American Graffiti.

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

Just Keep Looking.

And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

From Beyond Good & Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, as translated by R.J. Hollingdale

I’m tempted to say that somewhere along the way art went from being purely decorative to having to mean something. And then I have to take a step back and take a really deep breath because, well, first of all I’d have to clarify which artistic tradition I’m talking about–probably a Western European one, and even then I’d have to really narrow down the definition of “art” because even though there have been works–mostly paintings and sculptures–we could call strictly decorative aesthetic touches are still often added to everything from tables to teapots so even those things could be–and sometimes are–treated as works of art, especially if they’re really old.

And speaking of really old things the book The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists by Gregory Curtis devotes almost all of its space not to analyzing what the cave paintings may have meant but rather how what archaeologists and art historians think the cave paintings meant has changed, and changes, depending on who’s doing the looking.

And to get back to my naïve assumption that at some point art went from being decorative to having “meaning” if I had to pin down when exactly I might have thought that happened I’d say it occurred with the invention of photography and the birth of Impressionism and then Fauvism and really took off after World War I when art–at least in Western Europe–split into a million different isms and people started to need a philosophy degree to understand why a bunch of squares or scribbles should be considered great art.

Except it’s not that simple. Throughout art history, and throughout art traditions around the world, art has often “meant” something, but what it means has been determined by both cultural context and the eye of the beholder, which raises the question, if a work of art can mean anything, does it really mean anything?

And that’s when I start to wonder, am I looking at art or is it looking back at me?


Why did someone put the sun symbol of the Zia people that’s used on New Mexico’s state flag on a utility box in Tennessee? Maybe they’re from New Mexico and wanted a little touch of home. Maybe they’re fans of Breaking Bad. Maybe they just like the symbol and wanted to brighten up the box a little. Maybe it’s a symbol of the Quartering of the Universe into Active and Passive Principles. Maybe they did it for the same reason Wallace Stevens put a jar on a hill in Tennessee, although he doesn’t really say why he did it, and he’s simply wrong when he says it was “Like nothing else in Tennessee” because we had jars long before some Yankee came tromping through here on his way to Key West and decided to litter, but that’s another story.

Maybe the answer is, all of the above.

Maybe the reason I like art, or one reason, is it fires off completely unexpected thoughts, like this: One summer I worked for a temp agency and got sent around to various job sites. At one place I put together the display stands you see in grocery stores. They’re also called “end caps”. The supervisor told us the stands we were putting together would be shipped out all over the country, and I thought it was interesting that something I helped make would be used by strangers so far away. I felt a sense of connection that made the mundane job and dealing with the supervisor who was a big jerk a little easier.

The utility box’s purpose is to create connections. It was made by someone in another place. Its placement changed the landscape. And then someone decided to paint the sun symbol on it, to change it from a standard, utilitarian object to something with deeper meaning–and larger connections.


Something To Say.

One of the things that intrigues me about graffiti is that there’s a person behind it. Even the small stuff, the messy scribbles that don’t look like much, was done by someone, a living person with something to say. The problem with the small messy scribbles isn’t so much what they say as how they say it. If you have something to say, I think, put some thought and effort into it. Communication works on multiple levels, even if it’s written communication, which is one reason there’s a longstanding internet joke that we need a special font for sarcasm, but that’s another story.

So anyway UH is a local tagger I’m very familiar with even though I have no idea who the person behind the tag is. The thing is most of the time I only see the small stuff–UH printed on a trash can or an iron railing. UH has always seemed to me kind of unambitious, though, limited to small tags, which is a statement in itself–as though the tag is a placeholder. Some people think it’s impolite but when we say “uh” in conversation it can operate as a way of keeping our brain’s verbal motor going and also as a placeholder, a way of indicating to another person, “Uh, I’ve got something to say, but, uh, I’m trying to find the words!” Even the most eloquent speaker must occasionally struggle for, uh, mouth talky sentence things.

And then I saw this:

As I said UH has always seemed unambitious, but I hope the picture gives some idea of the scale here. This is a pretty large work and impressively done too.

It’s a shame they’re already starting to fade. The stark black and white and the marbling, or perhaps “cracks”, give this the look of something sculpted, of letters, the most basic components of words, given solidity and weight. This UH says something.




Work In Progress.

One of the classical ideas about art is that it aims for eternity, that, against the backdrop of ephemeral nature, it remains unchanging, although technically that may be more of a Neoclassical 18th century revision of the classical view of art, especially considering that Plato had a rather low opinion of artists, but that’s another story.

Maybe I should start over.

Once I saw an artist working on a painting in a public space. I sat down and watched him for a while and then asked, “Do you mind me watching?”

“If I minded I wouldn’t be painting out here,” he replied.

It was fascinating watching a painting develop. It’s one of the reasons I think Bob Ross’s painting show was so popular. I’m sure there were plenty of others like me who weren’t really interested in painting ourselves but were just fascinated by how a few dabs of paint could create a vivid picture. Bob Ross’s gentle personality and “happy little clouds” were a bonus.

This background reminds me that any work of art is a work in progress, that however static a picture might seem, even if the artist is decomposing, the picture will change as it too decomposes. Van Gogh’s paintings were even more vivid in his lifetime, Edvard Munch used to put his paintings out in his yard when he was done with them—something that would make art preservationists tear their hair out—and even the classical sculptures that are so loved for their stark beauty and subtlety were once painted with gaudy colors.

What I’m taking the long way around to get to is that a few months ago when I met artist Billy Martinez working on a mural over on Elliston Place I assumed what I was seeing was a more or less finished work, but since then he’s come back and added to it. Here’s an earlier picture of Johnny Cash and Bettie Page:

Here they are now:

At the other end they’ve been joined by Dolly Parton, another iconic Nashville figure. At least a certain, er, feature suggests she’s Dolly Parton. Before she became famous she lived down the street from my parents and they still like to say, “We knew her before she got so big.”

And he’s added some interesting symbols in between. These seem to only be outlines and I plan to go back—especially since it’s just a hop, skip and a jump—maybe with another skip—from where I work to watch its growth.

The one thing that remains constant, even in the supposedly fixed world of a painting, is change.

Tell It To My Heart.

Iconography works on a lot of levels. The stylized picture of a heart, for instance, typically means love.

Except when it doesn’t.

And it still bothers me that the stylized heart symbol doesn’t look like any heart that I’ve ever seen, and I’m speaking as someone who did a lot of dissecting as a kid. Even an unusual heart, like the one that belongs to amazing blogger Ann Koplow, doesn’t in any way resemble the popular symbol. It’s interesting that while hearts are, anatomically speaking, so important they’re not centrally placed nor are they symmetrical, unlike lungs, brains, or kidneys. It even seems strange to me that, given the critical role of the heart, most of us only have one, unless you happen to be a Time Lord.

Hearts are strange things. The Tin Woodman wanted one, Humbert Humbert died of a broken one, and even Shakespeare asked, “Where is fancy bred?” although some scholars think he might have been looking for an artisanal bakery, but that’s another story.

Because iconography works on so many levels it’s easy to manipulate, subvert, twist, fold, spindle, and mutilate an accepted symbol into something completely different—into its exact opposite.

Maybe that’s why I this so much.

And with Valentine’s Day coming up can you think of a better way to express your feelings, at least without resorting to a restraining order?


Something To Say.

If this spot looks familiar it’s because it’s been featured here before. It’s a fast food place that’s been defunct for over a year now which I’m kind of sad about because the place is so close to where I work and it was inexpensive and it wasn’t bad as far as fast food goes. And fast food goes pretty far because no matter where you go you can find it and the way you feel after eating it seems to last forever, but that’s another story.

And it’s been one of my favorite spots for graffiti because it’s so close and it once sported some very dramatic and colorful graffiti, then that got painted over, and, while it’s less dramatic, it looks like some new artists have reclaimed the spot.

I like the building too. Fast food places have been coming up with creative ways to draw our eyes ever since the first golden arches went up, and the use of a strong black-and-white checkerboard pattern is very distinctive. The expanses of flat empty space also provide a good canvas, which may be why this spot has been so popular.

Since I started spotting graffiti I’ve noticed an interesting thing. Taggers don’t cover up each other’s works. They don’t cover up murals that adorn some buildings in the area. And they don’t tag buildings that are in use.

There could be a lot of reasons for that. Maybe it’s a stretch to say that taggers respect property—I know some would disagree, but they’re only treating empty, unused buildings as canvases. They have something to say and they won’t be silenced but they’re selective about where they say it.

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?



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