Friday, September 05, 2008

Graffiti as Information, Listless Tourists and Midnight Tour Guides, & How Hip-Hop Ain't Noise Pollution

OXFORD, Ohio (ZP) -- He tags, therefore he is. It's a simple enough concept.

One has to respect the simplicity of the youthful anarchist creator and the often intentionally meaningless art he or she creates, the minimalist drive of the guerrilla artist, of his permanent markers and spray paint.

And sure, it's a criminal act in most parts of the world. Hell, if caught, the kid's going to end up either painting over his work per a judge's order or paying hefty fines to the building's owner. And, sure, if I were the owner of the building I'd be beyond pissed.

Actually, if I owned the building I'd give the guy the whole wall, give him a canvas and commission a mural. There's not enough public art in this town. What is available is the usual tepid Midwestern city sculpture or the sanitized public work designed to promote tourism more than conversation.

But he tags, therefore he is.

* * * *

He's got no money for prepped canvas or studio space, barely enough money for food and clothing and rent. And his work may not be protected speech, may not even be considered legal speech, but it is expression nonetheless, his voice in vivid pigment, amongst the white noise and red bricks.

And he's not tagging the town with the territorial pissings of wannabe gangsters and DVD rental hoodlums - those works of vandalism are mostly done by poor rural kids who listened to one too many songs about Detroit's Eight Mile, heard one too many stories from older siblings about how, sure, everybody in prison, like, adopts this symbol or that symbol as a benchmark of aggression.

If he's caught, yes, he knows he'll be blamed for those acts, too. He tags, therefore he is. But even the most simple of purposes can become a complex mess of legalese and regulation and investigation.

And quite frankly, as long as his work stays off of my property, doesn't damage the finishes of my library's facilities, well, I'm quite content to just let him write what he wants, paint what he wants, tag what he wants. Then, and only then, would his works be in direct conflict with my work.

I don't think he's the kinda guy who'd vandalize a library. Reads too much.

Where do ya think taggers get some of their ideas for designs, anyway? The goddamn post office? When was the last time you saw somebody at that newsstand or convenience store, studying someone's work in a magazine or book at leisure, without being pestered to buy shit?

The rebellious nature of the guerrilla artist has always held public temples of individual learning as sacred space, a different sort of vandalism of word and bibliometric organization amongst the billions of print and electronic systems.

Libraries tag the world in different ways, with data-fueled, web-based MARC record aggregators or with call numbers along book spines, with Due Date stamps and bar codes on patron I.D. cards.

Therefore they are, too. They just are. Simple as that.

- MORE -

UPTOWN OXFORD (ZP) -- This town is not what she expected.

Young women dress in cocktail dresses to binge drink in the most disgusting bars. The older, more experienced undergrads dress in jeans and ballet shoes and halter tops when they're out on the town. The bar scene here is almost completely devoid of grad students, locals, or even younger faculty as the clock ticks closer towards last call.

There's no good live music scene here in Oxford Fucking Ohio, no real sense of anything cutting-edge and modern coming from within any place with a stage. She's been to two coffee shops and has yet to see a kid pouring his heart out at a poetry reading, yet to hear even one sappy acoustic ballad about getting dumped in high school or about wanting fame or even about global warming.

No indie bookstores, no record stores, no used clothing stores. Mostly just sandwich shops, bars, tanning salons, and overpriced yuppie boutiques.

"You guys must have one hell of a suicide rate," she says in between sips of her beer. "I'd go fucking crazy if I went to school here. So...ugh... whitebread."

Actually, whitebread is an understatement, I explain. This here college town is home to one of the least diverse state-supported universities in the United States, a mere 35 miles northwest of Cincinnati, a city where almost half the population isn't anywhere near white, much less whitebread.

* * * *

She drove all the way up here to the Edge of Midwestern Academia's Nowhere to watch a woman she grew up with compete in her first game as a college athlete, her younger sister's best friend. Having friendly faces in the bleachers was supposed to help take the edge off.

And they were all supposed to hang out together after the action left the field, chill and goof off and have a blast in a college town that was once renowned for its nightlife, hang out like they did in high school.

Alas, the best laid plans of mice and college girls on road trips...

Sure, I tell her, Oxford was once sorta renowned as a hip college town, back in the 1970s and 1980s, back when the town was making cameos in Rain Man, its long-gone radio station playing tunes in the background as Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise bickered about K-Marts in Cincinnati.

But in the naked now of 2008...

I didn't have to finish my thought. The rolling of her eyes was enough to convince me that, yeah, she'd figured that part out. Instead of partying away a long holiday weekend, her kid sister and the childhood friend were back in a hotel room, playing cards, while she was sitting in a preppy undergrad dive chatting away with some strange guy who'd given her his number the day before.

A local. Someone not a student. Someone who's, well...

You know.

* * * *

"No shit? You're a librarian? My aunt's a librarian."


"But you're, what, 22? 23?"

"Um, little older."

"Nuh-uh. No way you're older than I am."

"Huh." I pull out the ol' driver's license, along with a business card, lean into her. "Look at that. A 30-year-old librarian. How'd THAT fucking happen?"

She laughs and grabs my arm, kills her shitty warm beer.

"NOW... you're gonna be MY librarian and give ME that tour of ____ University of... fucking Ohio, or what? Let's bail before I puke..."

Seriously. She dragged me out of a shitty bar at two in the morning on a Sunday to give a walking tour of this fine city. And a tour of Oxford Fucking Ohio, during the school year is better than any museum in town. Complete shitshow most weekends, an orgy of stupidity, a grindhouse version of every college experience cliche.

Think Wild Kingdom meets Girls Gone Wild, with the bad guys in the Revenge of the Nerds movies thrown in, just for shits and giggles.

* * * *

Apparently, I'm a fairly decent tour guide. She had no clue why she called me, why she suddenly had some burning desire to not drink by herself, why she suddenly wanted company and a tour.

At least, well, that's what she told me in the morning.

- MORE -

OXFORD, Ohio (ZP) -- Biggie Smalls. The Notorious B.I.G. Also known as Christopher Wallace.

You know. The guy who used to love it when you called him Big Poppa, before he was assassinated (fuck that murder shit, the man, like Tupac Shakur in 1996, was ASSASSINATED) in Los Angeles a mere fifty yards from Petersen Automotive Museum back in March 1997.

And this kid, a self-described expert on Rock & Roll History at all of eighteen, doesn't get the reference. In fact, he's indignant about it - lots of rappers get shot, right? And he was only, like, seven when some drug dealer got shot.

I try explaining the rapper's unsolved death, the tragic feud between what was then known as East Coast and West Coast Hip-Hop, its place in Rock history, but he puts a palm in my face.

"Man, who cares about rap! I'm talking about Rock & Roll! Nobody'll remember that black shit in another 20 years."

Nobody will remember hip-hop in another two decades? That black shit?

* * * *

You know, rock snobs, mostly of the Caucasian Persuasion, have been claiming such things for three decades, since the days of DJ Kool Herc and Melle Mel and Grandmaster Flash and the Sugar Hill Gang.

When Blondie first introduced the hip-hop sound to a supposedly white rock world, with the rap-inspired "Rapture" in 1981, that wasn't important - just a phase, those critics said. And in 1984, when Afrika Bambaataa teamed up with legendary rock bassist Bill Laswell and former Sex Pistol Johnny "Rotten" Lydon, they said that wasn't rock & roll - it was, as the song suggested, World Destruction.

And in 1986, when Run-DMC's Jam Master Jay first dropped Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" onto a turntable, when the drum loops were added and the lyrics of a rock staple were rapped instead of howled, that wasn't rock, either. I mean, it's not like a bunch of, ugh, rappers saved Aerosmith's career or anything. A flash in the pan, those critics claimed.

When Anthrax and Public Enemy teamed up to Bring Tha Noize in the 1990s, when rapper Ice-T incited the wrath of the White Motherfucking House because of a heavy metal song, back when bands like 2 Live Crew won battles against artistic censorship in Florida that even the great Jim Morrison couldn't...

* * * *

Nope. Everybody's just going to forget about hip-hop. And that black shit.

I mean, it's not like anybody remembers Chuck Berry, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Bad Brains, the Motown Sound, Bootsy Collins, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Bo Diddley...

... Sly Stone, Michael Jackson, Lenny Kravitz, Ben Harper, OutKast, Gnarls Barkley...

I mean, nobody remembers those guys, either.



And the 18-year-old rock critic? Dude was wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt.

Reggae? Nah, probably not Rock & Roll, either.

- # # #-


Chachball McCormick said...

Hi Jason! Finally figured out this comment thing. blogger's weird.

so haha the chick you were with when you walked by me at brick street huh? Okay forgive you for not saying hi. Whoa. Very nice on the eyes to say the least.

man, librarians in this town get the hot girls. that sucks.

pia said...

Jason--your writing--it leaves me breathless and wanting more

My sister was into hip hop when she was 30. Now her fourteen year old daughter is

Personally I do prefer Motown, Marvin Gaye Ben Harper etc bu that's just me

Anonymous said...

I think your "rock historian" needs to learn about something called "The Harlem Renaissance" and a little thing I've heard called "jazz." Or is he one of those that actually thinks Elvis played rock music? (For the record, he played blues, gospel, and country, just so you know I'm not talking out my ass.)

I have to wonder . . . was the mural art of the Mexican Revolution illegal? It was mostly graffiti, but with brushes and more than a few moments to get it done instead of spraypaint and a hope that those lights down there aren't cops.