June 8, 2011KR BlogWriting

Materials Wednesday: raw and refrain

In 2008 I moved from suburban New Jersey to Hollywood, California, and spent about six months feeling completely overstimulated and unable to cope with all of the helicopters and green light peel-outs and people dressed up as other people. One of my coping mechanisms was to take a series of pictures of liquor store signs and one on nude revues — both of which helped me see the city as something that repeats in a comforting, if somewhat gritty, order and rhythm — but the real grappling I did with the city was to wrestle with this one extremely common, identically repeated graffiti tag, now long erased, that I want to share with you to see what you make of it. The tag is: 9-11-01 ha ha ha : – )

This was a different kind of repetition than the other photo series (or maybe the same): obsessive, repeated without variation, having the clear intent to send a message but in the end completely unclear as to the content of that message (you all brought it on yourselves? 9/11 amuses me? Laugh away the fear?). The same phrase, with the same lettering and the same smiley had been written all up and down Sunset Boulevard, starting east of the Strip and continuing to Sunset and Vine, and maybe further. By the time it occurred to me that they should be recorded and I set aside enough time to go hunt for them, many had been painted over or crossed out by other taggers — it was like the city was healing itself of an unpleasant and anxiety-inducing message. But I still got 30+ instances, and from that I made this:

Los Angeles, 2009. Click for the animation: takes a minute to load.

In a maneuver that you might remember from last week, I took all the pictures, taught myself to make an animated .gif, and then totally failed to finish a poem or even an essay. I wrote plenty of poems — but I was caught up in my own experiences with the homeless and mentally ill who live in Hollywood (I suspect one of them is the tagger — or I guess I should say, I feel that one of them is the tagger, although the fact that I feel this way perhaps says something about me), as well as the experience of feeling like I should be very subtle about taking all these pictures to prevent being accused of being the graffiti writer myself. By the time I finished documenting the whole thing, I was kind of ruined for writing about it (although I think it did influence other poems, on other subjects).

I also have to admit to having been in St. Louis, MO during 9/11 (notable only for having inspired this article on how far St. Louisans felt from the war against terror), and having left not long after for Nanjing, where events in New York seemed especially dreamlike. This only reinforces how spacey-odd it was for me to see this phrase written all over Hollywood in 2008 — and if I’ve learned something from being me, it’s that one should not try to replace the realities of others with the dreams of the self.

So the ball is in your court. I get what I think is interesting about the image (as opposed to the experience): the almost primordial beauty of refrain, and the terrible straitjacket of refrain, the welcoming return and the obsessive insistence. The fact that this person did this so many times gives the phrase a weight it wouldn’t normally have — but unlike Senbazuru cranes in Japan, the weight is that of a weapon. At least until the city fixed itself, you really couldn’t walk anywhere without, essentially, getting mocked for having experienced a tragedy. Like most weapons, it seems to have injured its wielder as well: there is something of demonic possession in the identity of the tags, the little face — the tagger seems to have fled down Sunset rather than walked. The double-edgedness that is so cartoonishly clear here seems present in a lot of the best poetic refrains, as well: Auden’s “if I could tell you I would let you know,” or the plea of Bidart’s “turn your face again” in “The Yoke.”

I am happy to report that about a year and a half later, there’s no trace left — one of the best things about graffiti, and LA, is that they both tend to move on — but art dwells, right? As always, email or comment about what you come up with — and feel free to repost or reuse the image for whatever purpose. I subscribe to Jake Adam York‘s eloquently stated, quite rational attitude that a poem can be intimately linked/fused to the picture that inspired it — to me, all artists are a kind of damaged camera (and cameras are aphasic writers), so mutual help often seems to be in order.

UPDATE, AUGUST 17, 2011: Blog reader Elisa wrote in saying that she’d seen identical graffiti in New York City, and had seen it online as well in Tokyo — and sure enough: (Tokyo) (Tokyo) (New York) (New York). The period of the tagging seems to be between 2008 and 2009 (the pictures above were taken in 2009). My theory about a single Hollywood schizophrenic is exploded: now I can only guess that this is either a) the world’s choadiest street art, b) the world’s least effective terrorism propagandist, or c) a teenager on an expensive vacation (Hollywood, Manhattan and Shibuya/Harajuku are all tourist locations) who’s going through a particularly antisocial stage. Probably some combination of the three?


Next entry: I’ve come to the conclusion that this is all some very heavy stuff I am laying on you, so next Wednesday we will suit up and play humanity’s newest sport: SNIPER BALL (sic). No actual snipers involved.