “edge” means but not even the OED helps with “erge”. I have to go farther afield and consult the Encyclopedia of Demons in World Religions and Cultures by Theresa Bane: “From Basque mythology comes the demon Erge (‘taker’). The intangible and invisible demon of death, he takes a person when he feels that their time is right.”

I have no clue whether that’s what the artist intended and it doesn’t really matter. I like it.

Seen any graffiti you like? Send a picture to I’ll give you credit, unless you wouldn’t like that.



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










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.


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.


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.



“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:


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:


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.

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