Entries in Graffiti (3)


The Guilt of Defacing Graffiti

I defaced graffiti the other day, I am loath to admit. While passing through a crosswalk near the W Hotel, I noticed a fresh “stikman” on the street, and as traffic bore down upon me, I plucked it up and moved along quickly. I carried the illicit art all the way home, half thinking (half wanting) someone to accuse me of being behind these street installations. No one did.

If you are not familiar with stikman, he is the subject of an anonymous street artist who has made this figure well known throughout DC and numerous other cities, from Los Angeles to Boston.

Stikman resides mostly in crosswalks—a reflective vinyl robot staring blankly upward. He comes in several colors, and as traffic and weather run over him, his permanence is solidified by conditions that simultaneously disintegrate him entirely—like a traumatic event seared as a memory but faded overtime, from fixture to abstraction to amorphous reminiscence, and then gone altogether.

I’ve snapped photos of him before, but have never acquired one. I’ve only ever enjoyed his place in the urban landscape—a simple, humorless figure who looks up and says, “Hey, you’re walking on me.” I smile and move on. In hand, though, I sought to learn more.

Aside from many photos, I found a Washington Post article by Stephen Lowman from 2008, in which he wrote about his own exploration of stikman:

I Googled him, half expecting to find out that stikman was part of a viral marketing campaign to get me to the theater on Halloween to see a robot slasher flick. Instead, I found other admirers sharing their fondness for this mysterious figure whose creator was anonymous.

Oh woe for the artist whose work is mistaken for marketing! Is this not the nature of art though? Look at Shepard Fairey’s now ubiquitous “Hope” portrait of President Obama. It may offend the artist to have his or her methods adopted for commercial or political purposes, (Fairey, notably, was an Obama supporter), but I would take it as a compliment that you’re contributing to the expansion of how we can communicate with one another. The tenuous relationship between art and commerce may never be resolved.

With stikman, however, I just feel guilty. I have denied the masses exposure to this simple figure. In art, meaning is derived from context; and with street art, every piece is site-specific. I have in a sense robbed some life from this particular piece. Nor do I feel right replacing it, now that I’ve removed it. Like a baby bird held by human hands, it may not be accepted back into its nest, its stickiness gone. It would then be sweet justice if I was arrested for littering or defacing property in an effort to restore him.

So here I am in my office trying to mash stikman into the carpet—the only sensible way I think he can be displayed. On the wall won’t cut it. I only fear the cleaning people may remove him.

Full disclosure: A modified version has been posted on my company's blog.


Not a Mirage: Bob Dylan in the Desert

When you exit a highly air-conditioned building into desert heat, you can feel your skeleton harden. The warmth envelops you, leaching the coolness from your clothes. It works its way inwardly layer-by layer with every step—until the heat of your jacket meets the cool of your shirt. And then the heat of your shirt meets the cool of your skin. And then the heat of your skin makes everything inside you boil. At that point, all that's keeping you together are your bones, which feel like iron. I felt this today, and then there he was: Bob Dylan.

I could have swore he was a mirage, looking discreet against a large beige wall. He was unmistakable though. The hair, the glance, the word "legend" scribbled beneath him. The giddiness that enveloped me rivaled the heat that made me gasp. I couldn't and still can't tell whether my excitement derived from Bob Dylan, or from the fact that his presense enshrined in two-tone, spraypainted stencil meant that Kuwait—despite the cultural void it projects like a fever into the emptiness of the Arabian Peninsula—did maintain a little cool after all


The Painted Words of an Illiterate Man

Kuwait lacks graffiti. I like graffiti—good graffiti. Not bubbly words and goofiness. But something someone put time into. Heart-felt, painful expressions of urban plight. Joyous exuberance etched in windows. Political exclamations pasted to walls. Coded communications glued on billboards. Even inside jokes stenciled on street signs. In Kuwait, though, all I got is a bad speller who was happy on his birthday.

During a long walk today, I realized this lack of wall-side scribbling. At first I noticed a number of stencils. It turned out they were for official use—noting utilities or something. The Arabic threw me off. But they did have an aesthetic quality to them.

Then I saw discrete red lettering on the sides of buildings. Surely this was some sort of cipher. Nope. Turns out it was a numbering system for newspaper stands.

Only after a good search, did I find a bus stop, tagged in big bold letters. It read:

7 December 2010
A day of celebration
A day of anniversary
A day of Ahmed

“He is…um, you say, ah…illiterate?” my translator said.

OK, sure. But he does have a sense of composition. His lines of text reflect the square shape of the wall, but are raised and offset, resembling a soft diamond. The posted bills over it add depth, and the vomit makes it truly gritty.

I’m reaching. It is bubby silliness.

Tomorrow I’m off to Dubai for the weekend. I wonder if I’ll find any serious tagging there.