Sci-Fi Sidewalks and Apparitions in the Alley: Fantasy Stencils

stencil image of Frankenstein's monster painted on steel door, Pittsburgh, PA

Frankenstein, South Side Slopes

There he is: deep-set eyes shaded under the world’s most famous supraorbital ridge. The giant cranial dome, smashed-flat schnoz, and lifeless mouth could only be one…humanoid. Yeah, it’s ol’ bolts-for-brains, Frankenstein–or Frankenstein’s monster, if you must–but we’re all friends here, right?

Mary Shelley’s enduring science project-run-amok turns up here in Pittsburgh at least a couple times–on the South Side Slopes and back-alley Bloomfield. It’s nice to fantasize this is a bicentennial tribute–Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first published in 1818[1]. We’re pretty sure that’s merely a coincidence, though–these spray paint portraits go back at least a couple years.

Regardless, Frankenstein finds himself in good company. He’s but one member of an impressive rogue’s gallery of desperate monsters, enormous insects, gun-toting pandas, faeries, robots, and one flaming Eye of Providence.

stencil image of Frankenstein's monster painted on concrete wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Frankenstein, Bloomfield

stencil image of monster's head painted on brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

monster, Garfield

stencil image of man's face painted on brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

refugee from the planet Krylon (or maybe Lou Reed?), Garfield

Someone in greater Bloomfield/Garfield–maybe a whole gang of people–is real handy with an X-Acto knife, stiff card stock, and enough shook-up cans of Rust-Oleum to color most of the spectrum. There are a ton of little stenciled artworks decorating or defacing (your pick) the East End’s alleyways, retaining walls, street signs, and retail backsides.

The majority of these pieces are a single layer, allowing the underlying surface to provide random background color–red brick, silver aluminum, and whatever color the utilitarian cinderblock wall happened to get painted. There are also some really impressive two- and three-color jobs that show a real deft of craft in both preparation and execution in the medium.

stencil image of a flea painted to the back of a street sign, Pittsburgh, PA

“Flea Apparitions”, Bloomfield

stencil image of pink tyrannosaurus rex painted on concrete wall, Pittsburgh, PA

hot pink T-Rex, Oakland

graffiti stencil of bear standing up with a pistol in each paw, Pittsburgh, PA

“This is a stickup, give me all your honey.” Panda bear with pistols and Hawaiian shirt, Strip District

… but is it art or public menace? One the world’s most un-answerable perennial questions! How I’d love it if some street-wise Séraphine dressed-up our alley fence with a long-locked faerie or ambivalent robot. At the same time, if some stupid spray paint smear were to cross the front of the house, I’d be irate–what a hypocrite! Decorate every alley, sheet metal warehouse, and fast food restaurant and I’ll be happy man, but keep your nozzle off the nice brickwork of private homes and old institutions.

They’re not listening to The Orbit–that’s for damn sure–but stencilers seem to have pretty sound judgement in what subjects are fair game, and where to lay off. The targets here are almost all vacant, unseen spaces and discarded infrastructure. That may be as self-serving as it is respectful–people are just a lot less-likely to take action on a trash-strewn alley behind Family Dollar or the former entrance to a condemned building.

stencil image of fairy painted on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

faerie, Strip District

stencil image of cartoon robot painted on bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

robot, Millvale Street Bridge

graffiti stencil of astronaut giving "OK" hand signal, Pittsburgh, PA

astronaut OK, Strip District

stencil image of pyramid with eyeball on fire painted on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

flaming Eye of Providence, Strip District

The Eye of Providence–the mystical cyclops pyramid image that shows up on the dollar bill–supposedly represents God watching over humanity[2]. We don’t know what it means when it’s on fire. Regardless, God seems to give passes to all these back-street Basquiats and cinderblock Cézannes who ply the paint and stencil the swine right under his or her watchful eye.

If it were up to The Orbit [it is not] the lord or lady who tattooed the anonymous wall behind an electrical transformer with an out-of-control, Hawaiian shirt-wearing panda bear–two pistols raised in a threatening display of firepower–would get the bee line straight to heaven, no judgement from above. Whether these particular stenciled artifacts do that for their creators, we don’t know–but we’re cheering for you.

graffiti stencils of skull and crossbones and pig heads on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

skull & crossbones/pig heads, Bloomfield

stencil image of person cradling a bomb painted on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

stop worrying and love the bomb, Bloomfield


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankenstein
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_of_Providence

Valentine’s Day Hearts

graffiti on brick wall of dozens of small hearts above a row of commercial trash bins, Pittsburgh, PA

Flying hearts (or maybe just flying flies) and trash bins, Oakland

Hearts. They’re just about everywhere this time of year, right? In shop windows, taped to cubicle nameplates, iced into bakery desserts, crocheted in red yarn and pinned on comfy sweaters. But try to find a real one–O.K., not a real real one, but an un-store bought/handmade/interesting representation of a heart–it ain’t so easy. There are some of them out on the street, though.

Neon sign of a red heart with green bands surrounding from a tattoo parlour, Pittsburgh, PA

Tattoo parlour neon sign, South Side

Love is a great thing, right? If so, why is Valentine’s Day such a loathsome event? [To call this a “holiday” is a major stretch.] It’s contrived from no clear history, crassly commercial, and oozes sickeningly forced sentimentality. No major shopping event between Christmas and Easter? Let’s sell some candy in February! Oh, and pink is just the worst, most nauseating color. This open-to-all-other-hues blogger shudders just thinking about it.

Valentine’s Day seems almost diabolically created to make single people feel bad and puts a lot of couples into a weird state of obligatory self-congratulation. Dear, I don’t subscribe to the man’s holiday, but I also don’t want you to think I don’t care. Being in a good relationship can be terrific, but it ain’t great every single day, and maybe it doesn’t just happen to be firing on February 14 each year–but you wouldn’t know it from the full tables at fancy restaurants and stacks of Whitman’s samplers at Rite-Aid.

Mural of human heart on cinderblock wall by Jeremy Raymer, Pittsburgh, PA

Mural by Jeremy Raymer, Lawrenceville

The heart is a strange symbol for love–although maybe not any more peculiar than anything else we (humans) might have selected. A heaving, involuntary muscle that looks terrifyingly freaky when we actually see a real one going at it. O.R. nurses and surgeons must get used to the sight, but I doubt this blogger ever would. The simplified, symmetric, cartoon representation we’ve adopted doesn’t look anything like a real human heart. If it did, we’d have to find another symbol for the emotion.

spray painted heart stencil

Spray paint/stencil, Bigelow Blvd. pedestrian overpass, Polish Hill

All this belly-aching, but valentines (the physical tokens of affection, not the day) can be pretty darn swell. Fold some paper, cut out some letters, whip out the glue stick.They’re probably one of the few ways (some) people still keep up their craft chops post-elementary school. Mrs. The Orbit never fails to deliver particularly creative, wonderful, and wacky inventions. [She could teach a class!] At least, we hope some other people still hand make theirs, or does everybody just buy a card at the drug store now? Well, if you do, don’t–it’s fun to make your own, it’s a really terrific gesture, and everyone likes to have something, uh, from the heart.

Heart-shaped gravestone, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

They called him “Teddy Bear” (maybe). Heart-shaped gravestone, Highwood Cemetery

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.