American Graffiti.

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

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.

Icons.

Artist Billy Martinez at work.

Artist Billy Martinez at work.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to meet artist Billy Martinez as he was working on a mural on Nashville’s Elliston Place. Martinez has an art career that goes back decades and started his own publishing company, Neko Press, in 1997.

While his work in comics and magazines, as well as his stand-alone paintings, are bold and dramatic, often featuring powerful women, this mural is subtler but still just as bold, just as intense. It’s dominated by a black skyline. Rather than deliberately painting the Nashville skyline—in fact there are parking signs up and down Elliston he could have used as sketches, ones with Nashville’s infamous “Batman Building”—he offered a more generic view. And instead of lights he put it in total darkness. The only color, the only light, comes from behind the unbroken row of buildings. This makes the two figures at the edge, where the sidewalk and parking lot next to Smack Clothing, intersect, even more striking.

billymartinez2And the figures themselves are a study in contrasts. Johnny Cash, born in Arkansas, made Tennessee his home for most of his life. As a major figure in country music he’ll always be associated with Nashville and its history. He emerged from the darkness of a rural background in search of the spotlight and found it, and yet, interestingly, in the mural he’s somber, contemplative, focused on his music.

billymartinez3Bettie Page, on the other hand, is fierce and direct, fixing passers-by with her gaze. Former Nashville Scene editor Jim Ridley wrote an appreciation of Page a few years before her death in 2008 and described her as someone who “who deflected the ravenous gaze of strokebook buyers with a look of defiant self-possession”.

Born in Nashville she, like Cash, sought the spotlight, but her career was shorter and she was an underground figure—a pinup girl and a Playboy playmate in the much more sexually conservative 1950’s. She retired from modeling and disappeared into obscurity. She would be “rediscovered” as a new cult following developed in the 1980’s. Although she would profit from her resurgence ater spending several years in poverty, unaware of her own fame, she herself still seemed to shun the spotlight.

It’s not available online but I remember she gave an interview for the Nashville Scene in 2005, when The Notorious Bettie Page hit theaters, but refused to be photographed. A picture that accompanied the interview showed only her hands.

All that makes this mural, seemingly so simple, and something most people will likely just walk by, an intersection of art and history.

I Still Have Plans.

Every work of art, no matter how bleak, cynical, angry, pessimistic, carping, or misanthropic is still a testament and a call to hope. Every dystopian view from Orwell to Atwood, from The Twilight Zone to Black Mirror, is not meant to discourage but to inspire us. A hopeless work of art is an oxymoron because the very act of creating is an effort to capture a moment to preserve it for the future. The very act of creating art is a statement of faith that there will be a future.

future

Or am I being overly optimistic?

 

The Power of Words.

Many cultures, religions, and societies ascribe great power to words. Inscriptions and incantations can heal, hurt, or even create. A simple change to a word can change its meaning, can give it power–or take it away.

There are many variations on this. While most contemporary magicians no longer say “abracadabra”, at least not ironically or unless you’re Steve Miller,  its influence lives on in Harry Potter’s avada kedavra. I’m more fascinated by an older story, that of the Golem in Jewish folklore, a creature built of clay and brought to life to act as a servant and protector. In some tales the Golem was brought to life by inscribing the Hebrew word emet (truth) on its forehead and then stilled by removing the first letter–aleph–to change the word to met (dead). The legendary Golem of Prague, created in the late 16th century by Rabbi Loew as a servant then protector of the Jews against persecution by Emperor Rudolph II, was animated by a magic shem placed in his mouth. The Golem could then be stopped by removing the shem. In a more recent addition to the legend the same Golem was given the power of speech.

Finally, I can talk! This is the voice I’ve got? Sounds like I should be selling egg creams in Brighton Beach. That’s what we call Jewish humor. You don’t have to understand it ’cause the words sound funny. Meshuggeneh. Hilarious!

Source: Simpsons Wiki

Source: Simpsons Wiki

But that’s another story.

What got me thinking about this was, ironically, not a magic incantation but a smaller, more mundane change to an inscription that nevertheless spoke to the power of words, how, like clay, their form is not fixed but can be shaped and reshaped into something entirely new. And if that’s not magic I don’t know what is.

bark

The Invaders.

“Well, toadface, what do you think we are, a bunch of homebodies? Humans have had space i travel for less than two hundred years, but we’ve settled almost twice as many planets as the Dracs—”
Jerry held up a finger. “Exactly! You humans spread like a disease. Enough! We don’t want you here!”

Enemy Mine

Whether intentionally or by accident we move into their territory.

alien1Conflict is inevitable. We can’t say whether it’s because of our differences or because we have so much in common.

alien2We want the same things. We need the same things.

alien3

In the end who’s really the invader here?

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.

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