American Graffiti.

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

Words, Words, Words.

It always intrigues me when someone tags something with a single word–usually a noun or adjective that’s not a name, or is it? Wittgenstein and other philosophers have puzzled over language, how it shapes our thoughts, how shapes the way we see the world, how it can even be limiting. Language allows us to express thoughts but philosophers have said it can also limit our thoughts. The most pessimistic say that it can even be a mental prison, and while different languages can express different perspectives the best we can ever do is change cells. But a single word can also inspire thoughts, can, at the very least, make us look around and a single word, without context, can open up meanings.





If We Spirits Have Offended…

Back in April I shared this. It’s a former fast food restaurant that shut down a couple of months earlier and became a kind of gallery of graffiti. That’s one of the things I liked about it. It also seemed to attract some pretty good graffiti—the artists really put some thought and work into their designs rather than just scribbling tags. There was even some strong use of color against the restaurant’s black and white exterior.

This is what it looks like now.


Maybe it’s just me but it seems harsh and unnecessary to have covered up the graffiti. What harm was it doing? What damage did it cause? Well obviously somebody was bothered by it but who? Or should that be ‘whom’? I can’t remember how that applies to the dative case.

Anyway there is a fairly nice Italian restaurant on the other side of the street from it and I suppose some of the patrons might have been offended by the graffiti, but the side that faces this place is the restaurant bar and the most offensive thing there is the limited selection of craft and local beers, but that’s another story. And I can’t imagine the power lunch crowd looking up from their martinis to even notice the ramshackle burger shack across the street, let alone being offended by it.

Is there anything even offensive in the words themselves? It’s hard to say because everything is potentially offensive to someone. Some people get their knickers in a twist over the word “semprini” while others are upset by words like “knickers” or “twist” and, let’s face it, everything is potentially a euphemism. As Melanie Safka sings,

Freud’s mystic world of meaning needn’t have us mystified.

It’s really very simple what the psyche tries to hide:

A thing is a phallic symbol if it’s longer than it’s wide

As the id goes marching on.

Glory glory psychotherapy, glory glory sexuality,

Glory glory now we can be free as the id goes marching on.

And yet it’s not like someone painted cod and cabbages,

And there’s considerable construction on the block where the hash slingers used to abide. It seems unlikely that it’ll be long before the former patty pantry will be knocked down in favor of something else, possibly residential since the area is saturated with vendors of victuals.

Maybe the person who decided to cancel the composition wasn’t really upset, but if they did take offense could they give it back?



Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to Or don’t. Either way I won’t be offended.

Press On.

press1Technically this isn’t graffiti but it is the sort of thing that leaves me wondering what the difference is between graffiti and, well, this sort of thing, which I’m pretty sure is a commissioned mural. At first I thought it was to mark a parking space for someone who’s a little too much of a fan of the Tennessee Titans, but it’s on the side of the Corner Bar on Elliston Place. This particular stretch is heavily graffitied—in fact I’d guess at least a third of the graffiti I’ve featured has come from around just one block of Elliston Place, and it was partly the inspiration for starting this whole series of graffiti-themed posts in the first place.

Anyway I’m including it because it does at least seem to be done in the style of graffiti and the artist may have started by doing graffiti. There is precedent for this. Some graffiti artists get hired to do “legitimate” work because somebody saw their tag and liked the look of it. But as the old saying goes the one who picks the piper calls the tune, but probably the piper was picked because their playing was preferred. And if you have a bunch and they’re all drunk then you have your pick of pickled pipers, but that’s another story.

What piques my interest here is that, as I said, whoever commissioned the painting is obviously a big fan of the Tennessee Titans. And that’s okay, although I’m not sure this particular use was licensed or approved by the Titans organization. (I’ve asked. I’ll let you know if I get an answer.) Sports teams, corporations, and other entities can be very sensitive about how their logos, trademarks, mascots, and other paraphernalia are represented.

And for me personally I try to avoid wearing clothing with obvious corporate logos, mascots, or paraphernalia. Sure there are things I’m a fan of and I will wear, say, a Doctor Who t-shirt, but always with a tiny twinge of regret. If they want to run a commercial or put an ad in a magazine or on a billboard they have to pay for it. Why do I have to pay for the privilege of advertising for them? I feel the same when I mention a business–even a local one, like, say, a bar.


press3Aside from all that I like some of the fun touches the artist added. I like to think these were creative additions that weren’t specifically paid for. And the painted button is very provocative..





Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to No pressure.


Source: East Nashville News

Source: East Nashville News

Because I usually write positively about graffiti that might give the impression that I’m fine with vandalism and lawbreaking. I’m not. Just because I think there’s graffiti that’s very artistic, well-done, aesthetically pleasing, whatever you want to call it doesn’t mean I’m all for letting anyone tag anything anywhere. It’s just that it’s complicated. Sometimes I look at graffiti and see a person with an intense need to express themselves but no other place to express themselves. And a lot of the places where I see the most artistically interesting graffiti are abandoned, or at least unused, buildings, places with blank walls. Adding a little color and some vibrant language makes these places better. It makes them a little nicer to look at. The same is true of dumpsters which are ugly, utilitarian things. A little graffiti can make them interesting and unique. It can make them into works of art.

At least that’s what I think and I know that sort of thinking puts me on a really slippery slope, but I think there’s got to be a balance between totalitarianism where expression is subject to approval from some overarching authority and chaos where everybody can do whatever they want and there’d be a lot of wanton destruction.

Two recent stories made me think about the need for limits.

First there’s the story of Casey Nocket, a graffiti artist who used acrylic paint, which is really hard to remove, on natural monuments in US national parks. I’ve done volunteer work in parks, including cleaning up trash left behind by thoughtless people. These are places people go to when they when they want to escape the urban world. And nature’s changing these areas enough as it is. These are spaces that have been set aside to be preserved.

I consider this “bad” graffiti no matter how aesthetically interesting it might have been. How do I make that distinction? It’s complicated.

The other event was even closer to home. A dancing bear mural painted on an East Nashville building by artist Leah Tumerman was splattered with white paint. This isn’t even a case of graffiti, really. The building’s owner asked Tumerman to paint the mural. And the white paint was presumably some unknown person’s way of showing displeasure with it. Or maybe they just wanted to put their own mark on it. Some people love the mural and some people hate it but that shouldn’t be a reason to deface it.

Tumerman, with the help of some volunteers, is now fixing the mural and incorporating the vandalism into the mural. And her sister has a strongly-worded rant about the situation that I think is brilliant. It is a nice Art 101 lesson that cuts through my own woolly thinking.

So what’s the distinction between graffiti, street art, and vandalism? It’s complicated. I don’t want to say that anything good comes out of vandalizing natural monuments or a public mural because I don’t want it to sound like I approve because I think they’re terrible things. But it does make me stop and think about why I consider them terrible things. It makes me stop and think about why there should be limits, and maybe that is something good. And maybe I could get your help with my woolly thinking too. Feel free to splatter your own opinions in the comments section. Maybe I’m overcomplicating all this.

And seen any good or bad graffiti? Can’t decide which it is? Send your pictures to Maybe I’ll still be just as confused.

Artists Without Borders.

This week’s graffiti is a reader submission from Michelle whose blog Still Not A Journal is fantastic and hilarious and great for those of us who’ve never been to the Southern hemisphere but hope someday to see Australia in all its deadly* glory.

australiangraffiti3What’s fascinating about these graffiti examples, though, is that they wouldn’t be out of place in any major city in the United States. Or Canada, or probably Europe. They raise an interesting question. What is it that makes so much graffiti aesthetically similar? Part of it is probably pragmatism—taggers have to work fast, which makes the size and multiple colors in these works even more amazing. Another aspect, though, is that I think—and I’m going out on a very narrow limb here—there’s a great deal of influence from the “New York look”. For a variety of reasons graffiti exploded across New York and other urban centers in the 1970’s, and while many regarded it as a public nuisance it was also considered by some to be a new art form. It helped, I think, that New York became a major world art center—arguably even the world art center—in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

australiangraffiti2This could, in part, be traced back to The Great Depression. The Works Progress Administration, started in 1935, hired artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem De Kooning, who would go on to found the Abstract Expressionist movement, centered in New York, and while the Pop Art movement of the 1960’s had partial origins in London its biggest successes would come out of New York—specifically Warhol’s Factory. And while graffiti was an art movement that started on the streets some of its practitioners—such as Basquiat, who’d work with Warhol, and Keith Haring–would move into studios and galleries.

australiangraffiti4So there’s a thumbnail version of about half a century of art history with the point that a lot of graffiti conforms to a specific aesthetic that may have started in one part of the world but has spread all over. And a shared “look” is a way artists compliment—and complement—each other. Every work of art is an individual expression but it’s also a collection of influences. Art is never created in a vacuum and, if it’s placed in a public place it’s meant to be enjoyed by a wide audience, and speak to a wide audience.

There’s the old saying that all politics is local. Grammatically speaking that should probably be all politics are local, but that’s another story. All art is also local too—but, just like with politics, what catches on in one part of the world can have profound implications for the rest of the world.

australiangraffiti1And now a little music to influence you.

*Great whites, jellyfish, spiders that scare even me, unrelenting desert, dingoes, Vegemite—Australia is a continent that takes Nietzsche’s principle of “That which does not kill me makes me stronger” and is determined to make the strongest people on the planet.  

And, hey, seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to



Source: Metro Nashville Government Facebook page. Photos by Mayor Megan Barry.

Sometimes when I see graffiti or street art I see desperation. I see someone who wants to speak, who has a need to share, but who has no other place to make a statement.

A few days after the horrific shooting in Orlando I walked down to a couple of blocks of Church Street in Nashville that are home to the clubs Tribe and Vibe, to Blue Gene’s, and Out Central, an information and meeting space for the LGBT community. There’s WKND, a “hang site” in the space that used to be Out Loud!, one of Nashville’s last independent bookstores. There’s also Suzy Wong’s House of Yum, owned and operated by former Top Chef competitor Arnold Myint. Suzy Wong is also Myint’s drag queen alter ego.

I went down there expecting to find memorials, tributes, handwritten statements—the kind of spontaneous expressions that spring up around a place when there’s a tragedy. I expected to find them because as soon as news came out about the shootings at Pulse, the gay nightclub, before we knew Omar Mateen’s identity or that he was a Muslim, before we knew what weapons he used, one fact was clear: this was an attack on LGBT people.

In LGBT Clubs in American History: Cultural Centers, Safe Spaces & Targets, an article in Billboard Magazine, Barry Walters says,

Since Stonewall and well before, gay clubs have been our schools, our places of worship. Nightclubs are where we’ve long learned to unlearn hate, and learn to become and love our real selves. They’re our safe spaces; places where music and dancing and the joy of our collective togetherness unlocks our fears and extinguishes our lingering self-loathing.

Closer to home I remembered the Nashville Scene article Last Call At Juanita’s, about the closing in 1995 of this city’s first gay bar, and its origin in 1953:

Shortly after Juanita’s opened, however, a former Leopard Room patron nervously drew Brazier aside one night to ask her a question. “Miss Juanita,” he is said to have asked, “would you have any problem with me bringing in some gay men?”

“Why, no!” Brazier supposedly responded, laughing. “I like everyone to be happy!” And thus Juanita’s became Nashville’s best-known haven for gay men—and, Nashville being a Southern city, Juanita Brazier was rechristened “Miss Juanita.”

I was surprised to find that area of Church Street looked the same as usual. The places there, I thought, are safe spaces for the LGBT community, places where people can go and be out in every sense of the word. I know the LGBT community isn’t monolithic, that it’s composed of individuals with different experiences and views–and that’s true of any “community”–but I still expected something.

Then I learned about an event I’d missed–a vigil in downtown Nashville, organized just hours after the shooting. It was organized with the help of Nashville’s mayor Megan Barry who took the pictures above. City and state buildings–buildings where, it should be noted, the rights of LGBT people are still under attack–were lit with the rainbow colors of the Pride flag. It may have been an attack on the LGBT community but the expressions of grief and condolence were offered by the larger community we’re all part of. It was a solemn reminder that LGBT people are not separate; they’re our friends, our family. And there are LGBT people of every race, every class, and, yes, every religion. For many faith is about how they love, not whom.

Maybe people didn’t feel a need to make statements on a couple of blocks of Church Street because so much of the city of Nashville, because the heart of the city of Nashville, was a place where people could come together openly.

Pride Month is a celebration primarily for LGBT people who have been excluded, shunned, and harassed, but to have such a public display of concern and solidarity was a chance for everyone to feel pride.

Show, Don’t Tell.

A few weeks ago Linda of Half A 1000 Miles sent me a link to a video description contest. The contest seemed pretty simple: write a narrative description of a short film for the visually impaired. I did that, after I watched the video three or four times and then paused it about every twenty seconds to stop and write out a description of what was going on. That may sound challenging and it is. Per the contest rules I tried to time the narrative to follow the action which meant I also stopped to read what I was writing out loud while watching what was happening on-screen.

And since this was aimed at the visually impaired I thought it would be best to avoid adjectives, especially colors. Depending on how and when they lost their sight, or how much sight they have, color may not mean anything to them. Or it might. And while I was emphasizing verbs which push a narrative along the value of adjectives is they slow a narrative down. It was a hard balance to strike.

It also reminded me that while a picture may be worth a thousand words a thousand words don’t necessarily add up to a picture.

That reminds me of the line parroted in every creative writing class I’ve ever taken: Show, don’t tell. No one seems to ever catch the irony that we’re never given examples, but that’s another story.

Anyway here’s the video. I think it’s very funny and clever and illustrates why I find graffiti so interesting much better than I can say.

Seen any graffiti? Send your pictures to I won’t call the cops on you or anything.

It’s All Connected.


It isn’t just what an artist says. It’s how it’s said.

One definition of art–and, I admit, it’s far from being the only definition–is the aesthetic reinterpretation of the world around us. Joseph Brodsky said, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “aesthetics is the mother of ethics.” He meant linguistically–both words are derived from the same source–and also more philosophically. My own interpretation of that is that art makes us better people because it makes us see the world around us in different ways and this, in turn, makes us more connected to the world around us.

Street artist Louis Masais’s painting Save The Bees is both aesthetically and ethically powerful.

It’s an ecological statement. Bees are currently threatened worldwide and as a cornerstone species their extinction could have a ripple effect that would change global ecosystems. It threatens to affect even our lives as we know them, if not our very existence, because of the role bees play in pollinating food crops.

That would be the “ethics” part of his painting–the underlying subtext, but consider the “aesthetics”, how he’s chosen to make the statement. He didn’t write out a text explaining what’s happening to the bees. He could have–others have and it’s a good way to get the message out–but instead his painting incorporates a giant bee onto the corner of a building. And rather than just a trompe l’oeil painting he’s incorporated smaller paintings of flowers into its head, thorax, and abdomen. The bee is one of nature’s works of art and creating art is in our nature. Art doesn’t just mimic nature; it’s our way of defining and understanding it. It connects us. And we have to ask ourselves, do we really want to turn a corner into a world without bees?

Granted this is only one interpretation of this particular work, and Masai has painted several public murals of bees and other endangered animals to raise awareness. This particular one just happened to be the first one I saw when it was posted by Twitter user @CarlForrest. And it made me feel connected.

Thanks also to Karen of Chronicles Of A Boob for sharing it with me.


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.