American Graffiti.

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

Auto Da Fe.

carskullTechnically this isn’t graffiti. In fact it’s not even art, although as Gilly Maddison has pointed out the question, What is art? is a thorny one that’s occupied artists and philosophers since at least the early 20th century although the term “art” could be applied to almost anything. How do you sort out what’s art and what isn’t? Well, there’s an art to it…

Anyway, what you see here is a trick of the light. The sun hit this car just right so it produced a projection that looks like—well, what does it look like to you? Remember that this is entirely subjective and a matter of opinion but if you said anything other than a skull then you’re wrong.

skullsSkulls have been a popular subject in art possibly as long as there has been art. The iconography of skulls is wide and varied although they usually represent death. Death has also long been a popular subject in art. As Spinal Tap’s manager Ian Faith said, “Death sells!” Death also smells which makes it even more baffling than Smell The Glove’s sales stank in spite of the all-black cover but that’s another story.

If you don’t see a skull please share what you think you see in the comments below. And if you do see a skull maybe it’s because it’s that time of year. October is the month of Halloween, a celebration that, even in some early pagan traditions, was considered a time when the division between the living and the dead was narrowed. It was, and still is, a time of transition. In the northern hemisphere it’s autumn, the time of harvest and the beginning of hibernation, a time of death.

So if you see death in that picture that’s understandable because this is a time of year when death is on many peoples’ minds. The disturbing thing is I took the picture in April. Why death was on my mind in the spring is, to paraphrase something said by Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, a mystery best left unsolved.

 

Urban Spaceman.

Now he was master of the world, and he was not quite sure what to do next.

But he would think of something.

-Arthur C. Clarke

space2Outside only a rocket, a combustible dream, walting for the friction of his hand to set it off. In the last moment of sleep someone asked his name. Quietly, he gave the answer as he had heard it during the hours from midnight on. “Icarus Montgolfier Wright”.

-Ray Bradbury

space1To boldly go where no one has gone before…

space3

He’s Out There.

bogeyBogeyman (usually spelled boogeyman in the U.S.; also spelled bogieman or boogie man; see American and British English spelling differences), pronounced /bʊɡimæn/ or /bɡimæn/,[1] is a common allusion to a mythical creature in many cultures used by adults to frighten children into good behavior. This monster has no specific appearance, and conceptions about it can vary drastically from household to household within the same community; in many cases, he has no set appearance in the mind of an adult or child, but is simply a non-specific embodiment of terror.

–from the Wikipedia entry for Bogeyman

Since I grew up in the United States it would have been The Boogie Man for me, a name that doesn’t sound all that terrifying, especially growing up in the ’70’s. And we had a neighbor who parked his boat in his front yard–his boat named The Boogie, so any time I heard about The Boogie Man I always thought of yachting, but that’s another story.

Maybe it’s because I imagined much worse creatures in my bedroom, creatures whose embodiments were extremely specific and detailed, but the names Boogie Man or even Bogey Man just don’t inspire terror in me. Even when the name is scrawled in bright red, dripping like blood, on a solitary lamp post it just seems laughable. It inspires thoughts of a really bad golfer, or…or…wait, there is something that comes to mind. From the dark recesses of my imagination I remember something…

Source: Simpsons Wiki

Source: Simpsons Wiki

Yes, that really is terrifying. I never made the connection before but that’s exactly what our neighbor with the yacht looked like.

Keep On The Sunny Side.

Source: Nashville News Channel 5, WTVF

Source: Nashville News Channel 5, WTVF

Noshville on Division Street closed its doors at the end of 2015. Well, the restaurant has other locations, but the one on Division was its first and was the one I knew best because it was so close to where I worked. And I never thought to take a picture of it in its heyday when the Statue of Liberty stood tall atop its roof.

I still walk that way regularly, down the sunny side of the street, under where its awnings used to hang, usually on my way to JJ’s Coffee Shop. And there’s a bit of a tale: Noshville had been there since 1996. JJ’s has been there since 1974 and is still going strong in spite of a couple of major coffee chains moving in just a few blocks away. Noshville decamped to make way for developers who want to put up an apartment building but JJ’s is being the thorn in their foot. The owner of JJ’s has a lease through 2020 and, bless him, is defending his right to keep going at least that long in court. And so far has been successful.

I don’t mean to turn this into an ad for JJ’s but I like the coffee and the atmosphere of the place, and it also sells an eclectic mix of European chocolates and craft beers. It’s also the oldest ongoing establishment in an area that’s been in flux and is changing even now.

Anyway I happened to be walking down the other way—the shady side of the street, and I do mean shady, but that’s another story. I turned around and looked back and saw this:

noshville1It’s striking. It’s powerful. I have no clue what it says. It’s also huge. It also made me think about how much the building formerly occupied by Noshville looks like a submarine.

noshville2Graffiti is usually seen as a mark of a bad neighborhood, something that lowers the property value in an area, but the space where Noshville was has been sitting empty for more than nine months now. It’s hard to imagine the value getting any lower, but an artist has added something to the area. It’s fascinating and thought-provoking. Maybe it will even inspire conversation, at least among people walking down the shady side of the street.

 

This Doesn’t Mean Something.

nailsI looked at what had been scribbled on the back of this bus bench and my second thought was, I’ve really got to rein myself in. My first thought was, How intriguing. “Nails be ur trap.” Yes—obviously the artist meant coffin nails and that, paired with what looks like part of a readout from a cardiogram on the lower right make a comment nature of mortality. If I’d kept going I might have shoehorned the other tags into this grand masterpiece too but instead I stopped because I felt like I was turning into Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters. Except instead of seeing Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower in everything I was seeing art. I see a bunch of leaves fallen on a sidewalk and start thinking, well maybe someone put them there, arranged them in just that pattern as some kind of a statement, and only come out of this reverie when I walk into a lamppost, but that’s another story.

I would resist the impulse to tie all this together but I can’t so strap in: I’m diving into a bumpy train of mixed metaphors. This fits with a nagging thought that’s been in the back of my mind ever since I opted to take an art history class instead of wandering the halls for an hour each day. The whole idea of “art history” is based on a collective agreement between a bunch of people that we’re going to look at this artist but not that artist and pretend the whole thing fits into a neat line with cave painters at one end and, oh, let’s say Jackson Pollock at the other. Your endpoint may vary, especially since Pollock died in 1956 and history, including art history, has arguably continued on since then.

The problem with this line of thinking is it can quickly spiral out of control. After all every human endeavor that we consider historic or worthy of recognition is based on a collective agreement that it’s, well, worthy of recognition. And there’s a lot of stuff that falls by the wayside.

How do we decide what to keep and what to throw away? Is it random? Could be a trap.

Empty Space.

Gentrification doesn’t benefit everywhere equally. Even though some neighborhoods just blocks from where I work are being torn down and rebuilt into towering apartment complexes and condos I can walk the same distance in another direction and find derelict buildings. A rising tide lifts all boats unless they have leaks.

The Jim Reed Showroom, a former car dealership and warehouse down on Church Street, intrigues me. The area is home to a few businesses and a few bars, but the former car dealership, which would seem to be prime real estate, has been empty for at least twenty years now. It’s only a matter of time before someone does something with it but I wonder what’s taking so long.

It’s also a prime spot for graffiti. Most of the graffiti isn’t that interesting. Yeah, sometimes I have to be a critic. But what is interesting to me is where the graffiti is placed. Here’s a satellite view of the place from Google Maps. I’ve added a few modifications of my own.

showroomThe red arrows mark the graffiti-heavy spots. The front of the building, facing Church Street, has had a bit of graffiti over the years but not a lot. It’s the 16th Avenue side that has the most graffiti–especially a couple of loading dock doors. There’s a bit behind the building, facing Hayes Street, but not much. And the side behind Play Dance Bar, Tribe, and Suzy Wong’s House of Yum has almost nothing. You’d think that would be the prime spot for graffiti since it’s protected, even hidden, but the taggers want their work to be seen. And they mostly choose a spot that faces a small park, although it’s not a public park. That space with the trees and paths you see on the left is fenced off and exclusively for the use of people who work in the businesses next door.

showroom1 showroom2

Anyway the desire for visibility may be why, even though a few windows are broken and there’s not much security around the place, there’s no graffiti inside either. At least not as far as I can see. I haven’t been inside–really–but through the windows I can see a place that’s eerily deserted and quietly collapsing in on itself.

showroom1

 

See The Light Ram Through The Gaps In The Land.

When is graffiti not graffiti? That’s a question I’ve tangled with before and not one I feel has a straightforward answer. If you want to get eggheaded about it the term “graffiti” comes from the Italian graffito which means “to scratch” and became associated with vandalism because people like the ancient Romans were not only conquerors but also tourists who went to places like the pyramids of Egypt and scratched notes into the rocks. Sometimes they scratched a thumbs-up sign and sometimes they’d leave notes like, “Very good. Would visit again. Please come see my stadium.–Flatulus” but that’s another story.

I guess that’s why some people feel that “graffiti” is inappropriate for painted works or even too high falutin’ so they employ a low falutin’ term like “street art”.

But what if it’s not even on a street? And what if it’s not even vandalism but is commissioned work that happens to look like graffiti? Maybe I’m making this harder than it needs to be, but if graffiti can be art then art can also be graffiti.

I was sent along this mental Möbius strip by Michelle of Still Not A Journal who shared some pictures of works on and near a building “next to Tallebudgera Creek and under the Pacific Motorway” which she adds is “a dodgy looking area”. The place is called Expressive Ground which it turns out is a performance venue. The way they’ve decorated the place seems like a performance in itself, but I’m not going to get eggheaded and talk about “dynamism” and stuff like that. Here are the pictures:

IMG_3988IMG_3984IMG_3980IMG_3982IMG_4002IMG_3996IMG_3992IMG_3991IMG_3990IMG_3989The animal pictures are especially wonderful because they’re examples of that high falutin’ term trompe l’oeil, and also because I love how proud Australians are of their native fauna. And I can’t think of Australia without thinking of Bullamakanka so go and listen to their song “The Bunyip From Hooligan’s Creek”, not to be confused with The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek, which is another story, and if you recognized the Kate Bush song that was the source for the title of this post give yourself five bonus points.

De-Faced.

face1Most graffiti is a person’s name or nickname–what’s commonly known as a tag. And when you think about it a name, especially when elaborately drawn, is more than just a word. It’s a picture. It says as much about how the artist sees him or herself as a self-portrait would. And it’s the most personal expression an artist can make and have a history that spans artists as different as Rembrandt and Kahlo. So it was really interesting to me that someone tagged a couple of different places with what I think it a self-portrait. It’s a caricature and not realistic, but it’s meant to be a self-portrait. At least I think it is since as usual I don’t know the artist and I can’t ask them about it. So I’m just speculating, but bear with me here.

face2

What made me think of the connection between signatures and self-portraits wasn’t just the fact that this graffiti is a face rather than the usual name. I also thought of Salvador Dali’s massive painting The Ecumenical Council, from his religious period, finished in 1960 when he was fifty-six. In his youth Dali had been an ardent atheist but later would meet Pope Pius XII and converted to Catholicism.

Source: Wikipedia

Or did he? Scholars interpret this painting at representing the union of Heaven and Earth. The figure in the upper center is believed to be God whose hand is up because no one can look on the face of God. The interesting thing, though, is Dali’s self-portrait in the lower left. He’s painted himself as a painter. This has been interpreted as his substitute for a signature. And yet Dali signed most of his paintings with just his name. Self-portraits are extremely rare in his work. He occasionally painted himself as a child but almost always facing away from the viewer. In a few of his early surrealist works he painted himself or figures that represented him but with a hand over the face.

Maybe this is really Dali’s not so subtle jab at religion–suggesting that the real creator is the artist. Isn’t that blasphemy? Well it might have been a blast for Dali anyway. Yes, he went though the motions of converting to Catholicism but at a time when being an atheist among artists was common, even expected. He claimed to support Franco then the Spanish monarchy when most artists were joining the Communist party or at least claiming to be apolitical. I think he did these things solely to shock people, and throwing a little blasphemy into his work was his way of playing both sides. He didn’t take anything too seriously.

I know I’m not saying much about graffiti here, especially not the graffiti pictures above, but I am trying to tie graffiti into the more respectable world of serious art criticism and art history. Why? Because I think it’s funny that it shocks some people who take art way too seriously.

It’s Complicated, But Not Unusual.

It’s not unusual for bloggers to hit on similar themes at the same time. What is unusual is that I happened to run across graffiti that seemed to speak to the theme that I felt three of my favorite bloggers had in common recently. Admittedly it’s also not unusual for me to extrapolate wildly and tie together completely unrelated things which meant that sometimes in English classes my interpretations of stories and poems were so wildly off the mark one of my teachers suggested I stop freebasing banana peels in the parking lot at lunch, but that’s another story.

This week Ann Koplow of The Year(s) of Living Non-Judgmentally is at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and while she writes daily about a variety of subjects and started the week with Wishes. But more broadly there’s something significant about her time there right now because her son is going to be attending the University of Edinburgh.

That’s why it struck me that Gilly, whose blog is Anything Except Housework, has a post contemplating her empty nest, and reflecting on her time raising two boys and what she might have missed, but more importantly she reminds herself of the need to remember the good she’s done.

And Chuck Baudelaire of Always Drunk contemplated moments that changed her life, moments that led her to where she is now.

All three were reflective and I somehow had all three in mind when I saw this:

simple1simple

And it made me think about how quickly a life can change but every moment is complicated. Every moment is embedded in every other moment. Singling out one is like extracting a crystal from a matrix.

If the connection seems vague it’s because, like I said, it’s not unusual for me to tie unrelated things together, but maybe that’s because everything really is related.

And that also reminds me of a joke. A guy goes to the doctor and says, “Doc, every time I pass a park I start singing ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ and every time I see a cat I start singing ‘What’s New, Pussycat?'”

The doctor says, “It sounds like you’ve got Tom Jones syndrome.”

The guy says, “Tom Jones syndrome? I’ve never heard of that. Is it rare?”

The doctor says, “It’s not unusual.”

Attention, Attention.

attention“Here and now, boys,” the bird repeated yet once more, then fluttered down from its perch on the dead tree and settled on her shoulder.

The child peeled another banana, gave two-thirds of it to Will and offered what remained to the mynah.

“Is that your bird?” Will asked.

She shook her head.

“Mynahs are like the electric light,” she said. “They don’t belong to anybody.”

“Why does he say those things?”

“Because somebody taught him,” she answered patiently. What an ass! her tone seemed to imply.

“But why did they teach him those things? Why ‘Attention’? Why ‘Here and now’?”

“Well …” She searched for the right words in which to explain the self-evident to this strange imbecile. “That’s what you always forget, isn’t it? I mean, you forget to pay attention to what’s happening. And that’s the same as not being here and now.”

That’s from Island, Aldous Huxley’s last novel. It’s not as famous as Brave New World, which is a shame. Huxley said that his earlier novel was a failure because it only offered a choice between two insane societies. There had to be a third way and Island was it: a novel set on a small Pacific island that has developed a good and just and sane society. Sanity, though, isn’t self-sustaining–it takes some effort. The island’s mynah birds, trained to say “Attention, attention,” and “Here and now, boys, here and now” provide gentle reminders to be mindful of the present, to be aware.

In a small well-organized society that’s easy but it’s not hard to imagine the whole program breaking down on a larger scale and the mynahs dropping f-bombs eventually fading to background noise. The problem with Huxley’s ideal society is there’s no room for jokers, tricksters, or chaos–which makes it far from ideal.

Both Brave New World and Island raise big questions about the nature of freedom and its limits but neither one really offers any answers. Answers are beyond any single person, but the key to finding the answer is to first know what the question is.

Maybe the question is down there in the weeds.

Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to freethinkers@nerosoft.com, located in a small island somewhere.

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