A Photo Essay in Which Your Author Contemplates the Nature of Graffiti and Continues Around the Same Old Circle
The river of life, the ever-flowing Heraclitean river, you know, the one you can’t step into twice–that's what I'm talking about. As for Hemlock, it was awhile before I even knew it was Hemlock (I forget who told me). But there’s someone else up on that wall too, someone beneath Hemlock.
This is how the wall looked when I first saw it, though I would have been approaching from the East rather than the West, as in this shot:
Here’s a bit more context:
They–that is, the images of interest–are on the wall at the far right and to the rear, where sunlight has rendered them invisible to the camera. That elegant Remix piece (by Raels) at the lower left is now under three or four layers of paint. The masonry and steel superstructure supports Route 139 as it heads off toward the Pulaski Skyway.
That’s right, we’re down in the Bergen Arches, a man-made trench cut through Jersey City’s Bergen Hill early in the 20th Century. It’s been closed off at the East end and three of the four train tracks ripped out. It’s abandoned (not quite) and gone to seed (most wonderfully).
Here’s that wall straight on:
It was one of my favorites when I first saw it in the summer of 2007 and remains so six years later, though it’s now a bit more worn.
Just WHAT is it? Well, sure, it’s graffiti, we know that. But what’s IN the graffiti, what’s it represent?
In the center we’ve got that whitish area, most likely full-on white when the paint first went on, but now colored by the weather. What’re those three things that look like sea shells or flying saucers, one at the upper left (ASR), one at the right and then a smaller one to the lower left of that. And that tentacular thing snaking up the middle, what’s that?
I’m tempted to say they’re left behind by Spielberg’s crew from filming War of the Worlds, except that they went on the wall long before Spielberg blew though the area. Still, I’ve seen a number of aliens and saucers on Jersey City walls, walls not far from here, and so I’m inclined to think that THAT’s what’s going on in that part of the wall.
By the way, have you noticed the texture of the wall? You can see it better in this detail shot:
But what’s that down front, those circles/bubbles and that other stuff, all stretching off to the left of the white bounded-area? They could almost be a highly abstracted cityscape, but of course they’re the letters of a name. Not, of course, that those two readings are in any way contradictory. They are not.
The problem in reading that lower section is that you can’t see the very bottom of the wall because it’s obscured by swamp grass. I call it that because it’s a bit swampy down there. There’s always an inch or so of water floating over mud. So it’s not so easy just to go in there and stomp the grass down, though I did a bit of that on occasion. In any event, if you wait until winter, the grass will die and the surface will be more fully exposed:
Now the name is obvious, though it might not be so obvious that the name is “Hemlock,” as the wild style (so-called) lettering obscures the basic forms.
But Hemlock it is, and it’s been painted over our little scene of flying saucers and tentacle beings. Which is how things go in graffiti-land. The new goes over the old. Nothing’s forever.
But replacement rates do vary. This wall has remained untouched for the six years I’ve been photographing down there and for some undetermined number of years before that. That Remix wall (second photo above), however, has been gone over three or four times, at least.
I don’t really know. There ARE rules, rules of respect. If you’re going to go over someone, you have to put something better on top. But those rules aren’t always obeyed and, of course, “better” is always a judgment call. Independently of that, the weather takes its toll. The surfaces wear down, at varying rates. Some paint’s better than others, some surfaces have water draining over them, some are more exposed to the sun, and so forth. Once the surface has become sufficiently degraded–where sufficiency is another judgment call–new paint’s going to go on the surface.
With all this taken into consideration, I still don’t know why the Remix wall has been gone over and the Hemlock wall is still in tact. Is it respect for Hemlock, whoever he, or less likely she, is? Or is it respect for just how very cool that wall is?
I’ll vote for the latter. Somehow that wall seems to embody the spirit of the Bergen Arches. The various biomorphic forms skim the boundary between the natural and the artificial. As does the Bergen Arches itself. It’s a man-made trench blasted out of the rock by 150 tons of high-explosive, and yet Nature just keeps rolling on through, like those trains used to, obvious to the fact that humans set of the cataclysms that dug the trench. What matters the source? A cataclysm is a cataclysm. And a trench is a trench. Let’s go down there and grow and fertilize and breed and just get all funky down there.
Graffiti’s not like other art. It’s vandalism. It’s illegal to paint down there. It’s illegal even to be down there. These photos were thus illegally obtained, for I assure you that I did not mount my camera on a drone and fly it down there. I went there myself.
Not that there’s any contradiction between being art and being vandalism. There isn’t. Graffiti is both. But it’s also neither. Fact is, we don’t know what it is.
Which is why it’s so important. It challenges us. We make it, but nature remakes it, hour by hour, season by season, and other writers come along, they too are a force of nature.
Western art has been conceived as a bulwark against time and contingency. Its forms are thought to be, strive to be essences, pure and perfect, and outside time. That’s why we place it in museums so it can be out of this world, passing the test of time (as they call it), evading contingency.
But of course it doesn’t work. What appeared eternal in 500 BCE or 1550 CE now just appears old and we know that we do not and cannot (quite) ever experience it as those old ones did then. The river keeps rolling on.
Graffiti knows this. No writer expects his or her work to be eternal. They assume that other writers will come mingling along with the weather. Their paint will sink into the past and become the matrix for new graffiti.
And if this sounds like it’s just abstract philosophizing, well it is that, both abstract and philosophy. I would like to think that it is JUST as well, though not mere.
You see, it’s this drive for the eternal, the will to transcend time, that’s built Western Civilization. And Western Civ has put this drive up and against Nature. And THAT’s a problem, a big problem.
Because now we’ve changed the earth’s atmosphere so drastically that we threaten ourselves and many other species as well. We can try to outrun these forces, this anthropogenic climate warming, and we most likely will fail. We can’t win this one.
But we can lose gracefully. We can follow the way of graffiti and let change happen. Graffiti is the way of the future.