Sunday, September 22, 2013

New Friends and Old Friends

So here I was venturing through Chinatown to North Beach  to see a friend playing in a band at the Old Saloon Bar on Grant Street. My brisk walk through the Stockton Tunnel enabled me to savor the air of an early Saturday evening at dusk. The hustle and bustle of Chinatown was quietly going to sleep as Columbus Street in North Beach was just awakening from its daytime slumber. The street markets slowly dismantled and merchandized wheeled off in crates for the night as darkness fell over Chinatown. I could avoid the the usually slow pace of dawdling tourists and local last minute shoppers by joining the not much faster traffic in the road to continue my walk unheeded to The Saloon.

A couple of blocks from my destination on Grant Street, I stumbled upon an old music store. Curiously, I had passed this store many times before, but it only caught my eye this evening. Vinyl records in boxes were on display outside and in the light-filled windows gleamed instruments of old: saxophones, bongos, drums, speakers, turntables, keyboards, amplifiers and bass guitars filled the store and windows in a display what can only be described as an Aladdin's cave for musician buffs. I paused for a moment and browsed through the old boxes of albums of yesteryear. Memories of old times flooded back of a time when I possessed some of those old vinyls. Album shopping used to be a regular weekend treat; not from old shops like this, but bright busy mega-stores like HMV and Virgin Records. One could never miss these old mega stores with music blaring inside and outside of the store. I moved over to a box of old posters that formed  testimony to San Francisco's musical past of the 60s, and 70s. A voice over my shoulder exclaimed, "Oh I remember those too...!" A somewhat shabby, but not unclean man peered down over my shoulder as I flipped through the posters. As we chatted about music and the store, it emerged we were the same age... But to me, he sounded like a throw back to the late fifties, or very early sixties..., "You should take a look inside, man. You'll trip out!" I replied, "I sure will..." In a brief moment, we were completely equal on a narrow level based solely on a love for music. But economics, and happenstance saw to it that we were far from that. I felt mildly guilty that I had a bed to sleep in and had to explain that I had no change... And for once, I really didn't have any change. Awkwardly, we parted company...

I continued browsing through the posters of old artists and concert announcements of Santana Live at the Fillmore and many other artists. Another voice arose, "Where 're you from then...? Sorry, but I heard you chatting while I was inside and just had to find out where you were from." Oh, I replied, "London, Walthamstow." He was clearly an Essex-boy. I knew that because he sounded exactly like my dear friend Nick from Essex who lost his life a couple of years ago. I was friends with Nick for close to twenty years. Nick played the saxophone years earlier and would have loved this store. The man I started chatting with outside the store even had the cheeky wry grin that Nick possessed. I immediately felt a rapport and familiarity that raised a smile in me. It was that depth and warmth that I felt whenever I saw Nick and shared many a pint with in a London bar -- a depth and warmth that I'd missed. I found myself hurriedly asking him if he lived in San Francisco now, "No, Luv, just visiting and passing through and buying up this store!" My heart momentarily sank as he got in his car and drove off... "Nick" was gone again once more...

I ambled on to the Saloon to meet my relatively new friends, but for some reason, I just could not bring myself to the present. I stared down at the dancing feet, but was still back in a London bar with Nick and other old friends from the past. And I wondered; is the past always present? Memories of the past are always present... And with that thought, my brief moment of melancholia vanished. I joined the dancing feet and embraced my moment of memories and again became present in the moment.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Writing Graffiti

Graffiti is the modern day cave drawing forever changing form and color as slates are wiped clean with a new coat of paint.  Walls of the past form the canvas of the new. The spray can transforms into the artist's brush.

Graffiti is the poor person's post-modern art and expression. The graffiti artist clandestinely enters where nobody else dares. They venture towards high places: not in status, but scale scaffolding and delve deep into the guts of abandoned buildings to express their creativity. The work of a graffiti artist is frowned upon by a society grounded in convention unless it's commissioned. Commissioned work loses the rough edge which is the appeal of graffiti. However, that does not remove the quality and creativity of commissioned work. Commissioned work has transformed stark gang-tagged neighborhoods to colorful  urban art galleries. Graffiti is supposed to be subversive and underground which gives it that edge. Unlike music, paintings, or words in a novel, play or book, the work is often temporary. Graffiti is a subculture that bucks the system by purposefully deviating from the norm.

My admiration of graffiti started four years ago in the Marin Headlands after a visit to Hill 88; an abandoned military site emblazoned with color and bright images juxtaposed by green hills, the ocean, and wind wailing through the concrete abandoned barracks of yesteryear. I recently returned to admire the work that I had  photographed four years ago and to see what else the graffiti artists had added to the abandoned walls that formed the open air canvas.  Alas! All of the work I'd photographed four years ago was gone. A blank wall stared back at me. It's blankness screeched conformity:  dull, colorless, and uneventful. No beginning or end.

I felt glad that I had captured the colorful spectacles years before and the work continues to exists on a photo sharing site and various other social networking sites like Google+ . I realized that I had unwittingly preserved the work of a few for many. I wish the artists knew.

I like to think of myself as a curator for the disenfranchised artists who are often seen as vandals for their often illegal, but creative work. To follow in their footsteps tracking their work by venturing inside forbidden places is both thrilling and engaging. Within the bowls of abandoned bunkers, cracks of sunlight  illuminate the art work like track lighting in a museum of modern art. In the starkness of abandonment, there is detail. In the darkness of it all, there is light. In the shallowness of the words, there is depth and color. In the desolation of it all, there is company. Graffiti is the life after death of abandoned walls.

On one wall, a graffiti artist declares, "Everything was beautiful ...And nothing hurt." I wondered what the author of those words meant? Was it a psychedelic drug experience filled with color and beauty like no other view or masterpiece? Were the author of those words making a sarcastic commentary on armed combat?

Another author warns, "Swipe your life away..." Those words resonated with me. Lives are swiped away constantly by the hand of meaningless toil, stuff, and sometimes tragedy; just like the paintbrush that swipes away the work of a graffiti artist. Lives are swiped away by not stopping and seeing the writing on the wall. The graffiti of life needs to be read. Stop and look at the color, the detail, the depth of the words, and a thought for the people behind the words. Like the words and work of a graffiti artist, a life won't be there forever. Block the hand of meaningless mundane toil that swipes your life away. Pause... See the detail that no one else dares to see, go to places others do not dare to tread, and embrace those moments. 

Everything will be beautiful and nothing will hurt.

Swipe Your Life Away - Hill 88 Marin Headlands 2013
What did the author mean?