There was a time when giants walked the earth. Abbreviated to just single power words, their names are legend: Zeppelin, Priest, Dokken, Maiden, Krokus, Crüe. Burnouts, D-20 rollers, and teenage hair-farmers alike analyzed Tolkien-meets-toking mysticism, tapped and plucked modal riffage on second-hand battle axes, and armored themselves in a suburban denim-and-studs couture. Umlauts döminated every pössible occasiön. Yes, it was the very best of times.
The penance for an enviable life rich in metal mullets, keg beer consumed by a river, double bass drums, and a perpetual soreness in the neck and ringing in the ears was to pay tribute to one’s idols in the most public, lasting, and respectful way: half-assedly spray-painting their names on dimly-lit concrete walls.
Existing somewhere between the cave paintings at Lascaux and ballpoint etchings committed by high school students into classroom desks and Trapper Keepers, metal/hard rock graffiti occupies a very particular place in modern cultural history.
In the city (at least), we see graffiti everywhere–to the point it becomes a kind of visual white noise, unnoticed for its omnipresence. Every alley, dumpster, and bus shelter is tagged-up; jersey barriers, concrete infrastructure, and the back sides of traffic signs bear a familiar scrawl and riot of puckering stickers. In some places you’ll see elaborate full-color wall-sized tags and in others, pithy sophomoric humor. But nobody–and I mean nobody–ever paints graffiti to praise rock stars–or any other musicians–anymore. You just don’t see it.
Like Stonehenge and Chichen Itzá, these primitive tributes dating from the late Cold War have stood stalwart through the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow. Indeed, twenty, thirty, even forty years on we still see their traces…if you know where to look.
The jean jacket alchemists who spun black vinyl into precious metal blazed the names and iconography of their heroes in the kinds of places teenagers hung out before anyone in the gang had a car and long before the Internet existed. Some of these remain, blessedly untouched by the hands of public works crews with more important things to take care of.
In Pittsburgh city limits, the obvious bridge railings, retaining walls, and industrial fencing has been tagged and painted-over in so many yearly cycles that almost nothing from this halcyon era survives. But dig a little deeper–or climb a little higher–and you can still find the names of goat-throwing deities carved into the handrails of underused city steps, scratched into train trestle underpasses, or spray-painted on stormwater runoff drains. Further afield, the spoils get richer.
This all begs the obvious question, where did it go? Or, more precisely, why did it stop? No, we don’t expect the youth of today to still be into ZZ Top and Deep Purple (we can dream, though!), but kids still like music, right? Why did the act of desecrating public infrastructure in the (literal) name of a favorite musical act simply amount to a two- or three-decade fad, basically gone by the turn of the millennia?
The Orbit has no clear answer for this–not even an educated guess. That said, it’s likely some combination of The Internet, overprotective parents, unlimited and ever-changing entertainment options, and…oh yeah, The Internet again. Why climb down in a culvert with a can of Rust-Oleum for some band no one will care about in six months when you could be Snapchatting with a stranger in Singapore?It’s all probably a good thing for the sake of our public spaces. Here at the Orbit, we report on graffiti when it makes sense, but we’re also not advocating for it. If young people have a deeper respect for our parks and sidewalks, private residences and commercial buildings that’s great…but I don’t really think that’s what’s going on.
With all its great opportunity, something definitely got lost when The Internet came to town. There was a deep connection that many of us had to a small number of artists–saving up weeks of paper route money to buy one record which then got played over and over. That’s no longer a practical necessity when the history of popular music is available right through the phone in your pocket. The opportunity is great; the connection and identification, not so much. Who’s going to risk a misdemeanor for […hold on while I Google the current pop/rock charts…] Ariana Grande or Panic! At the Disco?
[Side note: the irony that as we’re going to press Queen holds 13 of the top 25 “Hot Rock” tracks is not lost on this author.]
Some notes on the photos and dates:
Sadly, The Orbit doesn’t have the proper resources to do the kind of carbon-dating and art preservation that these historical documents clearly deserve. That said, we consulted the expertise of metal scholars Dave Bjorkback, Ben Blanchard, and Lee Floyd in the course of reporting this story. We are indebted to their lifetime of study.
- We don’t know for sure that the rendering of the Union Jack (above, top) was in fact a tribute to Def Leppard, but they were the U.K. band who flew…err, sat on the British flag most prominently during this, their prime “ten-arm” Pyromania/Hysteria era–so it’s a reasonable guess.
- The 1980s were way past Deep Purple’s early-’70s creative peak, but given the proximity to other specimens in New Brighton’s Big Rock Park [yes: that’s really the name of the place where this–and others–were found], we believe this is a more accurate estimate.
- Faster Pussycat was an also-ran in the Sunset Strip hair metal scene of the late-1980s. The band was named after a Russ Meyer film, however, and the cryptic hobo tag on this boxcar (below) doesn’t really give us any clue as to what the writer was after. It’s still worth a mention.