Let’s Get Small: Big Ideas, Tiny Doors

tiny candy shop by Anne Mundell

If you arrived in Pittsburgh in the 1980s or ’90s, the narrow storefront at the corner of Liberty Ave. and Tito Way (neé 8th Street) held a second downtown outpost of The Original Oyster House. Such was the popularity of their fried fish sandwich, breaded oysters, and buttermilk chaser that the business could sustain multiple restaurants mere blocks from each other. The Oyster House left Liberty Ave. some time in the early oughts; the space is a Crazy Mocha coffee shop today.

A generation earlier, 801 Liberty Ave. was a sweets shop. The Internet offers very little information on Dimling’s Candy, but it appears the local company was big enough in the 1950s to purchase competitor Reymer Brothers[1], whose massive 1906 Romanesque factory building still stands Uptown. A ghost sign in the back alley, complete with the “It’s Fresher” tag line, shows us that the Liberty and 8th retail space previously held one of Dimling’s stores. The company was out of business by 1969. Candyrama, the multi-location heir to the downtown sugar market, is gone now too. Sigh.

All that said, for a very limited time you can relive the magic as a little–and I mean tiny–candy shop has opened its single door right on the backside of the former Dimling’s space, directly under the old painted sign. Technicolor lollipops and psychedelic swirling goodies are literally spilling out of the entrance, down the steps, and into the street below. They’re yours to enjoy … just don’t handle the merchandise.

in context: ghost sign for former Dimling’s Candy Shop with Anne Mundell’s tiny candy shop door at bottom right

“My door is a tribute to the different kinds of candy, real and metaphorical, that have passed through that alley,” writes Anne Mundell, CMU Professor of Scenic Design and the artist who created the candy shop for Tiny Doors PGH.

“There’s also a tribute to the theater and to how all things coexist on that corner. The candy spilling out hopefully suggests that the whole building behind it is filled with candy and we’re only seeing a tiny corner of it. The rats making off with candy are there to imply a darker side.”[2]

Mundell’s little candy shop is one of three “tiny doors” created for this year’s Three Rivers Arts Festival in cooperation with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust (on whose property all three doors are attached). The others, created by artists Sarah Zeffiro and Sasha Schwartz, are just around the corner at the Trust Arts Education Center (805-807 Liberty Ave.) and on the Theater Square Parking Garage (655 Penn Ave.).

“Pittsburgh is Color” technicolor dream door by Sarah Zeffiro, Liberty Ave.

Tiny Doors PGH was conceived by Stephen Santa; this is its first installation. “I come from a theater background as I’m a theater director. I’ve always been obsessed with the set models that designers create for me,” writes Santa, “It’s like being a kid again, moving the small parts around in the model. I also love playing with scale and this project does just that.”

“There is a tiny door revolution happening as many doors are popping up in cities around the country, most notably in Atlanta. I saw the success these doors were having in other cities and being born and raised in Pittsburgh, I’m always brainstorming ways to make our city a better place, and I knew this project could bring happiness and curiosity to our residents. I pitched the idea to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, they loved it and were on board.”

tiny house entrance by Sasha Schwartz, Penn Ave.

The tiny doors are a great project satisfying all manner of urbano-curiosa: art and architecture, history and exploration, humor and little things. Longtime Orbit readers know we also love an egg hunt. Our only greedy wish is that Santa had been able to sign up another dozen artists for more doors.[3]

Whether or not we’d have gotten all of Anne Mundell’s references to ghosts of the theater, the evolution of downtown Pittsburgh, and Liberty Avenue’s red light past is questionable. But if a piece of public art can make you stop in your tracks, get down on your knees, and squint through a tiny window door into a (literal) candy-colored dreamscape, someone’s doing something right.

The three tiny doors will be up through the end of July; get yourself down there to see them while you can.


[1] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reymer_Brothers_Candy_Factory
[2] That darker side is legit: by the time we got there, it seems someone had already made off with the rats. A subsequent report is that the door itself was stolen. This is why we can’t have tiny things!
[3] He wants to! Per Santa: “I’m certainly open to people, businesses, or artists reaching out with their concepts or location ideas for doors. To connect please write to me on Instagram @tinydoorspgh.”

Going Postal: The Cap Man Returneth

Cap Man #13, East Liberty

It’s all there: the non-plussed selfie stare, the upturned ball cap, the all-contrast Sharpie-on-postal label execution. Super fans already know where this is going, but for everyone else, these are the tell-tale traits and hallmark style of one of the city’s more mysterious and elusive serial street artists.

Cap Man #14, Friendship [photo: Lee Floyd]

When last we reported on the mysterious Cap Man, in the fall of 2017, it was with the strong accusation that “he’s likely left Pittsburgh entirely.” That may have been true–the backsides of the East End’s street signage and utility poles remained remarkably free of the behatted one’s visage through all of last year.

Well, he’s back, emerging some time in the late winter/early spring–slapping his little original sticker artworks on city infrastructure throughout a contiguous swath of East Liberty, Friendship, and Bloomfield. And this time…well, he’s fooling around just as much as he ever did.

Cap Man #15, Bloomfield

One of the assumptions made in prior stories was that Cap Man (the artist) was the author of both the Cap Man (the subject) (self) portraits and the similarly-styled “rogue’s gallery” drawings of (in)famous celebrities, media notables, and true crime figures.

This theory is only bolstered by the simultaneous re-emergence of these types of drawings, inevitably committed by the same hand and distributed within the same vicinity as the Cap Man portraits. This time around, we can only positively ID slain rapper The Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls, who arrived on a Bloomfield utility pole some time in the late winter or early spring. The recent offerings also include a dripping skull, a message of peace and love, and a couple renditions of one “Fro Bro.”

The Mysterious C.A.P. meets The Notorious B.I.G., Bloomfield

Bloomfield

Peace, Love, and a bunch of other stuff, Bloomfield

Fro Bro 1, East Liberty

Fro Bro 2, East Liberty

Finally, a legit street art miracle. Co-assistant to the mail room intern Lee Floyd spotted this loose, perhaps unfinished, drawing of a young woman on a Liberty Ave. pole after we’d snuck in one last Lenten fish fry on Good Friday. (See below.)

The figure’s head is turned to the right, her long hair unruly and wind-blown across her face. One eye is obscured, but the other stares with steely unease right back at you. It ain’t the Mona Lisa, but as much could be supposed on that head position, that glare as anything people read into Da Vinci’s masterpiece.

unknown woman, Bloomfield [photo: Lee Floyd]

So, imagine our surprise when mere days later the crew is on a rainy day stroll down Baum Blvd.–nearly a mile from the original light pole–and there she is again. Divorced from the steel pole and lying on a soaking wet sidewalk is … the same woman! Not just the same subject, but the same drawing!

unknown woman, East Liberty [photo: Lee Floyd]

Now, how that sticker came off one light pole completely undamaged and worked it’s way a mile down the road just to find the only two pair of people in the world who would care about it is something we have no explanation for–but it’s a doggone miracle!

If that’s not enough positive juju, coincidental mojo, and lightening striking twice for you, I don’t know what is. Most people have to steal their parent’s HBO password to get that kind of drama, but Cap Man is offering it to you for free, right here on the street.


Background on the continuing saga of Cap Man:

Art Walk: The Pipe Cleaner Fern Frames of Lawrenceville

pipe cleaner fern frame

Consider it a wild weekend with woebegone weeds or First Fridays for forgotten ferns. Heck, this may even qualify as the Make a Wish Foundation for misunderstood moss. Whatever you call it, there’s a new street-level contemporary art walk on exhibit now–for what may be a very limited run–in Central Lawrenceville.

pipe cleaner fern and moss frame

Someone has taken the fascinating step of constructing simple colorful rectangular frames from mismatched pipe cleaners and attached them to an old stone retaining wall along 45th Street, bordering St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery.

Their placement on the soot-blackened stones is no haphazard act of vandalism or careless littering–no, they’ve been very precisely curated to frame and highlight the kind of the minute nature dioramas that appear around us everywhere, all the time, but usually go unnoticed. In lieu of anything more witty, we’re calling these fern frames.

popsicle stick fern frame

Nature is an absolutely amazing thing–and one that we can reasonably trust to outlive and survive the appetite-for-extinction behavior of the human race. In every sidewalk crack, a burst of life; on each block of pavement, itty-bitty creatures scurrying around, just doing their thing. And yes, in the thin vertical spaces between wall stones and mortar joints there exist tiny blasts of green in the form of soft fuzzy moss, delicate miniature weeds, the spindly leaves of little ferns.

pipe cleaner moss frame

We have no idea what motivated the person or persons responsible to construct and place the fern frames–they come with neither attribution nor artist statement. So we’re left to speculate on what’s going on with these simple displays. Are they a goofy stunt with leftover crafting materials? Psychological experiment? Candid Camera-style prank where The Orbit is the butt of the joke?

Anything’s possible, but to the imaginative mind what these little pieces seem to say echoes Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s famous couplet I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree. You can put a lot of effort into painting a picture, singing a song, or–gulp–writing a blog post, but you’re not going to top Mother Nature. Look around! Keep those peepers open! The world is a wonderful and mystifying place.

It can be really hard given the news of the day–you name the day–and, yes, people have all kinds of heaviness they’re dealing with. But what these little fern frames seem to say is, don’t just stop and smell the roses–those sell-outs already get enough attention!–put your schnoz right down in between the cracks in the sidewalk and up against the stones in the wall. There is so much beauty all around us, but sometimes it takes an anonymous stranger with a couple pipe cleaners to point it out to us.

pipe cleaner weed and moss frame

Art All Night 2019: A Roundup with Reflections on 22

artists from Creative Citizens Studios, “Pittsburgh,” (detail) mixed media

There she is: perhaps the most famous character the Brothers Grimm brought to world. Most of us came to her doe-eyed, perfectly-behaved acquaintance care of Walt Disney Studio’s classic animated film.

Only here the princess is no angel. She’s accessorized in rock-and-roll sunglasses and huffing a cloud of gray smoke through a makeshift pipe. It’s a scene that would leave Cheech and/or Chong gasping for fresh air. The crudely-painted artwork is titled Snow White Smoking Weed from an Apple.

lildoodoobutt, “Snow White Smoking Weed from an Apple”

Through the years, we’ve seen Art All Night grow up. We were there when the very literal all-night, anything-goes community event masquerading as art show learned to crawl, built its first set of plywood S panels, and went from a four-month planning cycle to an incredibly-efficient four-week execution. [Full disclosure: this author was neck-deep in volunteering for Art All Night for at least ten years; this year he just pulled a late-night, keep-your-eyes-open shift.]

So it is with strange comfort that we see this onetime oddball event grow up to be the same kind of goofball grass-roots institution we might have hoped for. The longevity of this all-volunteer event–last weekend was its 22nd yearly happening–and the continued commitment to no jury / no fee / no censorship is about as resolutely pure and accurate as one could hope from an organizational constitution.

Paul Feight, “4 Nudes Walking with Koi fish,” acrylic on canvas

Alexander Sands, “Diablo Blanco,” acrylic on canvas

There are a few other nos we could tack onto the Art All Night credo: no curation, no restraint, and no questions asked. These are, of course, 100% in the spirit of the event and give it a great I don’t need your rulesstick it to the man vibe–but that can present its own set of challenges for both participant and spectator.

Like being the introvert at a raucous New Year’s Eve gala or a vegetarian at a pig roast, the more subtle artworks are absolutely invited and welcome to be there, but may have a hard time feeling like they came to the right party.

Petey Miceli, “The Red Death,” acrylic on canvas

Exhibition at Art All Night favors big and loud, jokey and profane–that’s just the reality of an environment where the hanging is a shotgun blast of random collisions on dull fiberboard. There’s no way a sensitive portrait in graphite, delicate fabric embroidery, or miniature collage can compete side-to-side with a painting like The Red Death (above). That three-foot acrylic-on-canvas fantasy by artist Petey Miceli stars a giant demon-creature in flowing red cloak walking through turbulent seas with an enormous coffin under his arm.

Steven Walker, untitled, mixed media

Steven Walker’s untitled mixed media (self?) portrait of a young man staring straight back at the viewer (above) features actual barbed wire looped around the painting and a molded plastic eyeball exploding through the canvas in a gruesome bloody mess. It’s a lot to take in.

Ditto that for Universally fucked (below)–a kind of stoned joke come to life in the form of an orgasmic scary clown rogering a duck against a backdrop of the swirling psychedelic cosmos. There are elements of Jeannine Weber’s pen/pencil/acrylic artwork that I like–but I’m not going to hang this in the living room.

Jeannine Weber, “Universally fucked,” pencil/pen/acrylic

Kailee Greb, untitled (detail)

Kathie Hollingshead’s Peep All Night (below) takes the created-for-the-occasion approach to a whole new level. As one of the organizers of the event, her insiders-view recreation of Art All Night in miniature–with leftover Easter peeps standing in for attendees and volunteers–is a kind of meta joke-within-a-joke that blew this blogger’s already fragile noggin.

The piece–complete with faithful models of the plywood exhibition panels in cardboard and popsicle sticks–has so many great nods to Art All Nights past that we really have to salute this as some kind of high-water mark in art history. The tiny Etch-a-Sketch? The little Three Sisters bridge photo? Portraits of peeps? If you’ve been to Art All Night–any Art All Night–you’ll recognize these tropes. That’s it, man–game over.

Kathie Hollingshead, “Peep All Night,” mixed media

There’s long been a debate in Art All Night’s inner circles as to whether the work of younger artists should be segregated into a safe zone. The proponents argue that this way junior’s finger painting doesn’t end up hanging next to something really offensive; those opposed feel like it puts the kids in the often looked-over ghetto of “children’s art.”

Personally, I love to be surprised when the piece that pops out from a full panel has Age: 14 (or whatever) on the info tag. But I’m not a parent and don’t have to answer not-ready-for-it-yet questions like “why is that man doing that to that lady?”

Regardless, the under-18 panels always yield great stuff–too much to include here–but we loved Faith Little’s Daniel Ceaser, a mixed-media bas-relief in cut cardboard with stray scattered phrases like “Japanese Denim,” “Death & Taxes,” and “Street Car” that must be meaningful…but we can’t make the connection.

Faith Little, “Daniel Ceaser,” mixed media

Elias Grim, “Building a Wall”

As always, Art All Night is a place for some folks to, as Mrs. The Orbit says, “get their freak on.” From the days of The Rubber Men, The Cardboard Cowboy, and Sailor John Art All Night always brings out a who’s-who of where are these people the rest of the year?

The event has been around long enough for some of these folks to now be exhibiting in the great gallery in the sky. Rest assured, there’s a new crew of regulars–that guy with the electric blinking lights fuzzy jacket, Most Wanted’s crushed art cars, too many costumed characters to name, a naked lady!

We also enjoyed this too-late-for-the-party-but-I’m-showing-up-anyway tribute collage to the Golden Girls (below) which appears to just be a drop-off/leave-behind. We don’t know what Blanche, Rose, Sophia and the gang would have thought about Art All Night, but they’d be welcome here too.

anonymous drop-off art, “Golden Girls” collage

They’re not the only ones. If Art All Night teaches us anything, it’s that the human spirit to create, delight, surprise, and humor is deep and wide, strong and alive. That behind every row house awning and within every apartment bedroom there may be an artist, paintbrush in hand, shoving a fake bloody eyeball through a canvas just because he or she wanted to communicate…something…to the world.

lildoodoobutt, the artist behind the Snow White piece, would likely have a hard time finding gallery sponsorship elsewhere. We might assume the same for the vast majority of Art All Night contributing artists. That said, Ma and Pa doodoobutt can rest assured their kid will always have a home at Art All Night.

Katy Dement, papier mache/chia seed

A Fourth Time for the Skyline

mural, A Silver Fox Limousine Service, Neville Island

Let’s start with the obvious: there are a lot of representations of the Pittsburgh skyline out there. They show up anywhere and everywhere when you start looking–in street art and sponsored neighborhood murals, small business advertising and, of course, official city-branded vehicles and equipment.  There are so many that this–The Orbit‘s fourth foray into collecting them–bags the biggest haul yet. Heck, we didn’t even bother with the newish emblems on city trash cans.

When looking at these, it’s best not to get too critical of the exact layout of downtown buildings or specific geographic features. So what if the A Silver Fox Limousine Service mural sneaks in the Empire State Building just to the left of PPG tower? That painting is undeniably downtown Pittsburgh. The same with Thai Gourmet Express’ vague set of spiky buildings behind a suspension that is very clearly not The West End Bridge–the east-facing river perspective and tight arrangement of tall buildings on a relatively small piece of land is good enough for us.

We’ll keep the blah-blah-blah short this week and get you right to the photos. Happy skylining!

mural including the Pittsburgh skyline along bicycle trail

mural, Jail Trail

handmade puppet stage decorated with Pittsburgh skyline

puppet stage, Pittsburgh Puppet Guild

news box with artwork of Pittsburgh skyline and pigeon

artist-created Pittsburgh City Paper news box, Squirrel Hill

mural of downtown Pittsburgh skyline by artist Baron Batch

Baron Batch mural, South Side Slopes

mural for Guys and Dolls hair salon featuring Pittsburgh skyline, Bellevue, PA

mural, Guys and Dolls hair salon, Bellevue

mural, Spak Brothers Pizza, Garfield

colorful mural featuring the Pittsburgh skyline

mural, Millie’s Ice Cream, Shadyside

mural, Iron Lung vape shop, Bloomfield

Thai Gourmet Express food truck, Oakland

The Three Ps. Specials board, Patron Mexican Grill, East Liberty

logo for The Construction Company featuring artistic rendering of Pittsburgh skyline in black and gold

logo, The Construction Company

Healthy Ride bicycle share kiosk

bus shelter advertisement

chalk board, Delanie’s Coffee, Southside

Steeltown Marketing, Bloomfield

line drawing of Pittsburgh skyline on police van

City of Pittsburgh police van

Animatronically Correct: Hopping Down Kraynak’s Easter Bunny Lane

elaborate diorama of Easter bunnies at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

big bunnies at Kraynak’s Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage

Flowers pop in full bloom way ahead of schedule as fairies mingle with enormous fuzzy caterpillars. Giant Easter eggs dangle from tree limbs while an array of butterflies lift off in a spectacularly-coordinated squadron. An indoor forest is filled with the world’s most cuddly cavalcade of bunnies and geese, pigs and lambs, bears, owls, and raccoons.

Existing somewhere between the topsy-turvy psychedelic overload of the Wonka Chocolate factory and the kind of über-wholesome family entertainment one would see in a Christian cartoon program, Kraynak’s Easter Bunny Lane is an avenue like no other.

elaborate diorama of yellow flowers in bloom at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

spring flowers and besuited geese

elaborate diorama of fairies and flowers at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

fairy scene

Kraynak’s, located 70 miles north of Pittsburgh in the town of Hermitage, has created its own little empire since it first opened in 1949. We don’t know what it was like back then, but today the large site on State Street includes an enormous retail store selling just about any frivolity one can name, a lawn and garden center, and soon-to-be-hopping six-bay plant nursery.

The store’s commerical jingle–an ear worm that makes “It’s a Small World” sound like Stockhausen–claims “It’s always Kraynak’s time of year.” That may be true, but they really put on the dog for the two big Christian holidays. That’s what brought us up north, our eyes all aglow with pre-resurrection fever, to Easter Bunny Lane.

elaborate diorama of nocturnal animals at night at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Dump n’ Dine

elaborate diorama of Sesame Street characters at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Sesame Street

You get to Easterland–yes, it goes by both names–through Kraynak’s retail store; the entrance is by the massive toys, games, and novelties section on the righthand side of the space. Arrive on a weekend and you’ll likely encounter a line of people stretching nearly to the front doors waiting to get in.

Don’t worry, the line moves and there’s a lot to look at even before you get inside. Once there, the big displays are on both sides of the aisle and each takes up maybe 20 feet of visible space, offering lots of angles and view points to take in all of the visual spectacle. Even this ne’er-do-well photojournalist had the time to snap plenty of pictures and still get out of everyone else’s way.

elaborate diorama of cartoon characters in camping scene at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Bigfoot Fan Club annual campout

elaborate diorama of farm scene at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Petal’s Pig Farm

Not only does Kraynak’s sponsor the free 300-foot indoor panoply of blinking, oscillating, electric dioramas, but the elaborate displays are completely redesigned and made anew each Christmas and Easter, surely guaranteeing yearly repeat visits from the faithful. Through the magic of YouTube, the armchair egg hunter is able to virtually tour Easter Bunny Lane for a number of its more-recent incarnations. The images are really something else.

Many of the characters and environments we encountered are easily recognizable in the videos from years past. Those same bunnies, flowers, colored lights, and Easter eggs appear over and over, but in different arrangements and altered landscapes. Here, they’re in a cotton candy fantasia; the year prior, the fuzzy crew arrived in a polar wonderland, as habitués of woodland cabins, or partying underwater with technicolor clams and arms-in-the-air octopi.

That said, organizers of Kraynak’s holiday displays clearly want to keep current with nods to popular culture. We see scenarios featuring The Mario Brothers running a pizza shop, My Little Pony, bears dressed in superhero costumes, those little yellow creatures from Dispacable Me, and a cosmic Sesame Street/Star Wars mash-up. [Side note: who knew Oscar the Grouch was in that R2-D2 tin can all along?]

elaborate diorama of oversized candy at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Candyland

life-size model of Jesus riding a donkey at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

… and then there’s Jesus

Sadly, good things must come to an end. Kraynak’s lets you know the party is over when all the color, fun, and movement drains away and we’re left with a starkly-lit somber Jesus on the back of a donkey. This was just the first of three different Sunday school-inspired dioramas reminding the visitor that the holiday is not all chocolate bunnies and glazed ham.

While this atheist dutifully spent time with each of the eat-your-oatmeal religious displays, I can tell you that I was the only one who did so. Like getting past the accident scene on a clogged highway, the formerly busy weekend crowds dispersed entirely as they made bee-lines to the exit gate, skipping the tail end of the exhibit.

elaborate diorama of nocturnal animals at night at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

night scene with nocturnal animals

elaborate diorama of child in treehouse at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Honeycomb hideout/treehouse

Editor’s confession: We couldn’t not run this story on Easter Sunday, but alas, the timing is as cruel as it is appropriate. For any reader inspired to hop down the bunny trail, you’re too late. Kraynak’s is closed today for the holiday and will be packing away Easterland, likely kicking off the process to design next year’s epic display.

Until then, you’ve–gulp–got Christmas to look forward to. Kraynak’s promises the Yuletide dioramas will be jing-jing-jingling at you by September 10. That’s a couple seasons away, but, you know, at “your store for all seasons” it’s always Kraynak’s time of year.

exterior sign for Kraynak's store, Hermitage, PA

Kraynak’s “Store for all Seasons,” State Street, Hermitage

elaborate diorama of Sesame Street characters at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Sesame Street

Getting there: Kraynak’s is located at 2525 East State Street in Hermitage. It takes an hour and change to drive up from Pittsburgh.

Precious Metal: The Disappearing Legacy öf Hard Rock Graffiti

spray paint rendering of the British flag on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

All we’ve got is a photograph: Def Leppard (c. 1983), Sharpsburg

There was a time when giants walked the earth. Abbreviated to just single power words, their names are legend: ZeppelinPriestDokkenMaidenKrokusCrüe. 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.

masonry window sill with graffiti "Led Zepp", Pittsburgh, PA

Communication breakdown: Led Zepp(elin) (c. 1980), Hazelwood

Blue Oyster Cult logo spray-painted on cement wall, New Brighton

This ain’t the summer of love: Blue Öyster Cult (hook and cross logo) (c. 1981), New Brighton

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.

graffiti for metal band Iron Maiden in cement drainage tunnel, Munhall, PA

Caught somewhere in time: Iron Maiden (c. 1984), Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

spray paint graffiti "Ace of Space" on cement wall, New Brighton, PA

Ace of Spade (sic) (Motörhead) (c. 1980), New Brighton

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.

graffiti of "Judas Priest" carved into handrail of city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Judas Priest (c. 1984), Rising Main city steps, Fineview

graffiti reading "Iron Maiden" carved into handrail of city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Iron Maiden (c. 1984), Rising Main city steps, Fineview

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.

spray paint graffiti for Deep Purple, New Brighton, PA

Deep Purple (c. early 1980s), New Brighton

faded graffiti reading "Led Zepplin rules" on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

Led Zepplin (sic.) rules (c. 1980), Sharpsburg

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?

spray paint graffiti on cinderblock wall for ZZ Top, Homestead, PA

ZZ Top (c. 1983), Homestead

graffiti for metal band Metallica spray painted on cement wall, Munhall, PA

0 for 2: Metalica (sic.) Alchoholica (sic.) (c. 1990), Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

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.]

logo for hard rock band Twisted Sister scratched into cement, Sharpsburg, PA

Twisted Sister (c. 1984), Sharpsburg

graffiti tribute to Norwegian metal band Mayhem on cement wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Mayhem (c. 1990s?), Mt. Oliver

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.

faded graffiti for metal band Korn on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

Korn (c. 2000), Sharpsburg

  • 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.
graffiti cartoon of a vampire with "Faster Pussycat" written on his cloak, Neville Island, PA

Faster Pussycat, Neville Island