Seven Reasons To Embrace Street Art in Your Community.

I used to have a favorite piece of graffiti.  It was a beautiful stenciled piece of a horse’s skeleton, frozen mid-gallop.  I would say it was probably two-thirds scale, so it was a pretty large piece, and it was on the outside wall of a local watering hole in downtown for a very long time.  Eventually someone painted over it.  This is a part of the natural life-cycle of street art, but I regret never having gotten a photo of it.

I believe that graffiti can be good for communities, and I believe that the tendency of city governments and private property owners to paint over these pieces of art keeps the turnover high and the work fresh.  I’ve gone ahead and listed some reasons for you to enjoy pieces of graffiti in your town.

Graffiti Beautifies Unused Spaces.

Culvert graffiti
Graffiti art inside a cement culvert. Found at Little Squalicum in Bellingham, WA.

 

Graffiti is a great way to liven up unused spaces.  By unused spaces, I’m referring to things like blank grey retaining walls, overpass supports, cement culverts and things like that.  Spaces like these call out to graffiti artists, and who can blame them?  Vast planes of grey are oppressive, especially in quantity; they express nothing, they provide no benefit.  They are an intellectual and spiritual wasteland.  And finding pieces of what is essentially folk art in those otherwise depressing and empty scenes can cause surprise, delight, and spark interest.  If it isn’t already painted, why not put art there?  The picture below is of a graffiti tag painted on the inside of a cement culvert at Little Squalicum here in Bellingham.  I was delighted when I noticed it.  I would think that someone has to be really devoted to their craft to crawl inside a wet drainage culvert to do this, and I like to think they hoped it would surprise people.

Graffiti is Art for Art’s Sake.

Grace.
“Grace,” in Bellingham Bay.

If you’re interested in artistic integrity and intellectual purity, it’s hard to beat graffiti.  It is, by and large, anonymous by nature.  It is immovable.  Nobody (with the possible exception of Banksy) performs graffiti to earn personal fame.  It cannot be purchased (for the most part) by wealthy people to be placed in private collections.  It will never make anyone rich, as it is impractically difficult to commoditize.  Banksy, perhaps the world’s most famous street artist, has placed pieces that are iconic, beautiful, and extremely valuable… but in most cases the structure that they’re painted on would need to be at least partially demolished in order to make money from it.  These pieces are donations; in the open where people can see them.  They are truly for everyone.  This photo was taken by my good friend and very talented photographer Phil Rose.  The statue of the dancer is titled “Grace,” and it is graffiti.  It is an illicit piece of art placed in a public space without permission of any kind.  And it is beautiful and it is for everyone.  Grace is gone now; all graffiti is temporary in nature.  But I think of her whenever I pass her island.

Graffiti Gives a Town Its Identity.

Why are you...
“Why are you committing most of your attention to life’s least important things?”

 

Not everyone is going to agree with this one, but graffiti gives a town a voice, an identity.  Not a voice of consensus, because consensus neuters art.  Art is an individual expression, and each piece of art might impact you, and it might not.  So it’s easy to think that a piece of art put up by an individual without the consensus or permission of the community is not the voice of that community, but it’s important to realize that communities are composed of individuals, and collections of graffiti within a town or community give you a window into the spirit of that town.  This image is some crude painted writing on the cover to a subterranean utility vault, but the message really represents a lot of what Bellingham is about for me, and it impacts me every time I see it.  It reads, “Why are you committing most of your attention to life’s least important things?”

Graffiti Starts Conversations.

We Are Free.
“We Are Free.” Found below a freeway overpass in Bellingham, WA.

This is along the same lines of the above, but is less community focused.  Graffiti makes people think.  Graffiti poses questions.  And in its anonymity, it allows people to make political statements that hang in the air, faceless and voiceless, like an individual thought given form.  Graffiti can also give a public voice to people who are economically or racially marginalized, without their identity interfering with their message.  This photo is one simple statement, spray painted on the retaining wall under a freeway overpass.  This also is gone now, but I was impressed by it.  It can be interpreted many different ways; it invites thought and conversation.

Graffiti May Precede Economic Revitalization.

It's okay!
A crumbling house in Detroit, with “it’s okay!” painted across it.

 

My good friend Phil has been on two trips to Detroit recently, and you know what?  Detroit, the modern day ghost town, has a vibrant street art scene. What does this mean?  Well, any art scene often precedes gentrification and the resulting economic revitalization of urban areas.  Why does this happen?  Well, art withers in a state of comfort.  Cities in decline, and Detroit in particular, experience a serious lack of comfort.  People from other parts of the country see a thriving art scene in places where the living is rough but cheap, and well… the rest is history.  It’s happened in neighborhoods in Seattle, in areas of New York, and in parts of San Fransisco and in southern California as well.  The photo below is also from Phil Rose, and it’s of a tremendous piece of graffiti taking up an entire wall of a crumbling two storey house.

Graffiti Gives People Ownership of Public Spaces.

Willie Nelson graffiti.
Incredible.

This may seem a little more abstract, and your mileage may vary, but pieces of art placed in towns gives people ownership of public spaces.  And I don’t mean the facile pieces of art approved by a vote of the city council or whatever.  Remember, consensus neuters art.  When people feel a sense of ownership in connection with public spaces, they are less likely to litter, and more likely to care for a place.  It’s the anodyne to feelings of alienation and marginalization.  Below is a graffiti portrait of Willie Nelson that graced a concrete support under a freeway overpass in town.  It was done with stencils, can you imagine?

Graffiti Can Be Beautiful, Witty, and is Temporary.

There’s a lot of fuss made about the costs to remove graffiti, and from what I’ve seen around town, on external walls it mostly takes a can of paint.  But there are non-permanent forms of graffiti as well, including chalk graffiti, sticker graffiti, and even objects taped to external walls.  I heard a story recently about a young man in Bellingham who was charged with graffiti for taping polaroid photos to external walls.  The tortillas talked about in an earlier post can be considered a type of street art, and even some “permanent” graffiti is beautiful and enriches the community.  Please, be sure to take time to appreciate your community’s hard working street artists.

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The Secret Lives of Tortillas.

Something wonderful happened yesterday.

This is a thing that might be difficult for some folks to appreciate.  In order to make it easier for you, gentle reader, to understand my excitement, let me provide you with just a little bit of background.

I live in a city called Bellingham, Washington.  It’s nestled between the ocean and the Cascade Mountains, around eighty miles north of Seattle and about twenty or so miles south of Canada.  It is the largest city in rural Whatcom County, and as a result is impacted by a variety of cultural influences.  Between that and the fact that it’s a university town, and thus filled with young people, it’s a very generative environment, artistically speaking.

It all started back in February 2013, when a friend of mine posted this photo to her Facebook.

Emergency Tortilla
The tortilla that started it all.

This is a tortilla in a sandwich bag with “emergency tortilla” written on it in black permanent marker.  It was left on top of one of our downtown garbage cans.

I was immediately delighted by it.  Slowly but surely, more tortillas appeared on Facebook.  I started asking people about them… whether they had seen the tortillas, if they knew who was producing them, if they knew the why behind the project.  I was sure I was missing some, so I decided to employ the wonders of social media.  I got on Facebook and started the Bellingham Mystery Tortilla Appreciation Society.  I invited a few of my friends, and they invited a few of their friends, and well… in the last few months, we have collected almost three hundred members and no fewer than ninety-four photos of tortillas.  We at the Society have been led to believe that we missed quite a few of them.

216 Tortillas and Counting
Holy crap.

They’ve shown up all over downtown Bellingham.  There’s a map being maintained (by me, admittedly) of tortilla sightings.  They’ve even showed up inside the restrooms of local watering holes.

Inspired by Things Made in Mexico.
I actually had a print made of this one.

I wish I could explain to you what it is I love so much about these tortillas.  I have a well-known affinity for food, particularly traditional or peasant foods.  I love tacos as well.  But it’s more than that.  In a busy downtown, you know that the tortillas are bound to be taken down quickly, and they’re often put in places where people wouldn’t normally look, like on street signs well above head level, or on shop windows at about knee-height.  When you see one, you know that you are there, in that moment, in the presence of something that is special and short-lived.  It’s a magical feeling.  The things written on the tortillas betray a delightful sense of humor, sometimes with a slight cynical feel.  I love them.  The fact that someone would spend their time in the wee hours doing this is amazing.  They are sexy, mysterious, and yet somehow strangely familiar and sweet.  Their embrace of the absurdity of human existence thrills my heart.

Brought to you by the letter tortilla and the number free.
Sesame Street?

My favorite of all the tortillas was also the most elaborate.  The policy of the Society is to leave the tortillas in the wild for all to enjoy if at all possible, and yet I still feel sad that I never ended up in possession of this one.  The tortilla is made to look like a banjo, and the stenciled text is reminiscent of Woody Guthrie, and speaks of such a tender idealism that it swells my heart.  I wish I knew the man that made this tortilla.

This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender.
The Woody Guthrie Tortilla.

In fact, I might know the man who made this tortilla… there is some evidence that the person responsible for these tortillas is at least aware of, and possibly a part of, the Bellingham Mystery Tortilla Appreciation Society.

Free Tortilla (As Seen on Facebook)
As Seen on Facebook.

The tortillas stopped three or four weeks ago.  It was bound to happen; this by its nature is a project of limited life span.  And there is beauty in impermanence, after all.  I was willing to let them go.  It had been a beautiful thing to be here to witness, and I’m not a greedy soul.
But this morning, when I woke up, I saw this on Facebook:

Some Percentage Bugs
Oh, hello.

It was found outside one of my very favorite local businesses, the Black Drop Coffeehouse (best coffee in town, tell your friends!).  After I got downtown, on my way to work, I found five more tortillas.  Even though the transience of this sort of art is part of its beauty, I was glad to see them.

I’m sure a lot of people think that I’m at least a bit odd due to the enthusiasm that I display for these little pieces of art, and maybe they’re right.  One thing, however, that I have learned in my years of life is that the world is far too bleak and brutal a place to miss a chance to laugh and let your eyes shine.

Nobody makes it out of this place alive.  Take every chance to enjoy yourselves.

I love my town.

My Condolences, Your Daughter’s An Artist.

When my elementary school teacher told my parents that I was an “artsy type,” It caused a bit of a stir, as I recall. It was at some kind of a teacher-parent meeting, in one of those moments when they send the student off to do something else and talk to the parents alone.  I’m sure mom and dad had some kind of an inkling, but to have it confirmed from an outside source was something else.  I remember in the days that followed, they behaved strangely.  There was a career talk, in which I was informed that I could still earn a living, I could be a “graphic artist,” which of course is a graphic designer with the second word changed so as not to upset my artist’s temperament.  I was less than enchanted with the idea of designing cereal boxes or ads, and I remember feeling dread.

My parents did the things that they felt they should do as parents of an artistic child.  They put me in an extra-curricular art class with some teenagers… I was eight at the time.  The women who ran the class questioned my presence there but worked with me anyway.  They pushed me relentlessly, mocking my efforts until I produced something that they felt was worthwhile.  I was relieved to be done with that class; it was difficult and harrowing to be asked to please such demanding strangers at that age, and none of the other students there wanted anything to do with me, and they were all so much older.  I’m very glad I went to the class; it set me up with artistic skills that nobody else under the age of ten seemed to have and set me ahead of the curve, making learning new things in that field a lot easier, but it was the first time I had ever had to produce anything of any quality.

My parents entered me in an art contest, a thing that I’m not really sure that I understand to this day.  It was a contest at the Anacortes Arts and Crafts fair, and the drawing that was entered was a pencil drawing of a mare with her foal.  It was very very good for someone my age, and I wish I still had a copy of it to show you guys, but eight year olds are not the best at maintaining records, files, or portfolios, so to this day I have no idea where it is.  It’s possibly I tore it up for a project of some kind; that sounds like a thing I would do with some important piece of paper.  I came away with the blue ribbon in my age group.

I never shared any writing with my parents, other than what came home from school.  This is for the best, as I was writing heavy-handed but upsettingly advanced erotic short fiction by the age of twelve.  Don’t worry, I don’t write erotica anymore.  It’s easy to titillate and to shock, but difficult to enchant, so I look at erotic fiction as the cheater’s way out.  I produced several pieces of art in high school in Singapore that I brought home; one large batik panel featuring plants and animals from my home in Alaska in disproportionately large shapes and absurdly bright colors, and a couple of watercolors including a “chinese style” watercolor of some chrysanthemums.  As far as I’m aware, the pieces are still hanging in the condo that my mother used to live in.  I’m sure I’ll get them back someday, and stack them in the corner and stare at them every now and then, wondering what to do with them.

My “low” score on the SAT of 1360 (this was back when the test was scored out of a total of 1600) was excused by my parents because I was an artsy type.  I fell in love with oil paints while I was attending classes at Whatcom Community College; the local University simply would not have me.  This is probably for the best… I am a fast learner but have always been a poor student and I never graduated from community college anyway.

I had never wanted to be an artist for a living, because I was raised to believe that such a thing was not possible; that the best someone with my disorder could hope for was to create marketing visuals.  It makes me wonder, if my parents had had a more complete view of the role of the artist in human societies, how different my life might have been.