June 23rd, 2011 by Robin Grearson
Editor’s note: This essay will appear in a journal published by Brooklyn writers’ collective 1441, of which Robin Grearson is a member. When Robin offered us the opportunity to publish the essay online, we knew its literary style was different from what our readers are used to. But there was no denying how good it was, and no denying that it explores art accessibility in a powerful way. So we are excited to present her newest work to our readers, and we look forward to more ventures into unique, personal art writing in the future. This essay also marks the first of many upcoming projects that blend visual and literary arts.
1. Steal my idea, please.
Late one night a few weeks ago, around 3:30 am, I woke up from a dream, sobbing. I’ve never done that before. The boundaries between life and death, individual and collective unconscious: I don’t know, to me sometimes they’re spongy, prone to a little osmosis. So even while I was still dreaming about my grandmother, it felt more like some kind of visit from her. In the context of the dream, she was dying. That sucked. In real life, she died two years ago. Which had also sucked. In the dream, I was cradling her tiny shriveled body in my arms, comforting her as she faded out of one world and perhaps began coming to life in another. Together we were reliving her dying all over again, just the two of us, as it had been. But in the dream, she was holding on to me right back, her strength much greater than what her gossamer frame could support, and she was fiercely beseeching me (I know, but that’s exactly what she was doing, really, she was beseeching me) to listen to her.
“You know I love you, don’t you, Robin?,” she kept asking me, forcefully. And, to flee the ache I felt at staying asleep, to avoid reliving her dying in my arms (again) (“Death Scene, the Sequel”), I woke up, tears running down my face and speaking quietly to myself, alone in my bed. “I know you do,” I said to my pillow, gently. “I know you do.” It hurt the same either way.
2. I had this dream.
Having friends who are street artists is cool. It can feel like hanging out with the good guys in white hats and the bad-asses in black hats, in one person. Street art can be a jolt of electricity, Robin Hood telling you to wake the fuck up and stop accepting corporate dominance of your public space. It is a voice that answers back to visual noise so the dialogue is not so one-sided. It is a way to grab heartstrings and direct minds to a cause. Graphic messages strike immediately, leaping tall language barriers without making a single bound. Some street artists make the leap into the art world and gain the option to drop the “street” label, and simply become “artist.”
But, rewind: How does someone learn how to paint and make wheat paste and sow culture or jam culture, when that someone can barely afford paper or paint? Some street artists are privileged kids who went to art school. Some are not-so-privileged kids who went to art school and will have student loans hanging over their heads that will be forgiven only if they die. And then there are some for whom art education began at the beginning, at the street school itself.
Tagging can be a compulsion. Norman Mailer observed in The Faith of Graffiti that tagging your name is a way for someone invisible to know they exist. Or else maybe it’s just a big Ego Thing to do. Write your Name. But as anyone who has ever been a child, taught a child, or raised a child knows, education is repetition. So taggers can become self-taught artists by writing their name many thousands of times. Some will jump from writing highly ornamented letters to drawing characters and designs. A smaller group will switch someday to paper and maybe try to make a painting or two. An even smaller group will start expressing things that have been locked up forever, as if under a repressive government. And finally, for a few, out it comes: Self. Expression. Opening, like a flower.
3. You can never go wrong with flowers.
There’s something kind of strange but interesting about going to an art opening and feeling uncomfortable because the people you meet will tell you their “real” name, and not their more-real name, the one under which they make illegal art. And on the subject of strange: illegal art. Art. Illegal. Sorta weird, isn’t it? The other night, I was getting on the L train at 8th Avenue to go back to Brooklyn with a street-artist-who-uses-an-alias friend. We walked onto the train and sat down. He spotted the billboard behind our heads. There, on the ad, was a postal sticker he’d put there, maybe a month earlier, bearing his Name. As one graffiti writer told Mailer, “The name is the faith of graffiti.” So if he has a name, then my friend exists. Maybe it is not all about ego, because seeing his name has nothing to do with my ego, and yet the sight of his name made me feel happy, myself. (If he didn’t exist, who would I sit next to on this train?) My friend had called out to the world, and through serendipity, his Existence was calling “Hey guys!” and flashing a little smile right back at us.
4. Death scene.
When I stopped crying, I fell back to sleep and eventually woke up around 6:30 AM. Before I got out of bed, I had this complete thought: how to save the world. Okay, not save it, exactly, just give it a hug. It involved starting a campaign, probably in schools, and having people — probably kid people — paint some flowers. Non-threatening, colorful, drawing-outside-the-lines, no-two-are-alike (except of course they are), flowers. Kids could then send these flowers to an as-yet unknown point person in one of our world’s forsaken, ugly, war-fucked places. Point person would apply paste to the flowers and replace the sight of ugly walls with silly little-kid drawings, turning ravaged cities into outdoor art gardens, maybe making people smile just long enough to start whispering about peace, to start believing that behind the flower is knowledge of a friend (the flower, like a postal sticker, proof such friend Exists). The more people who become involved in this project, the more people become involved in this project. Which is secretly about love: the return of Flower Power, repurposed as a pyramid scheme. Loose and modular and able to go viral and be embraced by any self-important group whose PR firm has told it to grow a conscience. It’s the thought that counts. Yet even for the wrong reasons, sending something handmade to a stranger to say, “I have never met you, but I have not forgotten you,” seems like a sort of nice thought to paste onto a bullet-hole-ridden wall.
5. I have not forgotten you.
Before I got out of bed to make coffee, I started researching art in war-fucked places. I tracked down a guy who led a workshop to teach kids how to make street art, murals and graffiti in Afghanistan. He and his friends organized a workshop to teach youth how to use spray paint on really big walls. He noted that it was inspiring, how quickly they learned and how much they embraced the opportunity. He said that where he lives, there is no culture: no music, no sports, no art. “This is a culture waiting to be reborn,” he said. Foreign business is starting to come in to help rebuild, so messages are showing up, voices suggesting what to buy and what to do and how to think. Not Art voices. Buy-stuff, do-stuff voices. Voices that weren’t there a minute ago. (I can’t remember what the thrum of all the messages here sounds like, nor do I remember anymore the quality of silence without them.) Maybe in a place without culture, the voices sound beseeching. “But there’s no voice back,” he said. I feel hopeful, I decide maybe art will save the world. “You know I love you, don’t you?”
When my friend Jamie Wall was young, he moved to California from the UK, and he met and married a cute girl named Melinda. She grew up in Pico Rivera, a lower-income suburb of Los Angeles, so he moved there. I worked with Jamie when I lived in Los Angeles. He worked two jobs and loved tattoos and music and he even showed everyone at work his Prince Albert piercing once. Or twice. I moved to New York recently to start a new life. Jamie moved his family to England to start a new life recently, too. I was sick of owning a car, and of my apartment’s lack of sunlight. Melinda couldn’t stand to spend another day in her hometown. Melinda’s mom, Maria…well, this is what the LA Times said:
“Maria Hicks, 58, a Latina woman, was shot near the intersection of Woodford Street and San Gabriel River Parkway about 9:55 p.m. Friday, Aug. 10,  and died of her injuries at a hospital three days later, Monday, Aug. 13.
“Hicks was driving home and saw a Latino man or youth spray-painting graffiti, said Lt. Larry Lincoln of the Sheriff’s Department homicide bureau. She honked her horn and flashed her lights and began to follow the fleeing tagger. Two Latino men or youths in a silver compact car pulled up and shot at her. She was struck in the upper torso. Three people were later arrested.”
Images: courtesy of Combat Comms.
This essay appears in print in 1441, No. 1
Reading and release party June 30, 2011, 7 PM
126 Franklin St.