American Graffiti.

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

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Some graffiti I find profound and thought provoking. The aesthetics, or even just the placement, speaks to me in the same way more traditional art forms do. Furthermore some graffiti seems to carry heavy implications and raises questions about public space, its use, its value, and the human desire to express ourselves.

And some of it just makes me laugh.

012And now…it’s time for Throwback Saturday!

A Matter Of Time.

Most art—the stuff you see in museums, anyway, is intended to last. I think the artists themselves hope their work will stand the test of time. Michelangelo, Phidias, and even Picasso must have thought they were carving out a little niche of eternity, creating things that would still be around long after they were dust. There are exceptions—explaining pictures to a dead hare, for instance, has got to be a one-time thing—but paintings, sculptures, and other works will hopefully last.

For graffiti artists it’s different. They’ve got to figure that anything they make will be wiped out, that it won’t last. They’re not working in a studio and they don’t have a chance of getting space in a museum. That makes a work like this one even more impressive to me.

008The artist put time and thought into this mural, and while it’s been there for several months there’s no telling how much longer it will last. The building that currently has this work on it is next to a construction site. There was a church there until a couple of years ago when the congregation decided they didn’t like the neighborhood and sold it. Then it was knocked down and some apartments are going up there. This secondary building still stands, for now, but I don’t think it’ll be long before it goes too.

001005004This is just a couple of blocks away from a public library, a consignment place that sells weird things, an old bookstore, a fantastic little coffee shop that’s basically the size of a walk-in closet, and a few thrift shops and some other things. It’s a neat little area. I know it will all change eventually, but I hope it doesn’t happen for a very long time.

This is the consignment store. The coffee shop is right next door.

This is the consignment store. The coffee shop is right next door.

As for the mural itself, well, every time I look at it I hear Indiana Jones: It belongs in a museum.



“Have you seen the faces?”

My friend Jamie and I were having lunch. I had just told her about my “American Graffiti” series. That’s when she brought up “the faces” on a wall along I-440. No, I hadn’t seen them. I was intrigued.

“All right,” she said. “We’re going for a ride.”

Check please!

I recognized the stretch of interstate–it’s one I’ve been down several times. I remembered it because of this house:

graffitihouseIt’s had better graffiti on it in the past. Notice, too, the washes of color down the wall on the right.  Every time I’ve zipped by I’ve thought about trying to figure out where that house is and whether I can get to it to take some closer pictures. Then I move on and forget about it. I see a lot of really good graffiti–incredibly well done, elaborate stuff–from moving cars. Most of it is on buildings. Some of it is on train containers that run parallel to the road. Someday I’m going to go to a train yard and get pictures of some of the amazing graffiti on trains, but that’s another story.

Some graffiti I see in really surprising, even dangerous, places, like underpasses. That brings me to the faces. They’re on the wall that runs alongside the interstate. I’m not sure how Jamie spotted them in the first place. She tells me some have even been painted over. It’s not surprising to me that I’ve never seen them before. Even when I’m not driving I’m usually looking straight ahead, and unless you turn to look straight at them you’ll miss them.

facesEmbiggen the picture and you’ll see the reflection of my hand and my phone as I quickly snapped a picture–Jamie offered to drive by again, but she’d done too much already. Here’s more detail:


Clearly these were created with stencils, but what’s more impressive than the technique is the location. Someone literally risked their lives, or at least really serious injury. And this particular artist’s work–at least I think it’s the same artist–has cropped up elsewhere, specifically at bus stops around town. I’ve shared this picture before:


I thought this was just a clever tribute to Steve Martin’s history with Nashville, but now I feel it’s gone beyond that. By placing more of these pictures in hard-to-reach and easily missed places I think the artist is making a subtler, weirder statement. I’m just not sure what it is. All I can say for certain is thanks for the ride, Jamie.

Mind The Gap.

006I cut down an alley on my way to nowhere in particular–one of my favorite places to go, but that’s another story. I almost missed this bit of graffiti on the roof of a building. It’s not much to look at. It’s probably just a gang sign and may even have been there for a while since gentrification is driving gangs out of the area–there goes the neighborhood. And, walking back the other way, it wasn’t as well-hidden as I thought at first. What got my attention is the placement. It’s not impossible, or even that difficult to get to. The alley behind the building is elevated so the roof is actually below eye-level, depending on how tall you are. I’m five foot six and just barely look down on the roof from the alley, if that gives you some idea.

What’s impressive is that someone had to leap over a gap of about five feet to land on the roof. The gap plummets down about fourteen feet into a very tight enclosure with bricks, grass, and some broken bottles and other trash. And there’s no easy way to make that jump. In retrospect I wish I’d taken a picture of the gap itself to give you some idea, but here’s the top of the cast iron stairway that leads down into the enclosure:

015That should give some idea of how hard it must have been for the artist–and, yeah, I’m using that term very loosely–to make that leap. And whoever it was probably did it at night. There are a few businesses around and the alley is pretty open–several parking lots back up to it–but I’m pretty sure it’s not a well-lit area. And the individual had to cross all that roof space. I’d give it a medium level of difficulty.

Here’s that building from the front. It forms a strip that includes a bar, a local LGBT resource center, and a restaurant that specializes in brunch. Hopefully that’s as far as gentrification will reach.


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.

Carved In Stone.

Some of the world’s oldest examples of graffiti are carved in stone. There are ancient Egyptian monuments that have been partially defaced because some ancient-but-not-as-ancient Greek guy chiseled “Stavros was here” into them. I think about that every time I see someone’s name or something scrawled in concrete even though that doesn’t require a chisel, and concrete was largely, though not exclusively, used by the Romans.

Also writing in concrete requires being at just the right place at the right time.

Or the right place at the wrong time. Source: "Blazing Saddles", copyright Warner Brothers.

Or the right place at the wrong time.
Source: “Blazing Saddles”, copyright Warner Brothers.

What’s surprising is how quickly concrete wears down. It seems like it would be a more long-lasting form of graffiti, but, looking down, I found that in places with heavy foot traffic examples of it disappeared pretty quickly. Still there are some places where it lasts. Here, for instance, is a bit next to Nashville’s own Exit/In:


I found this just a few blocks away. I think it’s more recent and already shows signs of wear:

stone2And then there’s this that directs people to The Red Door Saloon, a funky little dive near Music Row.




What’s In A Name?

Sometime in the mid-‘80’s I saw a short documentary about New York graffiti artists. It included an artist who called himself Crash. Crash also appeared on an episode of Livewire, a talk show for kids on Nickelodeon that you might remember if you’re old enough to have watched You Can’t Do That On Television as a kid. It intrigues me that the host of Livewire was Fred Newman who now does sound effects on A Prairie Home Companion, but that’s another story.

Crash was into computers and that’s where his name came from. A “crash”, he explained, is something that sometimes happen to computers.bluescreenThis is an incredibly roundabout way of wondering about graffiti artists’ names. Here’s one I’ve seen in a couple of different places. What, exactly, can we deduce about this artist? Maybe this is the sign of someone who’s also a professional chef.


The same artist has also chosen some less appetizing canvases:

dumpsterAnd now a flashback: the opening of Livewire.

Please Tip Your Waiter.

deathsheadThis garbage can graffiti always cracks me up because it makes the can look like a big skull, but in a weird stylized sort of way. And I laugh because I feel like it’s got a deep, serious message about how we should recycle and trash is killing the planet and we’ve developed a disposable culture and big words like heterogeneity and reification and let’s throw in phenomenology just for fun.

It’s funny, right?

It’s in front of JJ’s Market & Cafe, a neighborhood establishment, a coffee shop which still thrives in spite of being just two blocks away from three major chain places that also sell coffee as well as pastries, sandwiches, juices, and other stuff. I won’t name names but one is known for its breads, one specializes in bagels, and one is so ubiquitous there are jokes about how there are places where you’ll find two of its stores on opposite sides of the street.006JJ’s is purely local and has been in the area since dirt was clean. Part of the reason JJ’s survives is it doesn’t just sell coffee. There’s also beer, and not just any beer. There’s a row of taps next to the coffee bar and you can sit down and enjoy a fresh pint of a local brew or take home a growler of some of Yazoo’s or Jackalope’s finest. They also have an expansive selection of bottled international and U.S. beers, many of them microbrews.

005003And then there’s the sitting area. There’s the bookshelf with board games. There are the big armchairs and old fashioned tables. There’s the stage where I and some other local writers would occasionally perform poems. There’s the large screen of a Gustav Klimt and the Guinness posters. The staff are friendly too, and I love the tip jar. You should tip anyway, but doesn’t this make you feel even better about doing it?001I’m not trying to advertise JJ’s because it doesn’t need it. The property owners have slated it and Noshville, the New York style deli next door which has appeared on the TV show Nashville, for destruction. Both businesses are doing fine, but the property owners want to demolish the entire block and put in an apartment building.

In my not so humble opinion the area needs an apartment building like it needs another one of those chain coffee places. There already are apartment buildings nearby that aren’t filled to capacity.

And suddenly that death’s head garbage can doesn’t seem so funny anymore.



001There’s a taco place near where I work. Instead of going to the counter and telling the cashier what you want to order they have order forms along one wall. You take a form and a pencil, fill in what you want, and hand it over. And, as you can see, a lot of people use the pencils to add their own creative notes to the wall.

Most people just seem to write their names. It’s the old “so-and-so was here” that seems to be as old as graffiti itself. That’s no joke. There really is graffiti carved into historic monuments in ancient Greek and other old languages that basically just says, “Euclides was here”. People felt compelled to leave their mark. They still feel compelled to leave their mark. A few other messages say things like “Happy birthday Jim” or “Hi Karen!” The taco place is popular so almost every time I’ve gone there for lunch it’s been packed. I’ve had a lot of time to stand there and read the messages people have left on the wall. And most of the time I’m amazed that even though these messages are anonymous, even though people could write whatever they want, nobody seems inclined to write anything cruel or derogatory.

I feel guilty that I’ve felt so cynical, especially since recent events have made me so happy. Today is Independence Day in the United States, and I feel that recent events have moved us a little closer to the dream of universal equal rights in this country. People whose right to marry, or to have their marriage recognized, was limited by where they lived, can now marry, and enjoy the full legal protections of marriage, anywhere in the United States.

These scribbles on the wall represent people exercising their freedom of speech, which I think of as the most basic freedom. All other freedoms stem from freedom of speech because without it there’s no way to ask for or even articulate the other freedoms we crave. We may have gotten a little closer to universal equality, but to those who are still marginalized, still afraid, still fighting for full rights: speak on.


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