Street art has been a vibrant form of the urban underground for the last decade. Back in the 1990s, I began photographing such ephemeral installations throughout Philadelphia, returning even to trace the effects of deterioration or intentional erasure. This documentation, obviously, satisfied my archaeological sensibilities but, more importantly, got me to seriously think about medieval epigraphy and graffiti, a genre that is rarely considered as protest. Interestingly enough, we rarely imagine medieval men and women subverting public space through writing or scratching; we rarely think of them outside the modes of religious expression. Michael Camille’s sign typology–protection, power, publicity, memory, location, public fantasy–does not include political subversion (“Signs on Medieval Street Corners,” in Die Strasse, ed. J. Gerhard, Vienna, 2001, pp. 91-118). I have a suspicion that some Byzantine inscriptions served a subversive role, an idea based on prison graffiti from Corinth, as well as a series of proto-cartographic scratches.
Philadelphia street art (clearly defined as post-graffiti) boomed when I was a graduate student in AAMW (Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World) . Photographing this vernacular art while studying vernacular architecture gave me an excuse for meaningful procrastination. The discovery of street art, moreover, introduced me to the Space 1026 collaborative, which is responsible for producing some of the best Philadelphia street art. One day, I even stepped up the stairs of 1026 Arch Street, met Ben Woodward, explained my project and bought one of his prints, the barking dog with the word LOST. The print was inexpensive enough ($10) that I also bought a copy for my god-son, whom I’ve been intentionally trying to subvert through skate boards, CDs, etc. So a LOST print now hangs in a teenager’s room in Überlingen, Germany, mind you, not glued in the streets but properly framed and hung).
On April 18, I returned to my alma mater and gave a lecture on Byzantium, Modernity and the American School at AAMW’s Archaeology Lunch series. It was a wonderful event in its own right and quite emotional; my last involvement with AAMW was 5 years ago, scrambling to complete my thesis. In my last trip, spring had just began in Philadelphia, offering great opportunities for walking the streets. Although the visit was short and the wanderings even shorter, one image kept creeping up, the sticker you see above. It’s a small red monochrome print juxtaposing a simple figurative image of a small mouse and the word GLUE. The print is wheat-pasted on a street pole near 44th and Pine Streets. In fine Pop Art form, text and image are congruous and incongruous. The subject matter itself is so appropriately regional to Philadelphia’s domestic life, punctuated by the ever-present mouse problem creeping through every row-house. I cannot even begin to list the Philadelphia mouse stories. Sadly enough, mice was the subject of the last conversation I had with my father before he passed away (unexpectedly from a heart-attack), and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Another memorable incident is returning from a trip to Greece and finding a mouse strung around the strings under my mother’s sewing machine (she was a seamstress). The poor baby-mouse had spun itself into its own death. We were gone long enough that the bodily deterioration was complete and what confronted us was a beautifully textiled flat object.
I find GLUE to be such a thought-provoking piece beyond the vernacular associations to West Philadelphia life. I will spare you of my own multiple readings. Flat as it may be, GLUE reverberates with so many references, including images from Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous “Perfect Moment” show (1988) at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art (which, back then, was housed in Meyerson Hall). Most obviously, GLUE is about prey and preyed, animals and humans, wild and domestic, but also about art process and meaning (the piece itself is literally “glued” on a post). Having just heard a fantastic Studio 360 episode, I cannot fail to see connections with Abu Ghraib as well. Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure (2008) just out in theaters and Stephen S. Eisenman’s The Abu Ghraib Effect (London, 2007) are high on my list–Eisenman teaches Art History at Northwestern and he is the editor of Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History (3rd ed., 2007); I received a review copy of this textbook and could not put it down . I have no idea who produced GLUE, but I thank them for articulating so many subterranean strata with economical eloquence.
Whether coming out of punk rock, skate-boarding, or both, the aesthetics of street art have reached national exposure in the last few months. One of its most celebrated practitioners, Shepard Fairey, has donated a portrait to the Barak Obama campaign. Fairey’s CHANGE is sadly SOLD OUT, but you can read more about it in Rob Walker’s, “The Art of Politics” (NYT Magazine, April 13, 2008, p. 27). Fairey was born in South Carolina (which adds another bizarre geographic thread) and became famous through his OBEY THE GIANT signs. Even if you have never heard of Fairey’s name, you have probably seen his work; this is one of the beauties of a genre that is (partially) anonymous but (thoroughly) pervasive. A few years ago, street art was an underground phenomenon integrally connected to other subversive urban grass routes movements. At this point, street art has entered both mainstream political arena and popular culture; Fairey, for instance, has designed the cover of a greatest hits CD for Led Zeppelin. Another artist, Banksy, is equally unavoidable. Last summer, I was so happy to find a copy of his Wall and Piece (Phaidon, 2007) at Barnes and Noble (Rittenhouse Square) to give to my godson when I visited him in Greece . When I walked into my godson’s room in Athens, I saw the very same Bansky book in his library; the book had already been translated into Greek (now, that is globalization). I ended up lugging the (ungiven) gift all the way back to the U.S. and returning it to the Barnes and Noble. Whoever has bought that copy, has unwillingly purchased a much traveled book. Incidentally, my godson has now fully embraced hip-hop (as well as computer hacking) and goes by the nickname Pak. Regardless of its mainstream status, the much-traveled street art of Philadelphia seems potently alive and exciting. GLUE not only made my day happier but provided some wonderful connective tissue across multiple years of punk, art and urban archaeology.
PS. Connected to subversive street art, see the documentation of an ephemeral historiography in Boston, Chrstina J. Hodge “History on the Line, Davis Square, ” Archaeoblog, April 10, 2008.