American Graffiti.

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

A Werewolf Problem In Central Park.

Source: Untapped Cities

While reintroducing wolves in many areas has been controversial the introduction of wolves into New York City wasn’t controversial at all, since it took care of a much more serious problem. The Mayor Ed Koch Wolf Foundation, which has a new monument to the decision to release wolves in New York City parks, explains the history:

In the late 1970s, New York Mayor Edward I. Koch launched an unprecedented campaign against subway graffiti. The city employed new guardians to patrol its vast train yards—wolves. Captured from upstate New York and set loose in various borough depots, the wolves successfully kept taggers at bay until anti-graffiti technology eliminated the need for the animals.

It goes on to explain that the wolves then migrated underground and survive in tunnels, although I think this had absolutely nothing to do with graffiti, which the wolves did nothing to prevent, and it was really an excuse to distract people from the problem of alligators in the sewers.

Why wolves? For that matter, where wolves? “There! There wolf! There castle!” as Marty Feldman said, but that’s another story.

Lycanthropy has long been a subject of fascination. There’s also ursanthropy–transformation into a bear–which isn’t as well known, although the term “berserk” can trace its etymology back to an Icelandic term for warriors who wore bearskins in the belief they would impart the bear’s power. And that’s really useful if you want to go into battle and eat a ton of salmon and blueberries. Maybe that’s why werewolves are more famous: bears hibernate through the winter, but wolves are on the prowl all year long, and lycanthropes can be out even when there’s not a full moon.

Now I’m not saying there are werewolves among New York City’s wolves. I’m also not not saying there are werewolves among New York City’s wolves. New York City is a big place that’s seen a lot of history, and if you can’t find werewolves there you can’t find ’em anywhere. And if wolves, or werewolves, can make it in New York City they can make it anywhere.

Honestly I’m surprised New York’s werewolf population, or just its wolf population, hasn’t become a bigger tourist attraction. As the monument reminds us tourists have a real way of attracting wolves.

Anyway there’s something to look out for if you’re ever in New York. Just don’t go looking after dark.



Someone Just Walked Over My Grave.

Hands vermillion, start of five

Bright cotillion, raven’s dive,

Nightshades promise, spirit’s strive,

To the living let now the dead…

come alive.

Otho, Bettlejuice


Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.

― Stephen King


I guess he’s going to Queens – he’s going to be the third scariest thing on that train.

-Patty Tolan, Ghostbusters


You said I killed you–haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe–I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!

–Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights


People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.

― Neil Gaiman, American Gods


Sir, what you had there was what we referred to as a focused, non-terminal repeating phantasm, or a Class-5 full-roaming vapor. Real nasty one, too.

-Ray Stantz, Ghostbusters



On Pembroke Road look out for my ghost,

Dishevelled with shoes untied,

Playing through the railings with little children

Whose children have long since died.

-Patrick Kavanaugh, If Ever You Go To Dublin Town


Finally, in answer to the question, “Who are you and what do you want?” the reply came, “I am a spirit; I was once very happy but have been disturbed.”

Authenticated History Of The Bell Witch And Other Stories Of The World’s Greatest Unexplained Phenomenon by M.V. Ingram

If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.

― H. L. Mencken


Too often, people make the mistake of trying to use their art to capture a ghost, but only end up spreading their haunting to countless other people.

― Caitlín R. Kiernan, The Drowning Girl


Damned spirits all

That in crossways and floods have burial,

Already to their wormy beds are gone.

For fear lest day should look their shames upon,

They willfully themselves exile from light,

And must for aye consort with black-browed night.

–Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 2


In The Amityville Horror the ghost told them to get out of the house. White people stayed in there. Now that’s a hint and a half for your ass. A ghost say get the fuck out, I would just tip the fuck out the door! Lou Walker looked in the toilet bowl, there was blood in the toilet. And said, “That’s peculiar.” I would’ve been in the house saying: “Oh baby, this is beautiful. We got a chandelier hanging up here, kids outside playing. It’s a beautiful neighborhood. We ain’t got nuttin’ to worry about, I really love it, this is really nice.”

[loud whisper]  “GET OUT”

“Too bad we can’t stay, baby!”

Eddie Murphy

The Eyes Have It.

There is so much that could be said about the use of eyes in art that I don’t know where to begin. In fact I’ve put off writing some pictures I’ve taken of graffiti with eyes because I don’t know where to begin, because there is so much that can be said about eyes in art going back at least as far as ancient Egypt and the Eye of Horus, which was used a ts a protective symbol, both worn and placed on the bow of ships to serve as a lookout. There’s the fact that in most sculptures of people or animals the eyes are left blank, although there are exceptions. The most famous one might be the Colossus of Constantine which has carved out irises and pupils. Constantine is probably meant to be looking heavenward but to me he looks more like he’s rolling his eyes, which might be why his head goes flying around during the opening credits of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, but that’s another story.

In painting there’s the Mona Lisa, and in several of Monet’s paintings people look directly out at the viewer, which was considered controversial at the time. And I can see why. There’s something a little unnerving about a painting, even one that’s not necessarily trompe l’oeil, staring back at you because you know it will never blink. If it does, though, well, that could mean trouble. Or it could mean you’re in a Scooby Doo cartoon and there’s someone behind the painting watching you through the eye holes. And that reminds me that in many cultures there’s the “evil eye”, with various charms against it. If you’ve read Carlos Collodi’s Pinocchio, and not just watched the Disney cartoon version, you know that when Gepetto starts carving Pinocchio the puppet’s eyes immediately glare at him. I’m not sure why he doesn’t stop carving right then and throw the wood in the fire–although it would have made the story a lot shorter.

Anyway most of us take in art by looking at it. Not all art is visual, and even though touching most paintings is verboten—unless you’re looking for an excuse to get thrown out of a museum—I wish we could. A lot of paintings have thick layers of paint and being able to touch those would add a whole new level of understanding. That’s even more true of sculpture. The artist Sylvia Hyman made ceramic works that look so much like paper people are surprised when they touch them, which usually isn’t allowed because they’re so fragile.

I’m getting off the subject of eyes, maybe because there’s so much to say about it, or maybe because it unnerves me. When we look into a painted eye the painted eye looks back into us.

Art Therapy.

It’s fun for me to take some graffiti and relate it to some aspect of art history even if, and sometimes especially if, any connection between the two is a real stretch or simply nonexistent since most, or even all, art comes from a mental leap. This time, though, I want to get more personal. I’m still contemplating my five-year cancerversary—and I know that’s a word I just made up, and I know that since “annus” is the Latin for “year” and “versus” is the Latin for “turn” and that therefore “anniversary” means “turning of the year” and cogito ergo something or other the word should be “annicancer” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue like “cancerversary” and this entire paragraph has gotten away from me and I should start over.

Back in June 2014 when I got the cancer diagnosis I spent two nights in the hospital. The second night I was taken up to a private room, and while the window basically looked out at a brick wall because it was in a wing that was a fairly recent addition I could walk down the hall to a window that looked down at a stretch of 21st Avenue I knew well. I sat at that window for a long time wondering what was ahead of me, looking down at places that held so many happy memories for me, and wished I could be down there. Really I wished I could be anywhere other than a hospital room, but there was something especially frustrating about being so close to places I’d not only much rather be but that I could imagine so clearly.

One of those places was the Sportsman’s Grille where I’d had a few beers. Really I’d had more than a few beers there–in college I did this Dylan Thomas impersonation. I’d imitate his voice and recite “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and guzzle an entire pitcher of Gerst beer in between lines and sometimes, in another imitation of Dylan Thomas, do that three or four times in one night, which would amuse my English major friends and horrify my pre-med friends, but that’s another story.

The Sportsman’s Grille also had an upstairs pool room and it was the only place I knew–and still know–in Nashville that had a snooker table, which is larger than the standard table used for 8 and 9-ball. And I love snooker. It’s so unbelievably complicated it’s best played sober, although I think the reason it’s unbelievably complicated is because whoever wrote the rules had to be drunk at the time.

Anyway the Sportsman’s Grille was brightly lit that night and as I sat at the window, almost certain I could hear the click of billiard balls and maybe even a voice slurring, “Though wise men at their end know dark is right…”

The Sportsman’s Grille in that location is closed now, and the building is currently empty. There’s a billboard over it and someone, or, from the look of it, a couple of someones, added their own tags to the back of the billboard. They’re stark and simple although really well done, and I can’t explain why but it makes me happy to see them up there. I’m sure there’s a reason but I can’t quite make the leap.


Play On, MacDuff.

So I happened to be passing by and noticed that someone had stuck a bunch of mostly red plastic cups in a fence, and of course I had to stop and take pictures of it because I’m weird, although probably not as weird as someone who’d stick a bunch of mostly red plastic cups in a fence and not even try to put them in some kind of order or pattern. Or maybe the original person did make some kind of pattern, reminiscent of the Lite Brite toy many of us had as kids, and then someone else came along and rearranged the cups so it was just random and looked stupid, also reminiscent of the Lite Brite toy many of us had as a kid, and it would be even more reminiscent of the Lite Brite I had as a kid if one of my friends had come by and rearranged it to say DICKS.

Some might think it’s a stretch to call this art—and some might think this is a terrible waste of red plastic cups which are more often a common symbol for “YES I AM DRINKING CHEAP ALCOHOL”, but that’s another story. Consider, though, that toys have an aesthetic design which isn’t usually thought of as art for the same reason that most other mass-produced objects aren’t thought of as art.

Speaking of toys and art consider this:

Source: MOMA.orgThat’s The Palace At 4 AM, a 1932 sculpture by Alberto Giacometti. It looks like a pared-down dollhouse, doesn’t it? It also kind of reminds me of the Scottish play, specifically Act V, scene 1, but that may be getting too high-falutin’ for, um, play. Giacometti even made some other sculptures that were meant to be played with as toys, but because they were made out of plaster and fairly fragile and because Giacometti went on to become a famous sculptor whose works are now worth millions those “toys” can’t be touched anymore, which ruins the purpose.

Also consider that all art—and all science, too, since science also requires creativity—begins with play. Art and science begin with us learning to play with the world around us, because play is a way of shaping the world and understanding its rules and limits. And that’s why I’ll leave you with this final thought from none other than Captain James T. Kirk:

“The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.”

Raise It Up.

Back in the ‘80’s when I first saw a documentary on New York graffiti I was surprised that some people went to jail for tagging subway cars or walls. I’m not sure why that surprised me, although I still think that if someone gets busted for graffiti it would make more sense to put their talents to good use doing some community service or something than it would to throw them in jail, which could just make the problem worse. Back in the ‘80’s I also heard a joke that’s stayed with me: a cop tells a kid, “A night in the slammer will teach you a lesson,” and the kid says, “Yeah, if I want to learn to be a junkie, hooker, or thief,” but that’s another story.

Every time I see graffiti, something that isn’t obviously there legally, I think about the risks the artist took, especially the risk of getting caught. And then I see something like the tag MENAS left and I’m even more impressed. This was going to eleven. I had to go by there at least a dozen times before I could get the picture above, and I could only get it from a moving car while my wife was driving. It shows up on Google Maps so here’s a picture that gives you an idea of its placement and how difficult that must have been.

Embiggen for the full effect. And here’s an aerial shot, also from Google Maps, although the red circle is mine, that also gives an idea of how difficult placing this tag must have been.

There’s also something to be said for the sharp, clean lines. Whoever Menas is they’ve clearly shown some skills, and a willingness to take some risks. Do they really deserve to go to jail for that?

Enough Isn’t Enough.

Minimalism was an art movement that rose to prominence in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, probably because, if there are two decades that absolutely screamed excess, it would be the 1960’s and ‘70’s. If the recent fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock should remind us of everything it’s how weird it was that Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Sha Na Na all performed on the same stage. Not at the same time, and, yeah, okay, maybe it wasn’t that weird, but still if that’s not excess I don’t know what is.

Anyway it’s a principle in art as well as physics that every movement has an equal and opposite movement. Well, maybe not really opposite, and not necessarily even equal—a counter-movement may always be as popular as the movement that inspired it. Such is the case with Maximalism, although it can be hard to define. In art how much is too much? A friend of mine says that certain films, like 1974’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, “make excess into a virtue”, which is a phrase I love, but it’s hard to define, and kind of like that famous definition of pornography: you only really know it when you see it.

Maybe that’s why Maximalism is a term that mainly gets applied to things like David Foster Wallace’s sprawling novel Infinite Jest, or Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music that he performs non-stop over twenty-four hours, which has gotta take a toll not just on him but the audience too.

And then there’s this that I found stuck to a wall of an industrial building.

From a distance it looked so small, but the colors got my attention, and the closer I got the more the depth of the design made it look bigger and bigger and bigger. Within its own small space it really stretched to excess.

Hooked On A Feeling.

Not everybody likes art. Let me back up and rephrase that: not everyone’s interested in art. And that’s okay. Nobody’s interested in everything. I find all kinds of things fascinating—sometimes things I didn’t even think about will interest me, and I’ve gotten drawn into long conversations with people about their hobbies, but even I have things that just can’t hold my attention, as my college economics professor learned, but that’s another story. So not everybody’s interested in art but I think almost all people appreciate having it around. Imagine if hotel rooms, lobbies, or other spaces were just blank. It’d be pretty dull. It might even be unnerving. You might not realize what it is that’s missing, just that there’s something that’s not quite right. Or maybe hotels just hang up pictures to distract you from the bedbugs.

Anyway this is what got me thinking about that:

It also got me thinking about when I was younger and had this idea that the way to define “good” art was that it inspired some kind of emotional reaction, and let me add that this was years, maybe even a decade, before I first read Aristotle, although he limited the emotions he thought art should inspire to pity and terror, and I eventually realized that, hey, pretty much all art inspires some kind of emotion. Even if you stand in front of it and say, “Well that sucks” that’s still an emotional reaction, one that might even be strong enough to distract you from the bedbugs.

Here’s a wider view of that graffiti:

I like the words–I especially like the way the artist has used cursive and the way the artist has made a U that kind of looks like a Y, and the possibility that the artist is asking, “Why feel it?” But it’s that figure on the left that makes it something even more. Here’s a closer look:

That the figure is headless suggests mindlessness, disappearance, invisibility–but it also invites us to put ourselves in the position of the art. Instead of looking at me, it might say, put yourself in my place. What do you see? What do you feel?

Here’s Looking At You.

Source: The Verge

Art isn’t necessarily something you hang on your wall. Or something you see in a gallery or a sculpture garden, or performed on a stage or projected on a screen and, yeah, one of my pet obsessions is trying to figure out a comprehensive definition of art. The best I’ve come up with so far is “anything people make or do” but that includes a lot of things that even I wouldn’t consider art, and, as you can tell, my own definition of art is pretty broad. I felt like I should include “do” not only because art includes live theater but also performance pieces like, say, Joseph Beuys’s “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare”, in which the artist carried a dead hare around a gallery and talked to it.

Of course Beuys was a known artist and announced what he was doing and did his performance in an art gallery, but I think the definition of “art” could be stretched even further to things like flash mobs, which easily fall under the much broader art concept of “happenings” first coined by the artist Allan Kaprow—four years after Beuys carried a hare around a gallery. An event doesn’t have to be announced to be a work of art, although that makes it harder to define “art”.

Anyway this has all been running through my head, and boy are its feet tired, ever since I read about a guy with a TV on his head leaving old TVs on peoples’ porches in Virginia. He must have known he’d be caught on video doing it, which may be part of the point he was trying to make, if he was trying to make a point. Maybe it was a statement about obsolescence, disposability, and surveillance. Who watches the watchers, and when we look into our TVs do our TVs look back into us? It wasn’t that long ago that our devices didn’t record what we watched, unless you were a Nielsen family, and even then, especially in the early days, those who collected the ratings had to rely on the honesty of the participants. Now practically every device we own collects data on our habits and we’re not always aware that our data are being collected or by whom or for what purpose.

Of course the guy responsible may not have thought of putting TVs on porches as a work of art. It may have just been an elaborate prank without any intended deeper meanings, but does that make a difference? And, hey, who are we to split hares?

Fly Away.

Several years ago I went to Russia—to give you an idea of how many years exactly it was a school trip and when I signed up for it we were going to the U.S.S.R., and the day I boarded the plane there was a newspaper headline that the Soviet Union had officially dissolved. I sat next to a friend on the plane and we started speculating that Lenin’s tomb could be turned into a nightclub, and then we started inventing cocktails like The Opium Of The People, The Stalin Stormtrooper, and The Soviet Union–a layered drink of fifteen different liqueurs that don’t mix.

One of my favorite parts of that trip—really my favorite part of a trip to any other country—was learning to talk to the locals, and I was reminded almost immediately after I got off the plane that Russians don’t just have a different language; they have a whole ‘nother alphabet. I didn’t bother to study up on Cyrillic before I left, figuring I could pick it up as I went along, and for the most part I was right. There’s enough overlap between the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets to give me a leg up so it wasn’t all Greek to me, and there are quite a few words that are the same in both Russian and English. There were still phone booths in those days and the word телефон was a big help, as was having read A Clockwork Orange. While I was there I also went to МакДональдз and was kind of disappointed that the Биг Мак wasn’t called a большой Мак. And a few years later when Pizza Hut opened in Russia it made me laugh that they spelled it пицца хат, which tranlisterates back to the Roman alphabet as “pitstsa khat”, but that’s another story.

One letter I couldn’t figure out on my own was Ж, but it intrigued me–it was such a cool looking little letter that I had to know what it sounded like, so I broke down and got a guidebook. When translated to English it sounds like “zh” and you hear it in words like “vision”. Joseph Brodsky mused on the letter in his poem The Fly:

What is it that you muse of there?

Of your worn-out though uncomputed derring-

do orbits? Of six-legged letters,

your printed betters,

your splayed Cyrillic echoes…

Anyway I thought it was strange to see some Cyrillic graffiti next to a sidewalk in a Nashville neighborhood. Who put it there, and why? It looks like a name–someone just leaving their mark, I guess, with no political overtones. Maybe it was their way of calling back to where they came from, in the same way it took me back to a place I’d once been.


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