Among the most dangerous places I’ve ever visited while searching for street art have been in Baltimore, Maryland. There are few other cities in the world compared to Baltimore where things go from fancy to fucked-up as quickly, first super safe then scared shitless from one block to the next. For anyone whose hobby includes combing city streets on a bicycle in search of stickers glued to and posters pasted up in dirty and dangerous places, here are three simple tips on how to stay alive and well whilst gathering graff.
1. Make eye contact with people, and greet them. Do this always, especially in dark and lonely places. Many gangsters operate on the basis of honor, and looking them in the eye and saying hello to them is an honorable act that rarely fails to calm situations. (Don’t expect them to say hello back, however; not getting shanked or shot at should be validation enough.) Greeting people lets them know that you know they’re there; it shows them that you respect their presence and are not afraid of them or anyone they may be with. If you bicycle around a corner and surprise a group of people, raising a hand in greeting (with two fingers making a V, for victory) and saying a kind word should ease tensions and allay fears.
2. KMA - Keep moving, always. Don’t linger, loiter, stay on one block without moving for too long, or appear lost. If this means backtracking a block or two until you can shoot across a road or bicycling up on the sidewalk to avoid a traffic snarl, do it (just go slowly around pedestrians). If you see some graffiti and want to stop to take a picture of it, check that the picture is well centered and not blurry, then keep moving. The entire process should take fewer than 30 seconds, rarely enough time for someone to approach or harass you.
3. Make a fool of yourself. Bicycle no-handed, pull wheelies, whistle or shout loudly, and generally look like you’re having a grand olde time. White dudes on bicycles wearing helmets and burning lights fore and aft are usually the police. But the police usually don’t pull tricks, and they’re definitely not out to have a good time. Nearly every potentially sticky encounter I’ve had of late was defused by me letting go of the handlebars and lazily cruising by whoever looked like they wanted to hurt me (while giving them a last-minute nod and V, of course).
There are few better ways to hunt street art than on a bicycle. By following the three simple rules mentioned above, you’ll hopefully stay safe and gather graff for many years to come. Mahaloalowa!
americanifesto / JPR / whorphan / 場黑麥
It was a bright day and I was bicycling along a footpath on top of a concrete dam. Next to it was a park or greenswarth that was partly submerged in water. Ancient and rusting iron railings ran along the top of the dam, to keep people from falling into the park. Far above the tops of some tall trees to my left stood a cluster of improbably towering walkways, huge and sweeping glass-bottomed ramps that twisted and looped through the sky. I recognized the structure from a previous dream and was briefly saddened, for I knew there was no graffiti there for me to photograph.
Up ahead, the crest of the dam curved sharply to the left and merged with an earthen abutment. At the merge was a swinging gate, which stood open to allow pedestrians and cyclists through. It was equipped with reflective panels so that, when shut, it would be visible to motorists at night. To the right of the gate was a single-storey, dilapidated brick structure with a tile roof. Having seen a lot of stickers plastered to the gate and railing at the point of the merge, I doubled back to photograph them, the bicycle beneath me responding nimbly.
As I was photographing stickers out by the gate, a man walked past me, whom I for the most part ignored. I had the feeling that I was being watched from the park’s thick foliage, which was now to my right (since I had turned around), which compelled me to bicycle into the brick structure. Its windows were missing, allowing isolated shafts of bright sunlight to stream into a dark, cool interior with a churned-up dirt floor. A pair of wooden pillars supported the roof overhead. The wall to my left featured one standard-sized door and three windows. At the far end of the structure was stood another set of open double doors. Near the double doors through which I’d entered were a number of interesting bits of street art, which I photographed. Feeling emboldened by being inside (and away, I figured, from prying eyes), I removed a sticker from my wallet and cast about for a good spot to stick it.
As I was searching for the best possible place for my sticker to live, I glanced down at it where it was poised in my right hand. As is customary, part of it had been torn off upon completion, the other part showing an intricate, black and white drawing of a mask that resembled that of a Mexican lucha libre wrestler.
americanifesto / JPR / whorphan / 場黑麥
on the use of eyes in street art
Stroll through downtown Los Angeles, up New York's Broadway, or along the avenues of Philadelphia's Center City, and look in the forgotten, in the grimy, and in the underused places. With a keen glance and a bit of luck, you will witness the riotous beauty known as street art. Oh, what a profusion of style and color, of shape and size, of message and image, all blending into a whole that, if viewed from afar, resembles little more than visual clutter; but get in good and close, and follow the guidance of your peripheral vision, and your most tender of sphincters will drink invariably of the intoxicating power of street art.
But why do we look? Why are we powerless against the urge to sweep our gazes into worn and sticky places and up onto soot-covered utility poles? Eyes, my friends, we look at graffiti because it is full of eyes (and not just any type of eyes, but human eyes). Perhaps they stumbled upon the technique accidentally, perhaps they copied it from advertisers, or maybe they just plain Knew to tap into one of mankind's most primal and deep-seated fears, but, however it occurred, street artists employ one of the most basic methods for getting people to look at something – to give it eyes.
Since our time as forest-creeping, prairie-running, skull-bashing troglodytes, the species homo sapiens has developed the uncanny ability to recognize the shape of the eye even if it should be obscured by layers of seemingly random patterns. While experts may argue whether this ability is restricted merely to recognizing the human eye, or if it applies to the eyes of all of our former predators (think bear, cougar, coyote), few persons dispute the fact that our brains are really good at figuring out if someone, or something, is looking at us. Advertisers exploit this evolutionary adaptation to our status as Top Predator Of One Another by blanketing the phaltscape with pictures of pretty people who nearly all happened to have been staring directly at the camera's shutter when it opened. (Now, however, instead of our powers giving us the upper hand in a fight-or-flight situation, they allow us to be convinced that we need that new and re-formulated cucumber body scrub; woe be unto mankind.)
All quasi-scientific, pseudo-evolutionary nonsense aside (I am not a scientist, nor am I particularly intelligent or well-versed) – why do graffiti-writers use so many eyes in their designs? Why in the name of Beelzebub do they wish for people to look at their works of art, and to what purpose do they make use of our aforementioned ability to pick eyes out of the ether? As the SDUBS (self directed urban beautification specialist) is wily and suspicious by nature, and since she maintains a level of honor, decorum, and discipline so profound as to make inquiry into her personal matters a life-threatening endeavor, these questions shall likely go unanswered for many generations to come. For now, however, please enjoy the street-side galleries of free-to-the-consumer art wherever you may be, and rest easily in the knowledge that, by looking back at eyes that look at you, you are merely executing a deeply-ingrained survival reflex that is as natural to humans as is laughter. Never forget, however, to keep an eye out for your fellow man, he who has been hunting you for longer than you shall likely ever know.
americanifesto / JPR / whorphan / 場黑麥
If not down an alley then stuck up a pole is where most graffiti will badger and troll unwary onlookers who can’t help but glance at something toward which they’ll then take a stance. Oh gourd! they cry loudly when they spy a sticker or a sprayed-on piece and then proceed to bicker about if it is or it is not true art (this has been discussed since mankind got its start). One faction will argue to tear the piece down the other will say that such acts are unfounded - that stifling expression harms all of our race just like a swift kick to a suckerpunched face. Images and words are offensive to some as are crude depictions of women or guns; some others however find fault with a lot and refuse to give modern things a fair shot; some others meanwhile give just zero fucks about ‘sacrilegious’ or similar truck - they do as they please knowing that neighbors tend to choose what’s OK and what ought to offend. Onward then, graffitos - city-walls await! There’s no telling what could tonight be your fate! Make pretty the surfaces others ignore - your fanbase is massive and yearning for more.
© JPR / whorphan / americanifesto / 場黑麥
blog updated Fridays, usually
I bicycle, write, surf, and the rest.