I am not a fan. Why? The mural says nothing, absolutely nothing, it is nothing but empty hype–but let me back up for a minute.
I like murals. I like street art. I like public art. I even like obnoxious ugly narcissistic tags
with nothing but the writer’s name because those sing to me I AM // I EXIST // YOU DON’T SEE ME BUT I MATTER TOO. And my standards for street art take into account that the artist is working quickly, often under cover of darkness with only one free hand while standing on a narrow ledge–it does not have to be expertly executed (though that doesn’t hurt).
That said, let’s start with the words. Let’s start with the fact that the “y” in “tasty” is a fork. Seriously? What grade are we in again? Are we finger-painting utensils, now?
When I was in pre-school we used chocolate pudding to finger-paint a mimeograph of a groundhog and we got to eat the pudding. There was pudding all over the place, all over kids’ faces and the classroom, it was delicious. This mural makes me want to finger-paint a fork, except that doesn’t make sense because you can’t eat pudding with a fork. (You can, however, poke your eyes out with a fork. Subliminal message?) You know what else doesn’t make sense? Grown-ass people making a fork out of the “y” on the end of “tasty” in an international ad campaign that’s posta make our city look grown.
Frankly, I don’t know how to organize my thoughts around this one. I read those words and I wonder how they might have been represented visually, in a way that rings true for Houston. How is Houston “funky?” Show me that. How is Houston “hip?” Show me that, please. And what the fuck does “savvy” mean, anyway? How is a city “savvy?” Why isn’t the “y” in “savvy” a cute little spork? Could it be because of the glaring contradiction between the meaning of “savvy” and turning a letter of the alphabet into a cutesy utensil, or did somebody run out of pudding?
Last summer, two of my good friends, Chris Benfield and Russel Howze
, made a mural for a new Whole Foods location in San Francisco. They did a ton of research on native flora and fauna, both living and extinct, and even looked at drawings of the Bay Area’s prehistoric topography. Here are some images of that mural–it’s hard to get a wide shot because the mural wraps around a narrow hallway before going down stairs, but here are a ton of detail shots (they get bigger if you click on them):
You see what I’m saying? That mural is tied to a place. It says something about the past AND the present of that place, which makes the viewer think of what the future might bring and how present choices will impact that possible future.
What do you get from curlicues and a kindergartner’s skyline with some decontextualized words?
Nothing. That’s what you get. Nothing. Just more vapid advertising for an unidentified product.
A few weeks ago I found myself in Venice Beach, California. Have you seen Rip Cronk’s famous mural near the Venice Boardwalk? It’s called “Venice Kinesis” and it references the artist’s own previous mural, “Venice on the Half Shell,” which in turn references Boticelli’s famous “Venus on the Half Shell.”
Apart from referencing a classic work of art, this mural depicts so much of what makes Venice unique and vibrant. There’s a flying dumbell to represent muscle beach, bongos, a surfer, sea gulls, a gondolier, people strolling on the beach, local eccentrics, California poppies, and Venus as a roller girl.
Now scroll back up to the mural called “Houston is…” The one with the random words: inspired, hip, tasty, funky, savvy. The one that stands at Market Square, near the convergence of Buffalo and White Oak Bayous, right above Houston’s birthplace at Allen’s Landing and the place where the Houston Police Department beat Jose Campos Torres to death before dumping his body in the bayou, yet makes NO REFERENCE TO ANYTHING TANGIBLE in favor of some abstract curlicues and a “y” shaped like a fork. Are you shaking your head yet? Are you knitting your brow? If not, please check your pulse immediately, like now, seriously.
I first caught wind of this mural on Facebook, where it was garnering a lot of unwarranted praise. This was on a day when another national blog had made a post where Houston was in the top ten among cities for something desirable. Cheap hype just grates my nerves, whether it’s coming from a faraway blogger who’s trying to be “edgy” by putting Houston above Austin on some stupid top 10 list or it’s the Houston Convention Bureau, itself.
I don’t think that blowing smoke up people’s asses is doing them a favor–in fact, I think it’s doing them a disservice. The reason why Houston has stupid curlicues on its
mural instead of icons and scenes that are familiar to us all is because Houston doesn’t have a public life
. No amount of hype is going to change that–that requires a public policy that prioritizes public spaces, and that requires a culture which values public space in the first place.
We don’t have that. Nor do we have a critical eye, apparently. But we are “inspired” and “hip” and “tasty” and “funky” and “savvy.” Oooookkkkkkkk.
When I went to take photos of this mural I ran into a family from Austin who were likewise snapping photos. It was a woman, a man, and their two children–a girl and a boy. They were pretty nice and said they like the colors. Fair enough.
Later that night I wound up talking about it again at the nearby Clutch City Squire
bar. I met a man there who keeps an office nearby, and he was a huge fan of the mural, too. Go figure. Again, he said he likes the colors and that “it’s better than what was there before” (which was a mural of produce). Ok.
Wait, before I go on, I want to share some photos of my favorite mural in the world. It’s the mural that covers two walls of The Women’s Building in San Francisco. I don’t have any images of my own to share with you, but you can find images here
, and here
But back to this HOU mural. I saw heaps of unchecked praise being piled on it and it made me think that either a) the people who were congratulating the artist were being insincere, or b) the people who were congratulating the artist have no idea what a good mural really looks like–because that is not a mural that warrants praise–it is, at best, filler.
So I wrote the artist an email hoping to get some answers. Below are the questions I posed:
- Do you see yourself working in any particular mural tradition? I have spent a lot of time on the West Coast, so I have seen a ton of “political” murals in what I would call a “Latin American” or “Xican@” style, for lack of a better word. I have seen a ton of graffiti all over the world, too. I lived in New York City for five years. I have seen Diego Rivera’s work in Mexico, San Francisco, and Detroit–I’d call those “labor murals,” again, for lack of a better word. Which school of muraling does this mural belong to, from your point of view?
- Who are some of your influences? How does this work compare to theirs?
- Was this commissioned? Who commissioned it?
- How did you decide on the imagery and text? Did that come from your funders or did you have a part in that decision-making?
- What do the words “Inspired,” “Hip,” “Tasty,” “Funky,” and “Savvy” mean to you? [In retrospect, I would add, "How might those words be represented visually?"]
- Do the patterns/lines/colors come from any particular school? Do they have any meaning? For example–what do the stars represent? Why the sun?
My email was dated April 10. As of May 14, I have seen no reply. In the meantime, I have rediscovered this mural, on the side of the Midtown Art Center on Holman @ La Branch.
I believe that one is by Floyd Newsum and I’ve always thought the lady who’s face is depicted is supposed to be Emma Goldman, but I’m just guessing on both counts. In any case, THAT is a good mural to represent Houston. Why? It depicts the nearby freeway (288) that rent this neighborhood in two! And we ALL know that the freeways are simultaneously the most beautiful yet ugly features of this sprawling metropolis. Where do you go to catch a killer view of the skyline like in the HOU mural? To a freeway overpass, where else?
Going back to that nothing mural and the the random words and this whole vapid “Houston is Inspired!” campaign…I hate to quote Margaret Thatcher (this hurts me more than it hurts you), but as Maggie once said, “Power [or "inspiration" or "savviness" or whathaveyou] is like being a lady; if you have to say you are, you aren’t” (emphasis mine).
So settle down and take a deep breath, Houston, then take a cue from South Dakota. If your self-worth is contingent on what national bloggers are writing about you, you are looking for inspiration in all the wrong funky places.