American Graffiti.

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

How Do You Say…

seoulfoodI know this isn’t graffiti. It’s a food truck and their logo has a certain distinctive style that looks, hey, kind of like graffiti. And that was probably intentional because the Funk Seoul Brother food truck serves “Seoul food” and it’s riffing on African American, and in particular inner city urban, culture. I don’t want to bust their chops for it because I think it’s funny and, in my opinion, it’s like some kinds of fusion cuisine. It’s a cultural blend that works.

Others may disagree, but that’s what the comments section is for. I’m open to alternative viewpoints.

What’s interesting is I saw the food truck on the same day I read about a sportscaster getting some flak for a t-shirt he wore highlighting how certain sports teams mascots make fun of other–especially Native American–cultures.



Yeah, I think I’m treading on really thin ice here, but I’m both trying to approach the controversy thoughtfully and relying on the fact that this blog is only read by a small number of intelligent people and while I wouldn’t mind a wider audience I don’t want to end up on The Internet Ruined My Life.

Several years ago I went to an opening of an exhibition of photographs of Native Americans. These were contemporary photographs, not old ones. People asked the photographer questions and some would say “Indian” and then correct themselves and say “Native American”. Finally one person said, “What do they prefer to be called?”

The photographer replied a little pointedly that “they” are individuals but that most didn’t care if they were called Indians or Native Americans as long as they were treated with respect.

That reminds me of my favorite Simpsons lines, from the episode “Homer’s Phobia”, when Homer, speaking to the gay character John, voiced by John Waters, says, “Queer. That’s what you like to be called, right?” And John replies, “Well, that or John.”

I’m not really sure where I’m going with any of this which I could use as one of half a dozen reasons for not bringing any of this up. Questions of cultural appropriation and even cultural fusion are difficult and risky because they’re emotionally charged. If I don’t say anything, though, it might seem like I’m not interested in listening and learning. Silence may lead to the assumption that I don’t think about these issues and am closed to alternative viewpoints.

Words, Words, Words.

Before he became a successful artist Jean-Michel Basquiat wrote graffiti. With his friend Al Diaz and a few others he wrote brief, cryptic, sometimes barbed statements like “Playing Art With Daddy’s Money”, always signed with the tag SAMO—short for “Same Old Shit”. People who walked by and saw these messages must have wondered about them and who was behind them.

This particular work, written on the glass window of a car showroom that’s been sitting empty for decades, makes me think too.

haloUnlike one of SAMO’s lines there’s nothing pointed about it. And it may be purely coincidental that HALO is so close to SAMO , and given that “She wears the mornings well” is more personal than pointed this probably isn’t a tribute to Basquiat but rather something completely original.

In fact it seems more like a one-line poem and makes me think all kinds of things. Who is she? When she “wears the mornings” is she hiding something, and doing it so well no one knows? No one, that is, except for the artist. Some graffiti emphasizes the visual, but here it’s all about the words and what they conjure up.

Seen any graffiti? Email your pictures to Let me know if you’d like your submissions credited to you or if you want to remain anonymous. 

Do It Again.

tag1Earlier this week I went to a talk by Julian Barnes. He read his story The Silence about the last years of Sibelius’s life. I didn’t realize Sibelius wrote seven symphonies and then went silent for nearly thirty years, although Barnes said “about seventeen seconds” of an 8th symphony does exist. As far as is known he wrote very little during that period, although one night late in his life Sibelius’s wife found him burning manuscripts.

Barnes said that made him think about the point in any artist’s career when they should give up because everything after that is going to be “repetition and diminution”. And there have been other cases of artists who created extraordinary work then simply walked away. At thirty-six Duchamp turned his attention almost entirely to chess. Rimbaud wrote more poetry than some poets will produce in their lifetimes before he was twenty-one then walked away from it.

Because I think of art as a compulsion the idea of artists who just quit is something I have a hard time wrapping my head around. And this raises an even tougher question: when artists are known do they feel greater pressure to evolve, to not do the same thing again and again? Or do anonymous artists feel the same pressure to keep challenging themselves? And I realize it must vary from artist to artist.

It’s an interesting question for me because I see a lot of repetition in graffiti. Artists create a distinctive tag that doubles as their work and their signature. They get known by repeating the same thing again and again. Because so many are anonymous, though, it’s tough to track how many change, how many evolve, and how many challenge themselves to keep doing something new.




All Art Is Local.

butteryGraffiti is transgressive, anti-social, even violent, right? Maybe it isn’t always. I’ve featured local artist BUTTER here before, but with a smaller, less elaborate tag. For this particular work the artist has gone all out and created something big. And it’s in another part of town from the earlier tag, although I see BUTTER all over the place. And butter, but only in stores. If I saw actual butter, or even margarine, or “oleo” which I think is contractually required to appear at least once in every crossword puzzle ever created, out in the streets that would be weird.

Anyway this got me thinking about how some graffiti artists form a community. Sometimes when I see two or more tags in the same place or close to each other I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’re the same color. Artists working together in the same area may share materials, even ideas. Generally we may have romantic notions of the lone genius toiling away at a masterpiece but that’s rarely, if ever, the case. Artists work together, they influence each other, and their work becomes part of the community. Even when it’s not sanctioned by the property owner, even when it’s graffiti, art that is publicly on display is part of the community. I realize for some people that’s a concern. They’re bothered that graffiti will just encourage more graffiti. For me, though, that’s why I try as much as I can to highlight graffiti that I think is interesting, that has aesthetic value. I don’t want to encourage anyone to break the law, but if there’s something I can do as a critic I do want to encourage artists to be better.

Yeah, sometimes graffiti is just gang tags, but I think it’s that cool that I see BUTTER all over the place.

Fill In The Blanks.

fillintheblank1It’s not exactly aesthetically pleasing but I like the way this work works on my imagination. This isn’t really an example of pareidolia but there’s just enough there to imagine a face to go with the hair and eyebrows. And I’m pretty sure it’s meant to be Steve Martin’s face. That’s based on the fact that person or persons unknown has painted Steve Martin’s face on a wall along I-40 (which I wrote about previously) and placed metal cutouts of his face on various bus stops around town. I don’t know why they picked Steve Martin although he does have a bit of history here in Nashville and even mentions Exit/In in his autobiography Born Standing Up, but that’s another story.

What really intrigues me about this particular work though is its placement. It was hard for me to get a picture that would give you a good idea of how unusual its placement is but it’s on a solid concrete wall next to a fast food place. It’s just off Hillsboro Pike in Green Hills, a pretty affluent area of town that’s known for its massive traffic snarls. At almost any time of day if you go to Green Hills you can count on a lot of time just sitting around in traffic. For the record I did not take this picture while driving but parked and was standing on the sidewalk across the street.

In the midst of all this overcrowded space someone saw this stark empty wall and decided to add something to it, and what they added encourages us the viewers to think, to imagine, to fill in the blanks.

Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to You’ll get full credit. Or not. It’s up to you.

Hidden In Plain Sight.

hidden1Placement of a work of art is incredibly important. Artists want their work to be seen and seen at its best. When Mark Rothko began working on paintings for the Mark Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas he worked to find ways to recreate the light in his New York studio. The project’s initial architect even left because of creative differences. Rothko simply refused to budge when it came to the specific quality of the light he wanted.

Anyway it’s a given that artists want their work to be seen, that they want their work to be as visible as possible, right?

So why then would three different artists put their work in a narrow space between a couple of buildings where it’s unlikely anyone would see it? It’s an even more difficult question when two of the works are especially elaborate. The third, in the middle, is by “UH”, whose tag I’ve seen in other spots around the city.

It’s especially frustrating to me because there’s just not enough space to get a decent picture.

hidden2It looks like they all also used the same color, a stark black. Maybe it was unintentional but it’s a reminder that nothing about art is as simple as black and white.


But What Does It Mean?

nopeburger1I took this picture last year and put it aside because I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I think it’s a really interesting piece of graffiti. The elaborate font is striking as is the color choice. Compared to the other graffiti around it this piece is really something special. But what does it mean?

It’s in an area that’s undergoing rapid development, right across the street from J.J.’s coffee shop (where I found some other interesting graffiti) in fact, where new apartments are going up all over the place and competing for space with restaurants, and local restaurants are competing with chains muscling in. It’s on the side of a building that was a small real estate office before it was taken over by a nearby comic book store that used it for overflow stock and then it was a tattoo studio. Now the building’s undergoing serious renovation and while they’re not knocking down the walls there’s no telling what’s going in there next but given the area’s gentrification it’s probably something expensive.


The fence around the construction site makes it hard to get a good picture of it now.

So is it a statement of futility in the face of local history and culture being ground up into a bland “nope burger”? Or am I overreaching in an effort to make sense of something that’s meant to be purposely senseless?

I’m going to get a little meta-critical here and say that the major role of a critic is to make sense of culture, to explain things in a way that will make them fit into a cultural narrative. That’s what makes professional critics useful even though the only difference between a professional critic’s opinion and the opinion of somebody on the street is the professional critic’s opinion is usually better informed. Better informed doesn’t necessarily mean better, but that’s another story.

And even though professional critics are paid to offer opinions I think even they sometimes have to admit they don’t know what to say about something.

I’m not a professional critic, just a guy with some opinions who can embellish those opinions with what I know about art, but I look at this and I have no idea what to say except that I like it. Professional critics may feel differently.



Moving Exhibit.

traingraffiti1This week’s graffiti is a reader submission from Gina at Endearingly Wacko and is a fantastic example of why I love train graffiti. First of all there’s the aesthetics. A lot of work went into this particular piece. Most graffiti on buildings seems to be done hastily so it’s usually a single-color scrawl, but artists who work on trains generally have a lot more time and create more interesting works. And I think this artist may have been influenced by Aaron McGruder, creator of The Boondocks, a comic strip and animated series about an African American family that moves into a mostly white neighborhood.

And that’s where things really take off. Any work on a train car travels, and that’s why, whenever I see a painting on the side of a train car, I wonder where it originated, where the artist lives. I wonder if he or she feels trapped where they are and if art is a means of escape. And the art does escape even if they don’t. We look at it but it also looks back at us.

That makes this a moving art exhibit in more ways than one.

traingraffiti2Seen any graffiti? Send pictures to I’ll mention your name and include a link to your blog/website/social media thing. Or you can remain totally anonymous. I’m easy.

The Library Game.

My definition of graffiti may be overly broad, but then again my definition of art may also be overly broad. I can’t help it. Every time I’ve started the sentence “Art is…” I feel like there’s no succinct all-encompassing way to finish it without excluding something. Trying to define art is like trying to define what games are. Think about how many different ways we use the word “game”. Or “art”. And while a picture may be worth a thousand words a thousand words don’t necessarily add up to a picture, but that’s another story.

Anyway I think this sticker qualifies as graffiti.

005It may not be original but it was put in a public—well, in this case semi-public—place by someone without authorization. It’s an act of vandalism but a positive one.

I know—defining “a positive act of vandalism” may be just as thorny as defining art.

The sticker commands us to read, but why the blindfold? Are we blind without knowledge? Or should we read blindly, being open to all perspectives, all possibilities? And is it wearing headphones or it just a weirdly shaped butterfly decapitated head? Feel free to throw out any answers or questions of your own.

This sticker is in Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Library. If you live in Nashville or if you’re visiting and have a chance to drop in to the library see if you can find it. The picture is the only clue you’ll get from me.

Since libraries are fun places to explore I thought I’d make a game of it.



This Isn’t A Real Job?

warholJust a few months out of college I got a job working in a library mailroom. It wasn’t in the library itself but an office building so we had a messenger who dropped off and picked up intra-library stuff twice a day. I’d help him carry it down to the basement and load it onto the van. There was a construction company that had its office in the same building and we would sometimes meet construction crew guys in the hallways or the basement.

We nicknamed one of them The Joker. He didn’t resemble Jack Nicholson or any other incarnation of the infamous Batman villain, and he dressed like most of the other guys: a t-shirt and a flannel shirt that thankfully covered enough of his baggy jeans that his crack was never exposed. He was, I think, the oldest member of the crew and he wore glasses with such thick lenses I never got a clear view of his eyes. It was the teeth that earned him the name Joker. His discount dentures were a little too white and a little too straight. They were like a miniature version of the fence Tom Sawyer tricked his friends into whitewashing. In his mouth. And they were poorly fitted so The Joker had a permanent leer.

One day The Joker said to me, “Why don’t you get a real job?”

I asked, “What’s a real job?” He just grunted and walked away.

That question has stuck with me. What’s a real job? I’m pretty sure he meant construction, but how is that any more of a real job than working in a library, or, for that matter, making corrective lenses or cheap dentures? Isn’t anything that pays the bills a real job?

That brings me, in a very roundabout way, to this particular graffiti. The picture is an advertisement that’s been slapped down on sidewalks around town since advertising’s goal is to cover every available surface and to that end somebody’s put a couple of stickers advertising something completely different on the ad, but someone—I think it’s local artist CONS—has scribbled their own signature on it too. Two of these things are intended to make money and were designed and paid for. One isn’t.

In the era before the ascendance of Pop Art it was considered vulgar for artists to talk about money. There was a very romantic notion that while artists didn’t necessarily need to starve they should eschew gross materialism. They could have wealthy patrons but weren’t supposed to be wealthy themselves. Andy Warhol especially changed that, openly talking about how much his works commanded and making the making of money kind of a performance art. And that raised some questions that are still valid and still, perhaps, unanswerable: is art more or less authentic if the artist is being paid? If the piper only pipes what the highest bidder wants to hear does that make the music better or worse?

Or, to tie it back to this particular piece, is advertising more or less art than an elaborate scribble? The romantic in me wants to say the graffiti artist is doing something more creative, more interesting, more real—even more noble, but then I think, hey, advertising can be art. And that means making art can be a real job.

Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to and receive the gift of seeing your name here.

%d bloggers like this: