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Aaron Bady
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Shrine of the Triceratops

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/01/06 at 11:51 AM

Or: Indiana Jones and the Green Dinosaur, a Tale of Exploration, Deduction, and Interpretation in the Wilds of Jersey City

“Now, indeed,” said Gawain, “here is a wizardy waste,
And this an ugly oratory, still overgrown with weeds;
Well it befits that wight, warped and wraped in green,
To hold his dark devotions here in the Devil’s service!
Now, sure in my five wits I fear it is the foul fiend
Who here has led me far astray, the better to destroy me.

--Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Though ignorance is not, as the saying implies, a stop on the highway to bliss, it has its uses. In my case, all-but-ignorance of the world of graffiti and hip-hop has allowed me to explore my immediate surroundings as though I were a child discovering neat things in the woods, like the abandoned electrical substation where Steve and I found the raccoon skeleton in one corner of a room, or the strange markings on Timmy’s lawn that looked like landing tracks from a flying saucer.

If I had been well-informed about the current state of graffiti I would not have regarded the images I recently blundered into as objects of wonder. I would have known what and perhaps even why they were and thought nothing more of them. Thus I would have been unable to see that I had found a shrine to the spirit of the triceratops. To me it would have just been a large and interesting painting (actually, a “piece”) in a strange location, strange because it is out-doors and thus unprotected, and hidden from public view as well. What sort of artist deliberately does good work in a place where no one will see it?

Note: The article below the fold has 17 moderately large images. If you have a dial-up connection you may want to skip the article or have a snack while waiting for the page to load in your browser.

Tags, Throw-ups, and Pieces
The adventure started about a week ago when I decided to take some pictures of my neighborhood, Hamilton Park, roughly a third of mile (as measured on Google Earth) from the Holland Tunnel in downtown Jersey City. It’s mostly a residential neighborhood consisting of one, two, and three-family attached housing and small apartment buildings. But there are large warehouses nearby, a small abandoned rail yard, a small office building for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and various signs and remnants of more substantial industrial use not so long ago. It’s a gentrifying neighborhood where homeless people push their grocery carts on streets where Mazdas and Range Rovers are parked.

While walking the streets taking pictures of this and that I noticed “tags” (see Figure 1) on signs, sidewalks, walls, fire hydrants, dumpsters and other surfaces.

allegro
Figure 1: Two tags on the dumpster behind my apartment building.

2thro
Figure 2: Two “throw-ups” on the side of a building.

I also saw some more elaborate graffiti of the kind known as “throw-ups” (see Figure 2) - though I didn’t know the term when I started this adventure. They’re generally, though not necessarily, larger than tags and have filled letters, with the outline and body in contrasting colors. They take more time to make than tags, but can still be thrown up rather quickly, necessary to avoid detection by the authorities.

I downloaded the first batch of photos into my computer and began examining and editing them in Photoshop. The more I looked at them, the more fascinated I became. I decided to roam the neighborhood looking for tags and other graffiti. I didn’t know what I would find, but I had every reason to think there might be something interesting out there.

After all, this “piece” (Figure 3) - as they are called, from “masterpiece” - is on an embankment about 100 yards from my apartment building. Notice the lettering to the left and right and the strange long-nosed green creature in the center. Perhaps I would find one or two other pieces like it. I now know that such pieces are common enough, and have been so for years.

elphunt
Figure 3: A piece on Jersey Avenue between 10th and 11th streets. It faces east toward the Holland Tunnel, the Hudson River, and Manhattan.

For that matter I had seen elaborately painted subway cars back in the 1970s. But I was only a visitor to New York at the time, such graffiti were not a part of my world. I had read about elaborate graffiti, about competitions between “writers” (the term of art for those who make graffiti) and their “crews,” about graffiti in the high art world of Andy Warhol, about Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. But I did not live with the work. I only visited it.

Into No-Man’s Land
As I thought about the tagging in my neighborhood and about that elaborate piece around the corner, graffiti began visiting me. I got the message loud and clear when I looked through a chain link fence and saw intimations and portents at the bases of the columns (Figure 4) supporting highway 78 as it touched down in Jersey City on the way to the Holland Tunnel.

base
Figure 4: Column base.

Do you see those bluish tinged white areas at the bases of those columns? Something is scrawled on them, but you can’t see it very well from the legal side of the fence. I decided that I had to see the tags and throw-ups on those columns. I had no particular expectations about what they would look like, up close, nor any conscious hopes for anything more. I was simply curious.

I had no trouble finding a well used hole in the fence. I got down on my hands and knees, put my camera through first, and then crawled through myself. I was off. As I approached the nearest column I knew I’d hit pay dirt. It was covered with tags and throw-ups, as were the columns near it. I snapped picture after picture, not really comprehending what I saw. I just wanted to get the photos so I could examine them at home.

I took the following photo (Figure 5) from just on the far side of a railroad overpass. The large red brick building in the distance is about 500 yards (straight line) from where I was standing when I took the photo and 200 yards (straight line) from my apartment building. It sits on a low rise about .8 miles inland from the Hudson and presides over the tool booths for the Holland Tunnel, which are midway between the building and the shoreline. The graffiti you see here - tags and throw-ups - is typical of the material that was readily visible from the street.

riv
Figure 5: Looking Toward the River

The piece below (Figure 6) is just barely visible from the street:

zar
Figure 6: Declaration ZAR

The lettering is, say, six feet high. Notice that the “base” lettering is covered with tags in various colors. There is clearly some contention over who “owns” this space. Legally, of course, none of the writers and crews owns the column; it belongs to the New York Throughway Authority. Just as the letter of the law differs from the spirit, so it differs from practical effect. In this case, the public harm caused by painting in such places is small, too small to justify enforcement efforts or, for that matter, clean-up. No one lives or works in these structures, nor are they very visible. Those most likely to think of the graffiti on them as eyesores rarely, if ever, lay eyes on them. Practically speaking this land belongs to the writers, and to the homeless, and to other “interstitial” people. It is no man’s land, in the middle of the city. It is a liminal space.

It is thus fitting that one relatively spare piece (Figure 7) show a flying saucer (upper left) and a “crop circles” tag (lower right).

mother
Figure 7: Mother Ship and Crop Circles

Nor is this the only instance of an aliens motif at the site. Look at the left side of this column (Figure 8):

alien
Figure 8: Alien

That is clearly a tall slender alien. He has companions on other sides of the column, though they are obscured by tagging subsequent to the original painting.

As I moved away from the open fields and headed north toward a more wooded area, I saw this:

trees
Figure 9: Through the Trees

Here’s what you see when you get past the obscuring trees:

swirlies
Figure 10: Emergence

What is that? Historically, the design imagery in these pieces derives from lettering and cursive script. It is highly elaborated calligraphy. Here the elaboration seems to have swamped the underlying calligraphic impulse. Whatever that spirit is, it seems to gathered itself into a head that emerges at the upper left of the piece. Here’s a close-up:

toothy
Figure 11: Trickster?

But what is the significance of the number “3”? Did the original writer paint the 3 at the lower left, or is that a tag by some other writer? I don’t know the answers to those questions, can’t even guess.

Triceratops: The Spirit of a Place
And then there is this piece (Figure 12), at perhaps the most secluded location on the site:

tritop
Figure 12: Shrine of the Triceratops

Why a triceratops? Why is this piece the one farthest from the street - though not so very far at all as Routes 1 and 9 are only about 30 yards to north of this point (we’re looking south) and 40 feet up; the piece itself is on the base of a single-track railroad bridge. And what happened to the calligraphy, the “writing” proper?

Two things are obvious about the triceratops: it is large and powerful and it is extinct. As a dinosaur it occupies a certain place in our collective mythology, dark, primeval forces and all that. That is perhaps enough to give it mythic potency. And, were this picture one created on a canvas or free-standing board and intended to framing and hanging in a gallery, that would be pretty much what we have to work with, that and the formal properties of the image.

But this isn’t that kind of painting. It is on a surface that is, for all practical purposes, immobile. In its general coloration it blends in with its surroundings, at least during the green seasons. It was created in and for this specific site, and so we must seek a site-specific account of it.

First a small digression.  Consider this passage from Henry David Thoreau’s “Sound” chapter in Walden (1854):

When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion . . . with its steam cloud like a banner streaming behind in gold and silver wreaths . . . as if this traveling demigod, this cloud-compeller, would ere long take the sunset sky for the livery of his train; when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils, (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.

The trope has become familiar enough, a big machine is a big animal. But what’s its relevance to this site? We’ve got an image of a big animal; where’s the big machine?

Right in front of us. The railroad bridge on which the triceratops is painted goes over a single railroad track. If you are near that image when a train passes by, you will see the train:

freights
Figure 13: Freights

And there is a good chance that many of the cars in the train will have tags and throw-ups on them (see Figure 13). Not only do trains loom large in American mythology, they loom large in graffiti culture, for freight cars offer prime sites for graffiti.

Judging from my experience - I’ve been to the site four times - anyone who’s there for more than an hour will see at least one freight train go through. Whoever painted that triceratops would have seen and heard 10s of trains in the process. On the not unreasonable assumption that this is not the first graffiti the person did at this general site, they would have seen and heard many trains prior to painting the triceratops.

traincoming
Figure 14: Train approaching

My suggestion, in effect, is that the triceratops expresses or embodies the spirit or genius loci of the site. The Japanese equivalent would be kami. For example, “kamikaze” is, literally, a spirit (kami) of the wind (kaze). As an animal, the triceratops expresses the force of those huge freight hauling machines. That it is green - a most unlikely color for a triceratops - expresses the plant life that lives at the site and that contrasts so dramatically with the surrounding urban landscape.

Speculative though it is, that’s my approach to the first question: Why a triceratops? Let’s take up the second question: Why is this located in the least visible and accessible region of the site?

The most obvious answer looks to the practical considerations involved in writing graffiti. It is an illegal activity. Tags and throw-ups can be done quickly, minimizing the chances that the writer will be caught. Pieces take more time. The writer needs long stretches of time in which to work without fear of arrest or harassment. That puts a premium on remote locations.

Note the paradox involved. Contemporary graffiti writing originated as a way to publicize the writer’s presence and prowess. The practical exigencies of the craft, however, dictate that the work requiring the most skill be done in locations where it will be least seen. Who then constitutes the public for this work? Are the writers of these pieces lone artists working only for themselves?

Perhaps, but I doubt it; that’s an idea and a role that’s a bit foreign to these folks. At the least, they write for other writers, as evidenced by the palimpsestic layers of tagging that exists on the pieces at this site. But the community of writers and crews is not the community of legally constituted society. It is an interstitial community, its values are different. And so its highest expressive achievements must be kept secret from that public governed by the laws, in this case, of Jersey City, Hudson County, New Jersey, and the United States of America.

And thus the practical difficulty involved in making such pieces translates into the enhancement of their value in constituting an alternative community, that of hip-hop fans, graffiti writers and their various crews and gangs. These pieces are quasi-sacred objects, perhaps not so much in what they represent (in the words and scattered images), but more deeply in their mode of social being, the way the help order the lives of the people who create them and appreciate them.

This brings me to the last question, what happened to the writing, the “stuff” that’s given these craftsmen a name for what they do? There are no words or letters in this piece, which is completely constituted by the body of the triceratops. Look at this close-up of the body of the triceratops:

pattern
Figure 15: Writing on the Body

That pattern doesn’t look like any animal skin I know of. But it does have a vibe similar to the complex lineation that constitutes the bulk of most pieces. I suggest that the writer who did this piece simply transcended the conventions of his - or her - medium. The writing has been transformed into regular pattern, and that pattern applied to the body of the beast. The patterning on the body of the triceratops is a stylized transmogrification of graffiti on freight trains.

A Shrine?
Am I serious in calling this The Shrine of the Triceratops? Yes and no. No, I have no reason to believe that religious rites are performed here, or that there is any explicit religious doctrine, oral or textual, associated with this site. Yes, in that the triceratops image embodies the spirit of this site, and this site is an important one for some unidentified community that I know only through evidence such as that in these few photographs.

I have selected these particular photos from some 400 or 500 that I’ve taken of 10s of pieces, and 100s of tags and throw-ups on some 30 or 40 columns. These few words and images only begin to convey a sense of the richness of this site.

When similar materials are found in remote places of the earth they treated as evidence of attitudes and beliefs of the highest significance to the people who made them. The fact that these markings and paintings exist in one of the most densely populated regions on the planet in the penumbra of one of its wealthiest and most sophisticated cities, that fact changes nothing. These images are the medium through which certain groups of people in Jersey City come to grips with their world. Through these images they claim the world and affirm their community.

Let me conclude with a photograph of another piece, one that is within 100 yards of the triceratops. Of what site is it the genius? Whose screams are the innocent ones?

bomb

* * * * *

Note: Who Did It?
Pieces are generally signed, though not with the artist’s given name. They are signed with a name the writer has taken within his or her community; they may also be signed with the name of the crew of which the writer is a member. I am not familiar enough with these conventions, nor with the local crews, to feel comfortable in attributing individual pieces to writers and crews. And is often difficult to distinguish signatures from subsequent tags.

In the case of the triceratops, this apparent signature is at the lower-right corner of the piece:

mok


Comments

I have a site with pictures of about a thousand different murals in L.A., including categories such as graffiti (actually, I’ve put these under “spraypaint” because they aren’t all graffiti—some are permitted murals that are simply in that style—and because most people don’t know what “aerosol” is).  Plus general commentary and so on that you might be interested in.

By on 11/01/06 at 03:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Rich. I’ve been looking at a lot of LA material at flickr. There’s a lot of graffiti on the web. It’s all over the world. And you can download graffiti fonts for your computer.

By Bill Benzon on 11/01/06 at 04:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was briefly a writer in my teenage years, though with no real talent with the can, I did mostly line art and some stencil work.  It’s interesting to note the really very wide variety of people doing graffiti and the differences in their reasons for doing it.
The most common writers are taggers, just trying to get their name up, but the best of these can do some really amazing stuff.  There’s a kind of dichotomy between writers who want credit for doing the best and most elaborate pieces and those who want to be known for getting their name out or doing “ballsy” stuff.  A couple years ago I met the guy who did his name across the top of a skyscraper being rennovated in the Dallas area: 10 foot tall block letters which would have been unimpressive if he hadn’t have done it with a climbing harness and a team.
I’m more of a fan of the former type, doing the more secluded and technically impressive pieces that you describe, for their own community only.
Interestingly, graffiti is to a large extent where the hip-hop and progressive politics scenes collide.  The young anarchist types that I grew up with had anti-commercial ideas about the function of art and an aesthetic draw towards interstitial communities that operate outside of the law.  You can see this manifested in the political nature of a lot of stencil work, particularly in the tradition that gave rise to and grew out of the work of Banksy

Style Wars is a great documentary on the New York scene in the early 1980s, though quite a bit has changed since then and it concentrates primarily on the “burgeoning art form” aspect of it and the character of the writers.

By on 11/01/06 at 04:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The problem with the random material is that it’s generally not well documented enough.  The site-specific aspect that you talk about is completely lost.

By on 11/01/06 at 04:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Turk 182!

Cheez, Chris, for a minute there I thought you were fessing up.—BB

By Christopher Hellstrom on 11/02/06 at 12:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This entry is mostly a test to see if I can add pictures to comments without increasing the graphics load on this page. When you click on this link your browser should throw up another window. That window will contain a single photo, a black and white taken underneath the I-78 ramp looking north. The piece in Figure 7 is on the farthest pillar in on the right.

By Bill Benzon on 11/02/06 at 10:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I took this photo inside the railroad tunnel. The triceratops is to the left, underneath the first bridge. The train in Figure 14 is coming out of this tunnel.

By Bill Benzon on 11/02/06 at 10:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich—that’s an impressive archive you’ve got there.

The thing about context is that it’s not just the physical space, but the social use of that space that allows graffiti to happen.

There’s a kind of dichotomy between writers who want credit for doing the best and most elaborate pieces and those who want to be known for getting their name out or doing “ballsy” stuff.

Interesting how two types of people map onto two types of sites, how this dichotomy “follows” from the interaction between the physical and social aspects of urban space.

By Bill Benzon on 11/03/06 at 04:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The thing about context is that it’s not just the physical space, but the social use of that space that allows graffiti to happen.”

I’m not sure if there’s really that much difference.  The good areas for pieces combine large blank walls, accessibility by foot, and relative inaccessibility (or, at least, relatively low use) by car.  So an alley that faces on the backs of commercial buildings is ideal, so is the area under an overpass of some kind.  You can sort of see the social use of the space from its physical configuration.

The last years that I was in L.A. (2001-2002) saw a breakdown of the detente between the two types of people that you mention.  There used to be an informal social convention that you never put something that took less effort on top of something that took more effort—never a tag on top of a piece, say.  L.A. spent more and more money on anti-tagging operations, however (it become a multimillion-dollar business), motivated by anti-gang sentiment.  Eventually the more casual taggers noticed that a tag put on a blank wall would quickly be scrubbed or painted off, while one on top of a mural wouldn’t.  So they started to preferentially tag on top of murals, and the anti-taggers started to just paint the murals over unless they looked official.

That, plus the L.A. sun (which peels paint off surfaces in short order) plus business turnover (when a new business moves in, they repaint the building) made murals and the better pieces surprisingly temporary.  In the case of the triceratops, if it were in L.A. I’d guess that it had been done within the year, due to its glossiness and lack of tags.  You probably could come up with a rough equivalent of carbon dating for a particular area, if you wanted to.

By on 11/03/06 at 05:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich—Judging from what I’ve seen at this site and at one other site, the detente has broken down here too. The triceratops isn’t dated, though other pieces are. I’ve seen dates between 2001 and 2006. I agree with your dating for the triceratops. The paint is glossy and there are no tags over it, though it is clearly painted over something else (you can see older work at the margins, just look at the signature block.

Though we don’t have LA sun here, we have more rain and, of course, snow. One day I was on site it rained and there were some stanchions that got a lot of leakage from the highway above. That explained why some work was very badly peeled. There are nickle and dime sized pock marks on some of the surfaces. A guy I met out there on the rainy day said he saw kids down there shooting a BB gun at the stanchions.

On surfaces where there’s nothing but tagging there’s a battle going on. Other places it looks like crews are claiming a space by outlining it and painting something like “PHONOH is here.” (PHONOH is very active at this site.)

By Bill Benzon on 11/03/06 at 06:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Note that the account I give of “why a triceratops?” isn’t specific to a triceratops. Any large animal would do—horse, ox, buffalo, rhinoceros, elephant, komodo, and so forth—as long as it’s green. That last requirement, however, might explain why the animal chosen was an extinct one. We know what all those others look like, and they don’t have green skin. Because the triceratops is extinct, we don’t really know what color its skin was. While it is unlikely to have been green, the fact of its extinction gives more room to play around. This still doesn’t narrow things down to the triceratops—why not a tyrannosaurus or a stegosaurus—but I’m not sure that that level of specificity is required.

By Bill Benzon on 11/06/06 at 01:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The body of the beast is a word, the name. You just can’t read it yet.

My link below goes to a site with 30,000 or so photos from around the world. Some have more context than others, but I’m sure you’ll find something there that will blow your mind.

By Susan on 11/09/06 at 11:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Another moving underbridge gallery in Atlanta.

By Susan on 11/10/06 at 02:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The body of the beast is a word, the name.

Here’s a straight-on picture of the triceratops (new window). Here’s another mural from what I’m now calling the North Site (the triceratops is in The Cut). Look at the section on the right, which incorporates “MOK” at the lower right. To me that blue work has a feel similar to that in the body of the triceratops, which was signed by “MOK”—though the “O” had three horizontal slashes through it. Now look at the right hand portion of this. Again, an overall X composition like the second example and a curve-linearity similar to that in the body of the triceratops. I didn’t notice a signature for this piece, but I look for one next time I’m on the site.

I’ve visited Art Crimes several times, Susan. A tremendous resource. The Atlanta site is wonderful. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

By Bill Benzon on 11/10/06 at 08:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So much of the work reminds me of psychedelic posters and comics from the ‘60s - the lettering, the “long-nosed green creature” - and that reminds me of Crumb’s love/hate relationship with Disney - could be one of the elephants from Dumbo’s drunken dream.

By on 12/01/06 at 03:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

...could be one of the elephants from Dumbo’s drunken dream.

Except that they were pink, though who knows what happened to them once Sun Ra got through with ‘em.

I think think the psychedelic angle is worth pursuing. An argument’s been made that ancient rock—in caves and on cliffs—is the expression of psychedelic visions. On the surface, it seems plausible to me, though I talked to one expert who said that that hypothesis probably only accounts for 15%—20% of the surviving images. But that’s a decent percentage.

By Bill Benzon on 12/01/06 at 06:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Faro has identified the triceratops as being by one Japan Joe (see second comment). Here’s another, and another, by the Japan Joe. And from my own collection:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ensel/340190255/ TARGET=jj2

By Bill Benzon on 07/26/07 at 07:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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