Tuesday, May 6, 2014

American Heartache in Jersey City


The thing about graffiti is, it’s a fugitive art. Walls come and go – in the case of freight trains, literally – pieces get buffed, tagged over, and so forth. Nothing stays.

A couple of years ago I spotted a small dilapidated industrial building near the remains of the old Morris Canal in Jersey City along the upper New York Bay. Part of the roof was gone, windows broken out, some walls a-tumble. And graffiti, inside and out. I called it the Urban Design Center and proceeded to photograph it, catching it in various weather, times of day and, of course, changes in décor.


I’ve been out of the city for a while, but went back last Saturday. And I checked in on the old Urban Design Center. Looks like it’s now being torn down, what’s left of it. More of the structure is gone and there was a steam shovel parked next to it. The graffiti was out of control – tags on throwies on pieces on tags and just random paint – the kind of stuff I like, call it graffiti chaos. There was a piece of plywood with “Rest in Peace R.I.P” painted on it in haste, with “R.I.P” repeated several times.

And there was this, in one of the main rooms, which had a roof the last time I’d been in it:


I didn’t really notice the phrase when I took the flick. Well, of course, I did see what I was shooting. I framed the shot to get the whole phrase in though it meant I couldn’t shoot directly at a wall. I had to skew the angle since the phrase walked across two walls.

But it didn’t really register until I was going though the photos on my computer. When I saw it Wham! What have we got here?

It’s the phrase that does it. What does it mean, “American Heartache”? It resonates, no? After a while I decided to google it and found out it was the name of a song; the Jamie McLean Band recorded it in 2008. Perhaps that’s what the writer was thinking about when he put those words up there in acid cyan and acid magenta. Don’t really know. It’s possible.

But I didn’t even know of that possibility when the photo registered itself in my mind and as I looked at it on my monitor. I just saw that phrase, rippling through that old teardown building, and both rippling through Jersey City. That building’s from the past, a gritty blue-collar past. The graffiti looks back, but also ahead – graffiti always looks ahead, has to, it’s ephemeral.

Jersey City doesn’t know what to do with itself. There’s a lot of negativity in this city, a lot of “we are not worthy”, a lot of 6th-borough angst, as though Jersey City is nothing but a doorstep and pillow to New York City. But a lot of love, hence the heartache.

Those words matter in that photo. Imagine the same photo, but with seventeen letters that don’t add up to American Heartache. 17 letters. Say the writer spelled out “SOMERANDOMLETTERS” in the same place on the walls, same colors. Formally, composition and color, it’s the same image. But the resonance is gone. You need those specific two words to get that resonance going. That resonance transforms the image.

An exterior shot of the building as it is now:


“American Heartache” is on the left side interior.

This is the far wall from American Heartache as it was in May of 2012:


Just line up the open window in the two photos and you’ll see the match. You might also look for the date "5.31.10", which is clear in this photo (lower right) but obscured in American Heartache.


  1. Wow, what a sight. I live in a small conservative town and teach art. I was surfing images of broken walls and am focusing on decimation. This blog was/is great. We don't have graffiti much around here so its not understood. Your blog and images will be a great help as I share it. Thank you.

  2. Glad you like the photos. If you click through to my Flickr site you'll find lots more.