An Orbit Obit: Clemente Street Art

wheat paste and colored wood block street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium (detail), 2013

Today it begins. The period from now until the early dark eves of October is, for many sports fans, a restoration of when things feel right. It is a time of chin music and LOOGies, where men scratch their groins and spit sunflower seeds in concrete dugouts awash in discarded Gatorade cups. It is the season where contests are interrupted at the discretion of “managers” who summon pitchers and catchers at the mound for tense mid-game summits, runners in scoring position the imminent threat. Phrases like “O-and-two, the count,” “low and outside,” “check swing,” and “foul ball” will be repeated ad infinitum. Rivers of yellow mustard, sweet relish, and, yes, ketchup (heathens!) will adorn a non-stop parade of frankfurters. It is a time when spring’s inevitable showers send both players and spectators alike to huddle under whatever protection the park offers while radio announcers ramble on in aimless filibusters to occupy the dead air. It is baseball season.

wheat paste street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium, 2014

Wheel Emporium, a retail outlet and installation garage for what they used to call mag wheels, existed at the corner of Penn Avenue and 34th Street in Lawrenceville for years. The small shop was shuttered some time around 2012 (?) and plywood installed to protect the giant panes of glass in its showroom windows.

Though this blogger would sooner, uh, put ketchup on his hot dog than pay money for fancy auto parts, we always enjoyed passing the little shop with its big windows and array of shiny chrome. But what we liked even more was what came after Wheel Emporium closed: the terrific pair of elaborate street art tributes to Pittsburgh Pirate great Roberto Clemente.

wheat paste and colored wood block street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium, 2013

A note to bloggers: always get an establishing shot! We sadly just took close-up photos of the artwork–and of course they’re now long gone*–so there’s not really a sense of how the pieces relate. For sure, though, we can say there were two nearly life-sized black-and-white enlargements of old photos wheat-pasted to Wheel Emporium’s protective plywood. In the first, Clemente is in his batting stance, left leg starting its lift in anticipation of the incoming pitch. The other–perhaps just seconds later–shows the batter watching the rocket he’s just launched sail from the park, his body twisted in the follow-through of the heavy swing. In both, the artist(s) applied shards of cut painted wood to the plywood which suggest waves of energy coming directly from Clemente.

wheat paste street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium, 2014

The tale of the Clemente art took a strange turn a year later. At some point in 2014, the colored wood pieces were all removed and the rest of the exterior plywood painted over in a deep blue color. Amazingly, though, whoever did this chose to preserve the wheat pasted photos, leaving an equally-effective alternate version of the previous year’s art. In these, we see Clemente’s two-tone image really “pop” against the monochrome blue background. It would have been fantastic to re-install the wooden additions on top of the blue, which would have looked far superior to the noisy graffiti’d wood grain, but we can’t always get what we want.

wheat paste and colored wood block street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium (full), 2013

Roberto Clemente is debatably the most beloved Pittsburgh Pirate for his prowess both in the batter’s box and out in right field (which helped the team win two World Series over his eighteen year tenure) and also for his charitable efforts off the field. His life ended tragically in a plane crash Clemente was on for a humanitarian relief mission to Nicaragua in 1972. For all of these reasons, he’s certainly a fitting subject for not just his bronze statue at PNC Park, but also the street art tributes that appeared in Lawrenceville. We’d love to see more of them.

That said, The Orbit would be equally enthusiastic about seeing similar street-level honors bestowed on other Pirate greats. Imagine a stenciled and spray-painted Honus Wagner or a 3-D “Pops” Stargell constructed from recycled materials. If you don’t see the opportunities in “Big Poison” and “Little Poison” (brothers/teammates Paul and Lloyd Waner), then you’re not trying very hard. Hell, why not create a new set of Greenberg Gardens in the city’s many vacant lots? I guess we need to quit yapping about it and start…planting about it.

wheat paste street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District (current)

Addendum: We were so glad to see the tradition of Clemente wheat-pasting continue on a recent ride through the Strip District. This photo was taken just last week and shows what appears to be a relatively new photo of Clemente pasted to a vacant storefront on the 2700 block of Penn Avenue. In it, Clemente’s bat is pointed directly at the camera and he displays a look that’s both steely and also posed, perhaps stifling his characteristic smile to crack serious for the photographer.

bicycle lane marker of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Bicycle lane marker, Clemente Bridge

One final addition: over at The Portland Orbit, they recently ran a story called “The Beautiful People of the Bike Lane” about the terrific work of that city’s Board of Transportation to make customized, humorous bicycle lane markers. This cyclist was totally jealous and wished Pittsburgh would do something as fun and interesting. Well, it turns out that we do have at least a few these customized “bike guys.” You guessed it: they’re honoring the very same Roberto Clemente on the downtown bridge that now bears his name. It’s definitely Clemente art on the street, even if it’s not, you know, street art.


* The former Wheel Emporium was razed in 2015 and at present there’s a much larger building under construction that appears to be another combined retail/residential mixed-use space.

Two Great Tastes: Get Write with God

wall painted with "Jesus is the answer", Pittsburgh, PA

Watch that first step: it’s a doozy. “Jesus is the answer,” Homewood

He measured it on the four sides; it had a wall all around, the length five hundred and the width five hundred, to divide between the holy and the profane. (Ezekiel 42:20)

Back in the early Spring, we inaugurated the Two Great Tastes series with a piece on how snow and trains just naturally look (and photograph) great together. We also included a bunch of other pithy two-fers involving things like French cop movies, Zubaz, and fried fish sandwiches. This blogger certainly can’t predict when another one of these terrific combos will come along, but believe you me: The Orbit knows it when we see it.

And see it we did! Or do. Or keep on seeing as we come across the seemingly incongruous one-two of (Christian) religion and street graffiti. It might seem weird to take up both scripture and Rust-Oleum, but, you know, it’s the greatest story ever told and these colors, like true faith and decent exterior enamel, definitely won’t run.

Abandoned storefront with graffiti reading "Rap music suck. Go to church."

The door’s open but the ride ain’t free. “Rap music suck. Go to church.” Clairton

Generalizations about entire musical genres aside, it’s hard to understand the connection between the relative quality of rap music and the commandment to attend church. We know correlation is not causation as one might just as inaccurately assume spray paint-wielding taggers would be unlikely in a house of the lord on Sunday.

Church stair rail with graffiti reading "God is dead, Devil is everywhere"

Crossed the deserts bare, man. “God is dead, Devil is everywhere.” Millvale

Is God dead? Is The Devil really everywhere? At least one troubled soul sure felt strongly enough about it to render this haunting message in black Sharpie on the stair rail of the great Holy Spirit Parish Catholic church in Millvale. We have to assume that, like the song says, “people are cracking up all over.” And when reaching out to the mental health system involves vandalizing church property, well…we’ve still got a ways to go.

Tell him what you want. “Jesus rides freight trains.” Strip District

Another questionable assertion, this one on a boxcar in the Strip District. I don’t know if Jesus rides freight trains, but they’re probably more reliable than AmTrak. That said, if Jesus really wants to commune with the in-transit laity there are going to be a lot more of them on the Greyhound or MegaBus (not to mention the DMV). And let me tell you something: some of those bus riders could learn something from a good ol’ monastic vow of silence!

Graffiti on tile wall reading "The Devil made me do it the first time ...", Pittsburgh, PA

Out on the tiles. “The Devil made me do it the first time …” Lawrenceville

So many questions: What is it? Who made you do it the next time? How many times did you do it? Did you ever get tired of it? Why do I need to hear about it? We’ll likely never know what TSU was going on about here, but hopefully admitting it was a least a first step to reaching a better place.

Brick wall with graffiti reading "What if the only things God blesses you with tommrow is what u r thankful for today"

He would / Die 4 / U. “What if the only things God blesses you with tommrow is what u r thankful for today,” (sic.) Manchester

The Orbit‘s copy-editing team is having a fit with this one, but relax, guys: everything’s cool. The suggestion (we can’t actually locate a Biblical reference for this one) that the salvation we’re waiting for in the future is here right now strikes this frequent grass-is-greener blogger as actually quite profound. The statement speaks to both live for today and be grateful for what you have sentiments, and also that the (presumably) afterlife-believing perpetrator wants us to be happy, right here in this world. Amen.

An Orbit Obit: Where the Buffalo Roamed

sidewalk painting of purple and white buffalo with painted fence

Last photographic evidence of the now-extinct sidewalk buffalo of lower Lawrenceville, Summer 2015

The lore will be passed-down for generations to come. It was a time when proud giants strode the streets (err…sidewalks) of lower Lawrenceville; their brilliant purple, red, white, and gold colors shimmering and electrifying the drab, weed-cracked concrete blocks. Mere mortals freely walked foot-to-hoof with these legendary lords of the great plains. Every one of the animals was rendered in its own style–the group less herd and more party of like-shaped individuals; each creature with its own agenda. Though trampled underfoot, they still managed to stand tall–at least if you stood back far enough to get the angle right.

sidewalk painting of purple, red, and white buffalo

Purple pain: one big hombre

If you find yourself at the corner of 35th and Charlotte Streets in Lawrenceville’s sixth ward, you won’t miss Jeremy Raymer‘s house. The otherwise standard-issue two-story Pittsburgh rowhouse is covered–foundation to soffit–in big, eye-popping mural portraiture. Around the side, a gray, picket fence is more loosely painted in an ever-evolving array of icons. The closest telephone pole is covered in an odd assortment of push-pinned offerings. [More about all of this, hopefully, in some future Orbit story.] The one thing you won’t see anymore is the fantastic parade of buffalo that roamed freely on Raymer’s sidewalks just weeks ago.

sidewalk painting of purple and white buffalo

Lascaux-a-go’alo: caveman street buffalo

It was a surprise to see them disappear so quickly. Street art is by its very nature temporary/ephemeral, but we hope the good stuff will get a little time in the sunshine before the man sends in the clouds. Having just taken these photos in August, we arrived back at the same intersection a mere couple months later with nothing but the faintest outlines of the great beasts remaining. It was a sad reminder of both how fleeting grace can be and also how potentially on-the-verge-of-dissolution pretty much everything is. The great American street bison is clearly no exception.

sidewalk painting of purple, red, and white buffalo

All wound up: mechanique’alo

We got in touch with Mr. Raymer to ask about the sudden extinction of his herd. He verified that indeed he was the perpetrator (the buffalos were loosely based on series of photographs by Eadweard Muybridge taken in late 19th century), planning to make them last, Raymer painted the buffalos in Montana Gold spray paint, and that a neighbor filed an official complaint about the sidewalk paintings. The city’s Graffiti Task Force was called-in and was therefore obligated to power wash them away. (Apparently the city would not have acted but for the formal complaint.) Raymer would like to re-paint his sidewalks with a new to-be-decided theme at some point in the future, but this time he’ll go through official channels to do so.

Sequence of a buffalo (American bison) galloping. Photos taken by Eadweard Muybridge (died 1904), first published in 1887 at Philadelphia (Animal Locomotion).

Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic sequence of a buffalo (American bison) galloping, 1887

The whole thing raises an interesting series of questions. Sidewalks are this curious blend of public and private space and the letter of the law doesn’t necessarily add up logically. Technically, one’s sidewalks are part of the property lot and the homeowner (not the city) is legally responsible for the care and maintenance, including weed, snow, and ice removal, patching and replacing cracked concrete, etc. Sidewalks are undeniably public thoroughfares that everyone uses and are absolutely essential to a healthy urban environment. They also offer great opportunities for expression.

Shouldn’t Raymer (or anyone else) be allowed to decorate his own property–that he’s legally responsible for maintaining–in a way he chooses? Why is he allowed to paint the public-facing fence, but not the adjacent sidewalk, which is inches away and just as visible? If the same neighbors objected to his wall murals, would the city be in power to act on those complaints? And if one is painting his or her own property, does it really count as graffiti?

sidewalk painting of purple and white buffalos

Then: corner buffalo (and friend)

faded outline of a buffalo painted on sidewalk, Pittsburgh, PA

Now: the same corner with the last traces of the once-proud herd of Lawrenceville’s sidewalk buffalo

The Orbit does not pretend to have answers to these questions, nor do we want to vilify the residents who objected to the paintings. That said, this hardcore all-seasons blogging pedestrian would like to see the neighbors of Lawrenceville put that same keep-the-sidewalks-clean enthusiasm put into clearing the inevitable mini glaciers of snow and ice that will arrive any day now.

Maybe down on 35th Street they don’t have this problem, but just a few blocks away I sure do! Every year I slip on un-shoveled winter sidewalks. Most years there is at least one ugly fall that ends with a bent knee, a twisted ankle, or a very literal pain in the ass. These buffalos may look threatening, and they may not be Raymer’s neighbors’ idea of art, but it’s hard to imagine they were really offending anyone. It’s the coming ice age that may do us all in.


To see more of Jeremy Raymer’s work, check him out on Instagram @jeremyMraymer.

Step Beat: Bloomfield’s “Try Try Try” Steps

City Steps with graffiti reading "Try" on every riser, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield’s “Try Try Try” Steps

Try, try, try. What a wonderful message of self-affirmation, coming to you directly from your urban infrastructure! You can do it–whatever it is! Just make it a little farther, a little higher. Reach for the sun; step into the light!

The word Try is identically painted over and over again on each of the risers on the long second flight of Bloomfield’s Ella Street steps. If only all law-scoffing paint-huffing miscreants would take such an interest in the collective conscience. Sometimes we wish the city would put more effort into the upkeep of the steps, but if some well-meaning civil servant were to white-wash each of these, you could bank on this blogger’s mellow getting majorly harshed.

City steps in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA

The “Try Try Try” steps from Lorigan Street

Bloomfield won’t make anyone’s short list of great city steps must-sees. Despite the steep drop-off into “Skunk Hollow,” The Orbit knows of only two sets of steps in the whole neighborhood–these on Ella and one other at the end of Cederville. But don’t let the step snobs of more vertical wards deter you from a really great easy-access down-and-back hike. The end of Ella Street is mere blocks from Liberty Avenue, Bloomfield’s main drag, but a world away from the dense thicket of row houses you pass to get there. It’s all air and light and thick, untamed overgrowth, spilling off the hillside and into the hollow below (at least by this time of the year). Get your hot sausage, go for a little hike down the hill, come back up for a cannoli.

Homemade toy truck bolted to city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

The little red truck: the “Try Try Try” steps unofficial mascot

I’ve been up and down the Try Try Try steps a dozen times in as many years, and for that entire duration, there’s been a curious attachment to the bottom-most landing (just above Lorigan Street). A rusted, red-painted toy truck, which seems to be a homemade piece from heavy garage scraps, is bolted to the concrete. The motivation for this is curious, as is the respect it’s paid from the crews that hang out and graffiti the step rails after hours. They may leave their malt liquor bottles, but they don’t mess with the little red truck. I tend think of it as the unofficial mascot of the Try Try Try steps: the little (fire) engine that could.

View down the Ella Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

View down the Ella Street steps

Reaching the top of the Ella Street steps (and optionally the short flight up the perpendicular Wertz Way steps that adjoin) one gets a great payoff with views through the tree canopy to Polish Hill, North Oakland, and down to Skunk Hollow. On this beautiful early fall(-feeling) day, the sky a perfect cloudless blue, the dappled light, and lush, overgrown hillsides were as spectacular as one could want. And all we had to do was try.

View of Skunk Hollow and North Oakland from Wertz Way, Pittsburgh, PA

View of Skunk Hollow and North Oakland from Wertz Way steps

 

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.

Lawrenceville Stencil Graffiti

stencil graffiti of rabbit jumping, Pittsburgh, Pa.

This law-abiding blogger has never committed an act of graffiti in his life–but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about it! All the time, as a matter of fact. If I were going to get into the wall-scrawling business (don’t get your hopes up: the chances are extremely low), I’d follow a very strict code of ethics: I wouldn’t touch anyone’s personal property, I wouldn’t write some dumb, regrettable message or invent a cheesy “tag” like, say, 0rbi7, I’d make damn sure the graffiti was only an improvement to the visual landscape, and I’d perpetrate with a stencil.

Why a stencil? I’m glad I asked for you. Mostly because if they’re created with any dignity, stencils just look uniformly good, without looking uniformly, uh, uniform. They have the beauty of any hand-run print process that provides great repetition of image, but with each rendition some warm distortion and subtle variation.

All of these stenciled pieces come from a relatively small area of Central Lawrenceville–mainly 42nd and Harrison Streets (I think). I’m sure there are plenty more where these came from, so hopefully The Orbit can get a few more pulls out of this particular template.

stencil graffiti of figure in wheelchair with the word "equal", Pittsburgh, Pa.

Equal

With all due respect to The Orbit‘s female, LGBT, and people-of-color brothers and sisters, the disability community is the minority group that has by far the least public exposure and the largest and longest denial of basic human rights. No Hollywood stars are lining up around accessible transit issues, Iggy Azalea is not getting uninvited from any giant downtown deaf pride events, and no one is burning retail stores over the unemployment rates of blind people. I’ve seen these Equal graffiti splashes in Lawrenceville, Polish Hill, and Bloomfield, which is a great sign of some small amount of awareness at a very literal street level (and my wife reminds me that there are a lot of very positive changes happening in this space). Now, why the person in the wheelchair looks like Pac-Man with a torso…

stencil graffiti of hand grenade, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Hand grenade (?)

This one violates my above-stated personal rule against “bombing” personal property. But if I was the owner of the row house whose cement foundation wall had this illicitly added, frankly, I’d be fine with it. [That is not an invitation!] So far, no one has busted out the Zinsser to cover it up, so perhaps these neighbors are on the same wavelength. Bonus points for the paint run (the stenciler’s equivalent of a beauty mark) in the bottom left corner.

stencil graffiti of man with top hat and the word "kween", Pittsburgh, Pa.

Kween

According to the computer internet, “Kween” can mean umpteen different things, none of which we’ve ever heard of. So it’s hard to know what the profligate who sprayed this one was going on about. [Enlightened Orbiters: straighten us out.] But sure: top hat, weird spelling, stencil on concrete–that’s good enough for us.

stencil graffiti of a dove on a street pole, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Dove

Lay a flat stencil on a round surface and you’ll lose line definition somewhere. Whoever committed this one got that and more with a blurred leading edge so fuzzy it looks like this particular winged creature has just engaged hyperdrive. That, coupled with some oxidization and the pre-existing copper-colored lines it’s competing with and the results are a really beautiful addition to this particular streetlight pole.


Vacation notice: If you’ve gotten this far (and I’ll bet you have!) then, Mom: call me! No, seriously, Pittsburgh Orbit will be on a week-and-a-half vacation break wherein we’ll try to figure out what to do when we get back on Pittsburgh time. In the words of the late, great George Willard, “All of the sudden, her eyebrows were too intense.” Be good.

Un-Graffiti

"No Dogs!" painted on side of small factory in Millvale

“No Dogs!”, Millvale

If there’s anything that watching television has taught us, it’s that serial killers are everywhere. The Pacific Northwest, the beaches of Miami, Belfast, 1950’s London, you name it.  Hell, Chloe Sevigny turned up scads of them right here in Pittsburgh–imagine if she could have finished the season!

We street bloggers can learn a lot from the fictional hunting of these seemingly very normal monsters: trust no one, collect as much material evidence as possible, we all need to take a long look at our own mothers, and mainly that we’re always looking for patterns.

When The Orbit photography staff started going through their deep back-catalog of photos, one such interesting pattern emerged.  Photos of places that had all the hallmarks of graffiti: the crude, quickly-executed messaging, raw emotion, paint applied directly to wall surfaces.  But these weren’t graffiti in the typical sense; they all appeared to be committed by the owners of the buildings, too in-a-hurry or just too cheap to have a sign created, instead scrawling the messages directly on their own property.  We’re calling these “un-graffiti“.

"No Parking Open-Pantry Customer Only" painted on wall in Lincoln

“No Parking Open-Pantry Customer Only”, Lincoln

Not only were there no non-customers parking at the Open-Pantry, there were no customers, there was no open business, and there were no human beings anywhere to be seen for blocks around this former convenience store in Lincoln.

"PAULs" letters on side of building in New Kensington, PA

“PAULs”, New Kensington

PAULs is a little different in that the medium isn’t paint, but rather recycled letters from (likely) commercial signage, fixed to plywood.  So maybe this is more like “un-street art”, but I think it counts.

"Wrap Your Garbage" painted on side of building in Lawrenceville

“Wrap Your Garbage”, Lawrenceville

This message obviously predates some heavy-duty rewiring of a commercial building on Butler Street.  On this day there was no problem with unwrapped garbage.

"Quit Paintin...... Dumb Shit on Garage" painted on garage door in Bloomfield

“Quit Paintin…… Dumb Shit on Garage”, Bloomfield

This one is the mother of all un-graffitis: a homeowner’s desperate plea/demand for the scofflaws of his or her Bloomfield neighborhood to cease and desist their assault on this small cinderblock garage.  The request seems to have gone unheeded.

Update: since this photo was taken the entire garage was repainted a deep blue and I don’t recollect any new tags on it (yet).