-Photograph by Martha Cooper
Sometime after the second plane hit the South Tower on September 11th, 2001 and sometime before my friend asked if I would keep watch one night while he and his writing crew bombed a wall, I took my first serious notice of contemporary graffiti. I was living in Baltimore at the time, attending Maryland Institute College of Art for a Post-Baccalaureate year in painting. My apartment was in nicer part of town, near the school. But, no more than one block from my door was a poverty-stricken district full of crack addicts, drug dealers, gang bangers, and prostitutes. I know this for two reasons. One is that I wandered in there at one time looking for a Federal Union to wire some money, and the second is due to the police officer who escorted me out of the area, explaining the situation in simplistic detail.
“Kids like you have no business crossing North,” he said. “You’re lucky I drove by and saw you. You could have been mugged. They don’t like people like you over there; trust me.”
Maybe he was right, or maybe he was just fresh out of the academy and eager to show off his newfound sense of authority. Either way, that was the second time I ever rode in a cop car. I had never lived in a big city before, and my ignorance needed correcting.
Baltimore’s North Avenue runs east to west, dividing the walkup brownstones of Bolton Hill, Madison Park, and Druid Heights from the burned out brownstones of Reservoir Hill and Penn North. At certain areas along the street’s border, it can be difficult to tell the difference from where one ends and the other begins. This was my problem. I crossed at Park Avenue where, instead of being suddenly confronted with discount liquor stores, pawnshops, and a host of curious and potentially vicious looks, I saw what appeared to be a small park and a continuation of the brownstones I was accustomed to. In fact, it was not until I turned west and made it several blocks further that I began to suspect I was in the “wrong part of town.”
North Avenue served another purpose for me, however. It took me from my apartment, underneath Interstate 83, to my studio building at the corner of Howard and North. MICA had only recently purchased the empty warehouse that year and was excited to have the nine of us from the Post-Bacc program be the first students to use it. We were even mentioned in the college president’s matriculation speech. That being said, while the paint was still fresh on the warehouse walls and the newly installed light fixtures where bright, we were the first wave of a gentrification that would blur that divide between privileged and poverty even more. As I understand this situation now, the corner of Howard and North is nothing like it was when I was there.
When I was there, it felt like a few steps across North right before the police officer pulled me into his car. Apparently, the McDonalds up the street had someone with needle tracks on their arms working the fry machine, and a week before classes started, someone had been shot on the adjacent corner. Our parking lot was gated, our door was key access only, and we had security guards patrolling the building 24 hours a day. We were definitely “on the frontier of a new beginning” as the president had stated, and it was on that frontier that I witnessed the making of a large piece that read: “Neva Loose.”
Our parking lot sat between our building and another that was officially on the corner of North and Howard. It was an odd structure that had been jammed into a narrow lot, and from what I could tell, housed an oriental karaoke club, a salvage shop, and a brothel (or so it seemed as there were always very provocatively dressed ladies hanging around in front of it). The salvage shop faced Howard, and when I would walk the street’s length back across 83 to get lunch at MICA’s cafeteria, I would stop and pick through the various odds and ends for potential art supplies. The supposed brothel was upstairs, and its windows were routinely closed. As for the karaoke club, it occupied the east side of the building that our parking lot neighbored. On warm fall nights, it would open its side doors letting the sounds of badly sung American pop songs waft across on the smoke of cheap cigarettes. On the top of this building was a billboard that faced west, looking back up North and towards 83. On it was an advertisement for a new Canon digital video camera. An affluently looking white couple was smiling and looking at the camera’s review screen. Beneath them the caption read: “Capture all of life’s little moments.” The unused backside of the billboard faced our studio building, and its surface was usually covered with various tags that would appear and disappear within days of each other. When I would take cigarette breaks in the parking lot, I would look up to see what was new, and what was gone. Overall, the billboard was an amazing illustration of the border it watched over.
I wasn’t the only person from my class that took notice of the graffiti’s changings. I caught two friends, Peter and Samantha, looking at it from time to time, and over a few weeks, it became a talking point between us. My naiveté quickly showed.
“What do they mean, what are they?” I asked one morning as the three of us surveyed the previous night’s activities.
“They’re tags,” Samantha explained. “You know, like aliases.”
“Graffiti guys make up fake names, and that’s what they sign all over the city,” Peter continued. “Like that one there, CRuX5, I’ve seen that one over by my apartment.”
“Oh, so it keeps them anonymous, so no one knows who they are?” I replied.
“Sort of,” Samantha went on. “It’s more like a logo, like the Nike check, or something. They get known for it.”
“And what about the bigger works?” I asked.
“Those are like murals I guess,” Peter said.
“Yeah, they work in groups sometimes, and make those big ones.” Samantha confirmed.
“I want to catch them sometime,” Peter said.
“What do you mean,” I asked.
“I want to see them working,” He said.
I thought about that for a minute. Admittedly, the entire thing was quite a feat. The writers were skilled at scaling walls, climbing fences, and balancing precariously on ledges no more than a few feet wide high above the asphalt and concrete. And obviously, all of this was done in the dead of night, away from the prying eyes of the public and was ready to be dropped in an instant at the sound of siren or the flash of a spot lamp. Further, personal risk aside, there was zero chance of their work even lasting more than a few weeks before another writer went over it, or it vanished underneath those monotonous off-gray blocks of anti-graffiti paint. Clearly the writers were not about the permanence of themselves or their work, and there was no doubt they had not bought into the fantasy of legacy.
That fantasy runs deep in art schools, even if the students pretend not to care. Artists are divas at that age, and they all believe they are headed to being the next Damien Hurst, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, or whoever is making the front page of Artforum (a magazine heavily worshiped at MICA by undergrad and grad students alike). Egos are big, and I can tell you from personal experience that those people who you think are your friends will toss you out with their soiled paint rags and empty paint tubes if they think it will keep the attention of visiting gallery owners focused solely on what’s in their studio, and not yours. Petty politics, and a lot of money: that’s what art schools are.
But the art school of the graffiti writer is something different, and I thought about that after my conversation with Peter and Samantha. Of course, ego was still in play, but it seemed more honest. Painting over another writer’s work is a direct confrontation, a clear attack, and lacks any smell of the closed-door glad-handing, backstabbing, and sleazy jockeying for popularity that seemed to permeate the studio spaces of MICA students. Imagine that, one grad student blatantly painting over another one’s work. Imagine all of the ensuing commotion, the immediate petitions filled against vandal, the ensuing meetings with advisors and program directors, and all the coddling of the student who had his or her work vandalized, and all the demonization of the one who did it. It would be a circus! And at the end of the day, all it would do is protect the reputation of that very institution that allowed for and possibly even encouraged the attack in the first place. Bureaucracy, trust funds, and administrations do not protect graffiti writers. Yet, they do participate in marking that boundary that at times the graffiti writer stands on and accentuates.
Graffiti is expected in some places. It was expected on the north side of North Avenue where I accidently found myself that day; it’s expected underneath highway overpasses and bridges, on railway cars, and on the facades of derelict buildings in poverty ridden neighborhoods. In these areas, it blends with its surroundings like a well camouflaged tropical fish floating in a coral reef. But in other areas, it stands out like that same fish darting through open water. This has nothing to do with fish by itself however but has everything do with its context. Those well-manicured, bureaucratic gray walls of affluent institutionalization, like the gray sands at the bottom of the ocean, do the same to graffiti. They juxtapose graffiti’s apparent disorder and esotericism with their right angles and geometric symmetry, they contrast graffiti’s color with their monochrome surfaces, and in so doing they expose graffiti to a variety of threats. But, reversely, in those oppositions and exposures, graffiti highlights the walls. It pushes back against the regimentation and commercialism with its kaleidoscopic designs that punctuate its monotonous surroundings. It is the law of simultaneous contrast where two opposites appear even more conflicting as they are drawn closer and closer together until finally they touch and respond by trying to pull back while still holding onto each other in an aggressive tension.
It was that violence that I saw scattered along the border of North Avenue as I traveled to and from my studio everyday. I witnessed it not only in the various pieces of graffiti that decorated this or that mailbox, wall, or street sign, but also in those cautious glances that I saw pedestrians cast back and forth across the street at their neighbors. There was a clear, unspoken tension that lined North, that vibrated in the space of the street, that ebbed and flowed as the day turned into night and then back into day. What I mean by this is that during the day, white kids like myself could make the mistake of crossing it and half stumble into a potentially very dangerous situation. In the sunlit hours, the north side of North lacked the overt signs of peril that overtook it at night, and I’m sure that other people such as myself crossed its border from my side for a variety of reasons. However, under the oxidized purple sky of night, the north side of North would push back, and the vagrants and vandals would cross over and sleep on the trimmed grass of the park that sat in Park Avenue’s median and ring random door buzzers looking for someone to let them in or give them some change. I was woken up several times from things like mumbling voices looking for people named “Harry” or just blatantly asking me to “open the damn door!” There was a give and take on the border, a flow of exchange between the two sides that went on continuously blurring the clarity of the line between them.
Back on the billboard, graffiti still came and went, and Samantha, Peter, and I kept talking about it. I began to design my own tag. Not with the intention of illegally writing it on public surfaces but as an aesthetic exercise to see if I could explode letters in the same way I was seeing it done. I failed horribly and gave up on it for the foreseeable future. Peter started photographing the sign’s changes with the intention of linking his photographs together in a time-lapse video, and Samantha moved her painting practice to the parking lot to do a small plein air series about the billboard and the building. One of the security guards joined us in our mutual interest, and she would come by and ask us if we had seen the new tags as they appeared.
The guard’s name was Monica, and her brother who was in the military, was getting ready to ship off to Afghanistan. They had both chosen similar careers because they offered them a way out of the mid-level, third class lifestyle they had grown up in. Monica was a night guard, and when she wasn’t making her patrol, she sat at the desk watching movies from the 1960s and 1970s. She loved Steve McQueen.
One night I stayed well past my normal time working headlong into a large painting. I was hung up on the background and kept going back and forth between a Waterhouse style landscape and a Caravaggio style blackout. I was somewhere between giving up and trying another glaze of burnt umber when Monica knocked at my studio door.
“Hey, come here, you wanna see this,” she said.
I followed her out to the parking lot. Just before we stepped outside, she turned to me and held her index finder up to her lips. I nodded my understanding, and she quietly opened the door. Outside, she pointed up to the billboard. There, moving along its catwalk, I could see three darkened figures. They were moving back a forth, and from what I could see, they were painting the back of the billboard completely with rollers on long extensions. Monica looked back at me smiling, and we kept watching for some time. After they finished, they propped up latters and started outlining some large piece before filling it in. I couldn’t hear the sounds of the spray cans, but every so often, the smell of aerosol made its way down to us. If they were talking with each other, I couldn’t hear it either. From my perspective, they worked in totally organized silence, each one doing his (or her) part right in unison with the others. Letters were formed, colored, and outlined. And then, as silently as they had worked, I watched them disappear back down to ground level.
The following morning I saw the message they had left behind. It was a large piece done in bubble letters that read: Neva Loose. At the time, I read it as a statement of resilience in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks. The East Coast was a frightening place to be during that time, and tensions ran high. People jumped every time a siren echoed throughout the city, and I remember someone saying to me that as long as they saw jet trails in the sky, they knew things were OK for at least that day. Any sign of pride, spirit, strength, and courage was welcome, and it made sense to me that that graffiti writers were participating in that public chorus in their own subversive way.
Regardless of what the writers left behind, it was during their exit that I witnessed something I can still see today as clearly as I did then. It’s one of those images that gets burned into the retina and accompanying memory space. One of the writers walked to the far edge of the catwalk and looked back across 83 toward the Baltimore skyline. He paused there for a minute before turning and finding his way back to the asphalt with the others. What I remember is his silhouette perched on the ledge, that subtle juxtaposition of values between him and his surroundings and how the positive and negative spaces became confused depending on how my eyes focused. His form merging with the catwalk in one glance or disappearing into the sky with another, he was right on the threshold of a definite position without crossing into it. Yet, it was only when he moved that I could be sure of where he actually was.
As he was, he was neither part of the catwalk nor the sky but in some ambiguous space between the two. He was within and without, simultaneously apart and a-part, an irregularity against the vast obscurity of the world around him. And in that way, he tended that space and maintained its elusive edges. He, like his work, beyond accentuating the margins between the expected and the unexpected, the affluent and the poor, the law abiders and the vandals, defined them and himself by traversing the entire scene in the blink of an eye. What I saw that night and was reminded of years later in the photography of Martha Cooper, is that the graffiti writer is a train jumper.
The train jumper borders. Just as the border he stood on in the early hours of that morning fluctuated in the rhythmic breaths of Baltimore’s moon falls and sunrises, so too does he. Both of them waver and veer, oscillate and seesaw, and are only detectable when they do. And, in that perpetual act of bordering, there is joy, that nervous laughter that comes when facing the unknown as well as in the sheer disbelief of what has happened and what one has accomplished.
Some seven months later, I was steering my white four-door Saturn north towards New York in a circuitous route back to Texas. I had failed at getting into any of MICA’s graduate programs (or any others for that matter) and had no real long-term prospects. This was my first real defeat at anything I had seriously invested money and time into. I felt like I was running away from the East Coast with my tail firmly between my legs. I would spend the next week with my sister and her family, playing video games with my nephews and nieces, and drinking very expensive wine before going south to run the length of the Eastern Seaboard and turning west to cross the Mississippi River for the first time in nine months. Over the course of that drive, I toyed with the idea of moving to the Texas coast, holding up in a cheap house in some crossroad bay town, and pumping out an entirely new body of work for re-application to all the graduate programs that had sent me those polite letters of rejection. I also considered giving up the entire MFA dream altogether and just going straight into the corporate world of graphic design. I’d take a few classes at a community college, learn the software, and apply. How hard could it be?
How hard indeed? But, beyond the uncertainty festering in the steady realization that I was leaving Baltimore behind, was an odd feeling of relief. I hated Baltimore, and I learned that any big city like it would throw me into a state of agoraphobia. By the end of my time there, I was rarely leaving my apartment except to go to class and even that was a challenge sometime. I need a horizon made up of something other than forty feet high buildings of reinforced steel, concrete, and glass to keep my paranoia at bay, and I prefer the distant hum of a highway as opposed to the immediate rumble of cross town traffic.
Over the course of that summer, I spent a decent amount of time on the highway. First driving back to Texas, then from Texas to Montana, back again, and then out to Los Angeles, where by my sheer perseverance that probably bordered on harassment, I managed to secure a position in Claremont Graduate University’s MFA program. It had been the one school I had not heard back from. After making a telephone call, I learned I was on the alternate list. I called everyday for several weeks until the secretary told me Claremont had finally just accepted my application due to my clear desire to go west, which I did some six weeks later.
I refer to this time as “The Summer of 75 mph.” I had no permanent address, I slept at roadside hotels, I ate at various truck stops and fast food restaurants, and I saw a lot of the country. I made friends with a mechanic in Wichita, I followed a semi through a fog storm in Denver, and I helped a lady put ice chains on her Ford in Billings. And, during those months, I was train jumping in my own way. Just like the graffiti writer who stood on the edge of the catwalk that one night back in Baltimore, I felt that if I stopped moving I would disappear and be swallowed up by the highway, not in any actual sense of course, but in that metaphorical way of the swimmer who has to keep swimming so as to avoid sinking beneath the surface. In fact, it mattered very little where I was going at all just as long as I was going somewhere. Maybe I would find myself on another North Avenue with crack addicts and gang bangers, or maybe I would spend the evening in a hotel bar swapping stories with a sales woman from Miami, or maybe I would come across another horrific car wreck like I did between Las Vegas and Prim and be the only person with a cell phone. In either and all of the scenarios, not only would I be coming from one and headed to another in no particular order and with no particular reason, but I would also play my part in them: buying the sales woman another drink or dialing 911 regardless of the out of network charges. The plan was simple, burn another gallon of gas, cover another 29 miles, and see what’s next on the horizon. Just remember to pay your bill and wave goodbye when you leave.
Train jumping is the act of letting go. It requires the steady hand of release. But, it also demands the warm hand of embrace. Standing on that threshold, we realize we are always standing on it leaving behind what we can while looking ahead toward what will come. It is a greeting and an adieu all at once.
Posted 2nd April 2015 by Arnold, H.C.