American Graffiti.

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

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.

In A Word.

POLONIUS: What do you read, my lord?

HAMLET: Words, words, words.


Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

graffiti1Because I don’t do graphic design and have no clue what kerning is (or at least didn’t until I stopped typing this sentence and went and looked it up) I often take letters for granted. And that may seem strange given that words are my medium, but most of the time I just stick with the Times New Roman font or whatever the default is and don’t think about changing it unless I want to use italics for emphasis or bold to make something really stand out. Occasionally if I’m adding a caption to a picture I might look for a funny font but mostly I’m just lazy and use the default.

And this is true most of the time when I’m reading. I read the words but I don’t think about the design of the font, unless I happen to flip to the back and it’s a book with one of those little notes. “This book is typeset in Whillickers, a 12th century Belgian font designed by an amateur cowl maker.” If you say so. Looks like Times New Roman to me.

It even seems more than a little odd to me that there’s some controversy over U.S. highway signs which switched to a more legible font called Clearview in 2004 but is now switching back to one called Highway Gothic. They don’t look that different to me, except for some kerning, but Clearview is expensive while Highway Gothic is free.

Anyway when I look at graffiti, or any art that turns abstract language into something visual–think Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture–I do notice the font because it’s not just the word. It’s also how it’s designed.

That’s what I like about this particular work. It makes me think about how printed language has two ways of conveying meaning: what it says is tied to how it looks. And as a bonus there’s a sense of menace.


Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to Full credit will be given or you can remain anonymous. I’m easy.


There’s a Ray Bradbury short story called In A Season Of Calm Weather about a man who dreams of owning an original work by Picasso. I won’t say any more—go look it up and read it—except that it might make you consider the idea of art as something intended to last. The truth is we leave our little marks upon the world and sometimes may intend them to be bulwarks against the ravages of time, but everything is ephemeral.


It’s All Been Done Before.

IMG_3155When I was a kid I drew a lot of strange things. At least adults found them strange. I have a very clear memory of one of my preschool teachers telling my mother, “He draws such unusual things.” What I’d drawn was a bunch of stone faces rolling down a mountain. What’s funny is I drew that after seeing a picture of Mount Rushmore. It was just my way of reimagining what I’d seen, because I had no clue what it was or what it meant. I doubt my teacher would have found it that unusual if I’d just drawn Mount Rushmore. About that same time I drew a picture of a bunch of people in a boat in a cave. They were all holding candles. A woman looked at it and told me, “You’re so creative. When I was a little girl I never knew what to draw. You draw such original things.” And I felt guilty. The picture was inspired by my first trip to Disneyworld and the Pirates Of The Caribbean ride. I’d just stripped away all the pirates because I couldn’t draw them and made the cave dark and given everybody candles because, well, it was dark in the cave.

I felt guilty because it wasn’t really original. And I’d spend literally most of my life studying art and art history before I’d realize that there really is no such thing as originality. Everything is a blend of everything else.

The breakthrough would come when I read Milan Kundera’s novel Immortality. In one part he describes art history as a clock. The clock strikes midnight when Jackson Pollock creates action painting, removing the direct contact between brush and canvas that’s been the basis of art since the first cave paintings. It’s the end of originality, the end of art as a progression. It bothered me to think we were living in a post-midnight world, that anything that came after the early 1950’s was merely a repeat of what had come before. Art history was finished, defunct, washed up, in the red, kaput.

Then I realized that’s kind of like saying history itself ended with World War II. History, and art, march on.

If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with the graffiti above it’s this: most graffiti I see is abstract. It’s usually a name or a word. This particular work sticks out because it’s a picture of something. And it cracks me up because it’s a narwhal cyclops with, um, wings on its head—a mashup of a few different things.

It’s unusual but it’s not original. And that doesn’t matter. It’s art and that makes it part of art history.


Could You Repeat That?

IMG_2560Oscar Wilde said, “All art is quite useless.” And I say, Ozzie, baby, what is “useful”? Art may not mine coal or prevent trouble down t’mill but doesn’t it have a use? Yes, I know, Wilde was responding to Kant’s ideas about the judgment of aesthetics and would say,

Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way…A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower.


He cut himself off there, adding, “All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.” I’d say it’s an infinite one but let’s just let it rest. The usefulness of art is what came to mind when I saw a tiny little graffiti tag on a water meter cover on a sidewalk. The artist, whose name I think is CONS or maybe COMS, has some larger tags on other things–tagging seems to be a real compulsion for this one since I found almost a dozen separate tags within two blocks. What’s interesting to me about these tags is the bare simplicity which really draws attention to the things that have been tagged. Most of the time when I look at a painting I don’t think about the canvas underneath, and unless it’s really elaborate I usually don’t even notice the frame. Canvases are utilitarian; they merely serve as the background for a work of art and while frames are often custom-made they’re, well, just frames. They’re just there to hold a painting up. Right? But when the paint is added to the canvas and placed within the frame the canvas and frame you could say all elements combine: frame, paint, and canvas are all a unit that we call a work of art.
IMG_3120Andy Warhol famously made a mint by reproducing his own paintings. He wasn’t the first to sell reproductions, but he treated mass production as an art in itself, turning everyday objects into art–and turning art into an everyday object. What graffiti sometimes does, when it’s applied to mass produced objects, is make them unique works of art–even if the tags themselves look alike. It can draw our attention to things we might ignore because we think we’ve seen them before.

Seen any graffiti? Email your pictures to

Another Person’s Treasure.

What is a 012work of art worth? How is its value determined? That’s a question that intrigued me as a kid when my friends and I played a board game called “Masterpiece“. You acquired works by bidding against other players. A separate set of cards would give the “actual” value of each work. Since the decks were shuffled the prices for each work would change from one game to the next. The idea was to buy as much art as you could. The player whose collection was worth the most at the end of the game won. Go figure. That bugged me because it was really the art that I liked: reproductions of famous works on little cards. There was a Picasso, a Thomas Hart Benton, a van Gogh. The first time I saw Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks was on one of those cards.

Hidden in the amounts deck were a few cards that said “FORGERY”. This made whatever work you’d purchased worthless. That bugged me too. If it looked exactly like the original why did it make such a huge difference? It was my first exposure to the economics of art, that a Monet is big money while a copy, no matter how accurate, might as well be Monopoly Monet.

Is there value just in the name? There are stories of Dali and Picasso paying for meals with doodles, and Basquiat–who started as a graffiti artist–did occasionally buy cigarettes or make other small purchases with scribbles, only to see them pop up in galleries selling for hundreds of dollars a few days later. If a work of art speaks to us, though, does it matter who painted it?

008Is there even any real value in art? That’s a big question and one I’m not prepared to even begin to answer, mainly because I only understand economics just well enough to know that value is arbitrary, but I believe that a work of art, no matter who the artist is or where it’s located, any work that makes us feel something, makes us think, has value.



Real, Unreal, And Does It Matter?

Source: Google Maps

Source: Google Maps

There’s a particular spot near Elliston Place where I’ve collected quite a bit of graffiti. It’s so popular with artists in fact that in the picture above, pulled from Google Maps, you can see some graffiti. In fact the extremely astute may recognize this piece in the lower right hand corner from a previous post:

downerI’m not sure why the area is so popular. It’s also a spot with quite a bit of history. Right across the street from the picture above is the famous Exit/In where almost everybody who’s anybody in music has played and it’s even been a spot for some other performers. An older friend tells the story of the night he was walking down Elliston and met a huge crowd of people being led out of Exit/In by a man dressed in a white suit. The man was Steve Martin, and it might have been the night he took the entire audience to McDonald’s, but that’s another story.

Pictured above, though, is another music venue, The End, but what really interests me is the courtyard next to it and behind Obie’s Pizza. The walls are covered with regularly changing murals. Here’s a picture of a recent design:


It looks a lot like graffiti, doesn’t it? The colors may be brighter and the designs more elaborate but it still has a distinctly graffiti style. Now here’s another view:

002The ATM sign–which to me also looks like it’s copying a hip graffiti-style look–is on the bars that separate the courtyard from the alley, keeping out the riffraff. I contacted The End to ask who did their murals. I didn’t get an answer, but what matters is I’ve still drawn this conclusion: in an area with lots of graffiti the owners wanted something that looked like graffiti that isn’t actually graffiti.

It’s easy to think of graffiti as something bad, as defacing private or public property, but what does it say when people intentionally copy–and even pay for–something that looks like graffiti?

Here’s a bit of “real” graffiti from behind The End. I don’t see that much difference.

006Seen any graffiti? Email your pictures to All pictures will be credited to you unless you’d rather remain anonymous. I’m easy like that.


Christmas Graffiti.

In the spirit of the season here’s some Christmas graffiti.

Here’s a reindeer.


007Here’s a tree. O Tannenbaum! If this tree looks familiar it’s because it greatly resembles another work I’ve written about previously that’s just a few blocks away from this one. I’d really love to know who the artist is.

008And finally you may not consider this graffiti, but it is a public work of art.


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