Polish Hill’s Abstract Art Walks

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Bethoven Street

If Don and Phil Everly are to be believed, a man in Kentucky sure is lucky to lie down in Bowling Green. Well, you can bet your dupa that man, woman, and child sure are lucky to wake up in Polish Hill–its spectacular vistas, its legendary city steps, its cattywumpus streets clinging to the hillside. To this list, you can add one more bonus. The residents of Melwood, Herron, and Brereton get the year-round, open-air, free-admission modern art walks of Bethoven and Finland Streets.

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Finland Street

The works are created and maintained as a joint effort between some number of indefatigable spray paint-weilding taggers and what we imagine is a combination of city D.P.W. “graffiti busters” and concerned citizens taking matters into their own hands. This cat-and-mouse adversarial partnership ensures that every season the palette will shift, the structure will renew, and the layers will be reborn yet again.

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Bethoven Street

The quirkiest thing about these artists is exactly what makes the whole thing work. A graffiti cover-up team could easily just invest in bulk orders of battleship gray exterior primer. End of story. That’s what it’s like along the jail trail, down in “The Run,” and a bunch of other places*. One clean sweep every spring. If so, there’d be one less blogger loitering at the top of the hill.

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Bethoven Street

But it ain’t like that in Polish Hill. Instead, the clean-up crews (whoever they are) seem to use whatever extra paint they just happen to have laying around. I don’t see any green or black in these photos, but just about every other color in the spectrum is represented. The way these layers peel, flake, and erode suggests they may just be using leftover house paint, rather than some heavy-duty, element thwarting, highway-grade pigment.

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Finland Street

Further, the painters use an irregular approach to the graffiti cover. Sometimes roughly squaring off big fields, others targeting individual spots just as needed. The effect is to give the abstraction a loose (if undefined) composition that wouldn’t have been there without the smaller details.

Mark Rothko "Yellow, Cherry, Orange" (1947)

Mark Rothko “Yellow, Cherry, Orange” (1947)

Maybe you have to mentally crop the big retaining wall-sized sections down into more digestible chunks, let the eye focus go a little soft, relax a little bit for it to make sense. But you really don’t have to stretch too far to imagine these pieces sitting side-by-side the great abstract expressionists. I imagine a Hans Hofmann or a Franz Kline or a Mark Rothko being quite pleased to share wall space along Bethoven Street.

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Bethoven Street

* In fairness, the city uses a few different shades of white and gray and some of the results are still interesting…but they’re not like these.

3 thoughts on “Polish Hill’s Abstract Art Walks

  1. Hipstre says:

    This is a great thing you have done. It’s STILL ART. I always find it interesting when anti-graffiti efforts leave a much uglier result. It’s not the graffiti they hate, it’s more like they despise meaning itself. They don’t like being reminded meaning exists, almost. They are trying to eliminate thought. Which is a somewhat noble goal, I guess.

    As an art project, has anyone ever left actual blank canvases out, affixed to something solid in the hope that someone will come along and paint a painting on them?


    • Will says:

      The blank canvases idea would have some tricky practical issues, but it’s interesting. Your various graffiti-doers would probably suggest that wall-sized and wall-shaped blank canvases already exist all over the place!

      The “Street Pianos” project (http://www.streetpianos.com/) is essentially this idea with old junker pianos–just paint them funny colors and leave them out in public places and let people bang on them. I saw one in New York last month (no one was playing it). They’d probably fare a lot better in western dry climates. I imagine an outdoor piano lasting about two months in Pittsburgh precipitation/humidity/temperature swings.

      Liked by 1 person

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