American Graffiti.

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

The Heart Of Design.

heart1Five hundred years ago the same artists who create graffiti now would have been carving gargoyles, making stained glass windows, and painting frescoes for cathedrals. A thousand years ago they would have been illuminating books. That’s a real stretch but I do think the driving force behind at least some graffiti is that there aren’t enough outlets for people with a need to create. In the Baroque and Rococo periods especially there was a lot of call for craftspeople to decorate every square inch of just about every surface. Economics and social changes brought an end to that and most modern design is driven by function with a belief that anything extra is superfluous. There have even been art movements that sought to strip items down to just rationality and functionality. I’m looking at you Bauhaus—and I don’t mean the band.

I still think there’s a deeply human impulse to decorate and this is a really roundabout way of saying I absolutely love the heart painted on a storage container. Whoever did this has taken a bland, utilitarian, mass-manufactured object and made it unique. At least they’ve added something interesting to it.

heart2I’m not so in love with the car parked in front of it that made it difficult for me to get a clear shot but, hey, people gotta park. And almost every car on the road has bumper stickers, and some have eyelashes or Rudolph noses and antlers around Christmas or have been decorated in some way. Like I said: there’s a deeply human impulse to decorate.

heart3The way the heart is drawn is very interesting to me too. The artist didn’t use conventional spray paint but something thicker, giving it a rough texture. The arrow is also pointing upward. Heart and Cupid iconography are really big subjects I won’t go into but logically a fired arrow moves in an arc, which is why they call it “archery”, but that’s another story. For an arrow to go straight up through something it has to be fired really hard and from a low angle. That does make some sense since Cupid is usually portrayed as a child.

Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to I’m not kidding when I say I’d love to get them.


A Matter Of Taste.

discoI once heard an art critic tell a bunch of art students, “Some mornings I want tomato juice and some mornings I want orange juice. If you give me orange juice on a morning when I want tomato juice I won’t like it. It doesn’t matter if it’s the best orange juice in the world. I still won’t like it.” He then went on to say that some of their works he was going to look at were going to be orange juice and that they should keep in mind that today was a tomato juice day.

My first thought was, “What an asshole.” But then I thought a little more about it and realized he was admitting that his judgment was fallible. He also admitted that his opinions were not objective and were sometimes shaped by factors that had nothing to do with what he was looking at.

I still think, what an asshole, but that’s tempered a little bit by understanding the deeper implications of what he said.

Years later I got asked to write art criticism for a little magazine—so little it folded after its second issue, but that’s another story. At the Sarratt Art Gallery there was an exhibit of paintings by Margo Kren. It was her “Snook’s Jazz” series, named after her husband and inspired by her visits to New Orleans. And that was about all I got from the exhibition catalogue. I missed the opening so I never got to talk to her.

At first I felt like I was being given tomato juice and let me say right now that I don’t like tomato juice. There is no morning, afternoon, or evening when I want tomato juice. And I started writing a review that was pretty critical, but since I was working on it during lunch breaks I only had a short time to look at the paintings and write so I kept going back. And a funny thing happened. I started looking more closely at the paintings and found depth and detail I’d missed earlier. The online versions don’t really capture the paintings, how large they are, or an interesting recurring motif: thick blobs of paint like candy dots.

The more I looked at her work the more I liked it and I ended up writing a really positive review of the paintings.

It’s an experience I’ve kept in mind ever since because it reminds me that my first impression may not be the right one. If I give something another look I just might develop a taste for it.

Sometimes I Wanna Be An Anarchist.

The word “anarchy” gets used a lot to describe riots and other chaotic events but that’s not really what it means. Technically it’s not what “chaos” means either, but that’s another story. “Anarchy” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “without a leader”. It just means a system where everyone only looks out for themselves and there are no rules.

anarchy1I’m generally a fan of rules. Without them things tend to break down and a game of Sorry! can quickly turn into a game of Sorry I Ripped Up The Carpet And Stuffed It In Your Face Until You Bled! and while this can make the game more interesting in the short term in the long term it usually results in a parental figure taking it away.

anarchy2Anyway I do think it’s good to challenge the rules sometimes, to force ourselves to think about why we have rules in the first place, and whether the rules we’re following are still useful or if they’re just something we do out of habit. Graffiti is against the law but why? I can think of a lot of reasons, starting with I don’t want somebody spray painting stuff on my house, but are there exceptions? There’s graffiti carved into the pyramids and other ancient monuments that was done thousands of years ago so it’s become history itself. And what are the rules of graffiti? Mostly people think of graffiti as painted, and that’s reflected in one of the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Words or images marked (illegally) in a public place, esp. using aerosol paint.” But that could include stickers, signs, posters…graffiti could be any kind of mark made in a public place. The problem with making the definition overly broad, though, is it then loses all meaning and spitting on the sidewalk becomes graffiti. I believe graffiti is an art form and I have a pretty broad interpretation of what art is, but there have got to be some standards and some rules or the whole thing would descend into anarchy.

Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to You can be credited or remain anonymous. Whatever you want the rules to be.

Thistle Do.

thistleWhen I was four or five years old I had a weird fascination with thistles. I even tried to grow a thistle by sticking it in a flowerpot with some dirt where it died almost immediately. I’m not sure what it was I liked about them but I think it’s because they were distinctive, easy to identify, and such a badass plant. I could almost hear them talking and they always sounded tough. Thistles, I thought, could push their way in anywhere and with those spiky leaves.

I’m talking about the American thistle, by the way, which is a little bit different from the Scottish thistle, although the same idea applies. You wouldn’t want to step on either one barefoot, although I still liked thistles even after stepping on several in my bare feet. I always figured it was my fault for intruding on their space.

When I look at thistles now I still see a badass plant. Everything will flourish under the right conditions but thistles occupy spaces other plants don’t want. And I see something that keeps coming back regardless of what anyone else thinks. And I see something that from a distance might seem ugly because some people don’t want it there but that when examined closely has profound beauty.

That metaphor may be a bit of a stretch, but then beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


Inspiration, of course, takes many forms.



Everybody’s A Critic.

junkIn many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

If you’ve seen the film Ratatouille you recognize those lines spoken by the appropriately named critic Anton Ego. I think about them sometimes when I write about graffiti. I’ve been writing about it for a year now. That seems like a long time even though the older I get the faster years go by, but that’s another story. I didn’t think I’d write this much, but I’ve found a lot to write about, and I’m especially grateful to those who’ve sent me their pictures (side note: please send your graffiti pictures to!). Sometimes I’ve had to fudge it and write about things that aren’t graffiti, but when I started I really had no idea how much there was out there.

Even though I’m not a professional critic–just a guy who knows a little bit about art–it’s made me think a lot about what it means to be a critic. And I’ve thought about why I skip over some graffiti I see. Some of it I just don’t like, and even though I’m a critic I try to take the if-you-can’t-say-something-nice-keep-your-big-bazoo-shut approach. Something Anton Ego doesn’t say is that professional critics often move in the same circles as the artists, musicians, cooks, et al they criticize. Sometimes they know each other. If criticism–especially negative criticism–seems personal it’s because it likely is personal. It’s the critic’s way of saying, “You can do better.” Criticism, even professional criticism, is just an opinion, but at best it’s an informed opinion, and its purpose should be to either enlighten the audience or to push the artists to be better.

At least that’s my opinion. What do you think?

Source: Disney Wiki

Surprise me.

Anyway I plan to keep writing about graffiti, and, by the way, if you see any please send your graffiti pictures to And I’ll try to keep these words of Anton Ego in mind:

Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.

“Poli” Meaning “Many” and “Tics” Meaning Small Bloodsucking Arachnids.

stendhal1“Politics in a literary work, is like a gun shot in the middle of a concert, something vulgar, and however, something which is impossible to ignore.”


Sometimes I think using art to make a political statement is a dangerous business and can even undermine what art should do. Using art to make a specific political statement makes the art itself ephemeral; if it achieves its goal of changing the status quo the work ceases to have any value.

Yeah, I know it’s not even close to that simple.

The more I look at this particular work too the more I realize it’s not a simple political statement. There’s a level of ambiguity here. Is the artist calling for fewer guns and more love, or saying that if there were fewer guns there’d be more love? Correlation doesn’t always mean causality.



What’s even more interesting to me is the placement. Here’s where I found it:

stendhal2This particular railroad overpass that marks where Wrenwood Drive becomes Nebraska Avenue. Technically they’re one street, but Nashville is one of those cities where sprawl has led to a lot of spots where one street simply turns into another and renaming them and fixing the maps is a political matter.

I got the close-up by standing in a parking lot and using the zoom feature on my camera. Standing out in the road is a bad idea under any circumstances but this is also an area where cars zoom through. That brings to my mind how much art is a matter of life and death. Depending on how you look at it there’s no such thing as an apolitical work of art.

That reminds me of a joke: two Romanians are sitting in a bar. One of them says, “Fifty-four” and the other laughs. Then the other says, “Ninety-six” and the first one laughs. The bartender overhears this and asks, “What’s with the numbers, guys?”

One of them explains, “Under Ceaucescu we had all these political jokes we couldn’t tell without getting arrested. We gave the jokes numbers so we could share them without telling them.”

The bartender smiles and says, “Oh, I get it. Hey guys–twenty-seven!”

They look at him blankly and then one says, “You know, it’s not the joke so much as how you tell it.”

Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to Let me know if you’d like to be credited or if you’d like to remain completely anonymous. It’s all in how you tell it.

Black, White, And Read All Over.

palimpsestThe first time I heard the word “palimpsest” I thought it was like a pimple, or at least some kind of swollen mass. It’s not a word I run across a lot in spite of how omnivorous my reading habits are, although at the time I was reading a lot of Henry Miller and he liked to throw it in at least five or six times in every book. And from the context it always seemed like a big swollen mass of stuff. Fortunately my old friend the Oxford English Dictionary set me straight. The use I think Henry Miller had in mind, and one that’s pretty common, is a a writing surface that’s “reused or altered while still retaining traces of its earlier form; a multilayered record”.


Source: Wikipedia

Chalkboards, dry erase boards, and the crossword puzzles I do in pencil so I can go back and erase my mistakes are also palimpsests. Sometimes the old words are effaced and replaced, but it’s the “multilayered record” definition that always interests me, and this particular graffiti made me think about the word. There seems to be a certain amount of respect among graffiti artists. Mostly they don’t write over each others’ tags. There’s an exception to every rule, of course. I count at least four different tags here, one which I’m pretty sure was explicitly written over another one.

There’s also quite a bit of color too–black, yellow, and purple, all on a background of white and a black and white checkered wall. That got me thinking of how all graffiti already is a palimpsest. In academic parlance any object–and that includes buildings and train cars–can be “read”.

The building is a defunct fast food joint but by using it as a canvas the artists have overwritten that with their own meaning.

On the opposite wall there’s this circular window where, if you embiggen the picture and look carefully, you might be able to see the chain’s name. The neon no longer glows and has been overwritten by something new.


Art must survive.

Seen any graffiti?Send your pictures to You can be credited or remain completely anonymous and unless you specify otherwise none of your contact information will be shared with anyone.

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.