Keep Looking Up.

003In 1879 amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and his eight-year old daughter discovered prehistoric paintings in a cave near Altamira, Spain. The first time I heard about this I was told it was the cave that was called Altamira because they had to look up—the name roughly translates into English as “look high”, or, more accurately, to look from on high, since Altamira is on a mountain. The person who told me all this had their facts really mixed up, but whenever I think about prehistoric cave paintings, paintings that date back more than thirty-thousand years, I feel kind of like I’m floating. Looking back through that much time is like looking down from a very high point.

There’s something really impressive about any graffiti placed high, even if the graffiti itself isn’t that impressive. Maybe it’s because I’m not a big fan of heights, but I admire the effort it took an artist to climb up somewhere and leave their mark. In the example above it’s not particularly high, but graffiti is illegal, and whoever climbed up there was more exposed than they would have been if they’d just worked on the lower walls.

Here’s a more impressive example of high graffiti, snagged from Google Maps because I haven’t been able to get a decent picture of my own. The bus is in the foreground but should still give some idea of how high the piece on the left is.

busgraffitiCave paintings and graffiti in high places also makes me think of the poem Memory Cave by Yusef Komunyakaa from his book Thieves Of Paradise.

A tallow worked into a knot

of rawhide, with a ball of waxy light

tied to a stick, the boy

scooted through a secret mouth

of the cave, pulled by the flambeau

in his hand. He could see

the gaze of agate eyes

& wished for the forbidden

plains of bison & wolf, years

from the fermented honey

& musty air. In the dried

slag of bear & bat guano,

the initiate stood with sleeping

gods at his feet, lost

in the great cloud of their one

breath. Their muzzles craved

touch. How did they learn

to close eyes, to see into

the future? Before the Before:

mammon was unnamed & mist

hugged ravines & hillocks.

The elders would test him

beyond doubt & blood. Mica

lit the false skies where

stalactite dripped perfection

into granite. He fingered

icons sunlight & anatase

never touched. Ibex carved

on a throwing stick, reindeer

worried into an ivory amulet,

& a bear’s head. Outside,

the men waited two days

for him, with condor & bovid,

& not in a thousand years

would he have dreamt a woman

standing here beside a man,

saying, “This is as good

as the stag at Salon Noir

& the polka-dotted horses.”

The man scribbles Leo loves

Angela below the boy’s last bear

drawn with manganese dioxide

& animal fat. This is where

sunrise opened a door in stone

when he was summoned to drink

honey wine & embrace a woman

beneath a five-pointed star.

Lying there beside the gods

hefty & silent as boulders,

he could almost remember

before he was born, could see

the cliff from which he’d fall.

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  1. Ann Koplow

    I’m not a fan of heights either, Chris, but I am definitely a fan of your posts and all that you share here.

    Here’s a song by Steely Dan, called “The Caves of Altamira”:

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      This is fantastic–I should have known you’d have the perfect musical accompaniment, and that it would be Steely Dan.
      I’m lucky enough to have heard Komunyakaa read his poem so I have his voice in my head whenever I read it, but this song goes wonderfully with cave paintings.

    2. Margot

      Ooooooh! Thanks for posting that video, Ann. I used to love that song and had forgotten all about it. What a treat.

      1. Ann Koplow

        My pleasure, Margot!

  2. Margot

    I think you are easily distracted (as you stated in kd’s crankoutloud side boob post) because you have so many rich thoughts competing for attention in your brain. That’s a very cool poem to carry around.

    I’m a big admirer subway tunnel graffiti, perhaps like you because of the effort it must take.

    There is a music video by Foster the People which you might enjoy. It’s a time-lasped making of a mural, but still seems apropos to me. Sorry that I’m technically challenged, only know how to provide the link, and will be pleasantly surprised if I even do that right.

    1. Margot

      Color me surprised!

    2. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Color me pickled tink by that video. That really is amazing.
      And, yes, my brain is always connecting things. Everything reminds me of something else. I wonder when this started. It couldn’t have been from birth. I doubt I was there in the maternity ward saying, “That reminds me of something I heard in the womb.”
      Anyway I am also an admirer of subway graffiti. Some of it is really incredible. There’s an old documentary called “Watching My Name Go By” that shows some great subway graffiti. Even down where I live, far from any subways, I sometimes see some amazing graffiti go by on trains.

  3. TwerlaP

    I’ve always been fascinated with early art. Actually with the whole prehistoric cultural beginnings of our civilization. In this case, especially the hand images. There are thousands of those hands spread about the whole globe. Were they some religious rite, like some anthropologists theorize? Or was some caveman just trying to get the cavekids to shut up?

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I’d forgotten about the hand images, but they really are fascinating. I assume you mean the images where someone placed their hand on a wall and blew paint around it, leaving the outline. Those must all be examples of “Hey, look what I can do!”


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