American Graffiti.

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

Call To Action.

When it comes to art I’m a classicist at heart. I believe art should reflect the beauty that’s within us, focus on and raise up what’s best in human nature, and that it should be edifying. And, reflecting those classical Lain roots, in edifying it should also be an edifice—a structure meant to last, because it’s ideas are meant to be eternal.

So why graffiti? Because I’m also a modernist at heart. I believe art should challenge our preconceived notions, force us to think about things in a new way. Reality ain’t always pretty so art shouldn’t always be either. We live in a cold, indifferent universe that’s always changing.

The classicist believes everything is a remix. The modernist wants to make something new.

And that’s a belief that appears to have a longer lineage than the classical notions. The epic hero Gilgamesh goes on a quest for immortality and ultimately learns that nothing lasts forever.

He’s told this by a man whose wisdom comes from immortality which makes it even more ironic that his message is, “Nothing lasts forever.”

The Epic of Gilgamesh itself was lost, literally buried for thousands of years, before its rediscovery, but that’s another story.

That’s why this quick scribble on a trash can—how’s that for poignant?—got my attention.

Everything about it, from the aesthetics to the message, is modern, but it’s also a call to action. Strive to be remembered.

And I took this picture six months ago. That’s not a long time but the neighborhood around it has undergone some major changes in that time with old edifices being torn down, new ones built, and some being renovated.

It’s also a call to action, to do something great. Even if you aren’t remembered, the message seems to say, do something that will be. And that’s raising up what’s best in our nature.

Space To Fill.

This is a Google Maps shot of an apartment building on Hayes Street, a few blocks over from where I work. As you can see it’s from May 2016.

Here’s the same place now. There’s a lot of construction going on. They’re starting with the parking garage because that was probably easiest to tear down and next they’ll tear down the apartment building, probably so they can put up a much larger and more expensive apartment building with little or no room for parking because with all the new apartment buildings going up around the city parking spaces have always been an afterthought, but that’s another story.

And I was intrigued to see this:

It’s not the best or most interesting graffiti I’ve ever seen, but I wondered how long it’s been there. Was it hidden at the back of the parking garage back when people were still in residence or did someone put it there some time after the space was cleared?

Either way it filled an empty space and there’s been a flurry of new graffiti ever since the construction started.

The funny thing is as I was walking around the site I found a guy spray-painting a tarp covering one of the fences on the opposite side. He was covering up some graffiti.

“This is the third time they’ve sent me out here to paint over something,” he said.

I decided not to tell him I find the graffiti in the area interesting. I just said that at least it gave him something to do. He laughed.

“Yeah. Every time they put somethin’ up I get to come out here and cover it up.”

And every time he covers it up he creates an empty space for them to put up something new.

Think About It.

think1At first thinking outside the box was a good idea. For too long we’d been confined by the box and its six walls, each of uniform height and width and equidistant in all directions. The box had, in its time, been useful, but outside we found our possibilities expanded. We thought next to the box and on top of the box. A few brave souls tried thinking under the box but they found themselves back inside the box.

Thinking outside the box opened us up to new distances, broader horizons, a landscape we hadn’t imagined and which, unlike the inside of the box, was constantly changing.

think2And yet as time passed a sense of unease came over some of us. We sensed there was something more. We could turn to face one way and there would be no box. We could turn to face another way, and still another, and there was still no box. But when we turned again there was the box.

think3We began to ask ourselves, could we go far enough away that there would be no box? Do we need the box at all? And so we went in search of things that had no part of the box.

 

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?

drunk

 

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.

vandalism

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.

wintertree1

wintertree2

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.

colletivofx1

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.

penguin3

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.

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