Send in the Clohns: John Lee, The Cardboard Caravaggio

street art painting of figures with distorted faces and captions saying "All things are yours"

All things may be yours…but you can’t always take them home with you. Painting/wheatpaste by John Lee (aka “Clohn Art”), Munhall, 2016

January 1, 2016. This blogger has no particular memory of what was going on that New Year’s Day nearly four years ago, but the photographic record doesn’t lie. We shot a series of ghost pizzerias and No Parking signs at scenic locales from Homestead down, around, and over the river to Glassport.

The most intriguing find of the day, however, came calling out from the inside of a rusty metal shed along East 8th Avenue in Munhall. Completely open to the street, the little three-walled steel shack appears to be either an artifact of the area’s industrial past or a larger-than-average bus shelter–perhaps both. Either way, its open-to-the-public opportunity and hidden-from-the-cops privacy make the little lean-to an easy target for graffiti.

street art painting of woman with three eyes, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown, 2016

This piece was different, though. No mere copycat tag or delinquent’s de rigueur spray-painted wang, what caught the eye was a legit original artwork. The painted was rendered in bright acrylic color on thick brown packaging paper and applied directly to an interior wall of the shelter.

The subjects are three cartoonish human-like figures, their facial features randomly shuffled out of order. Eyes are stacked one on top of the other under a single brow; elongated oversize noses are lifted and askew; pursed graphic lips are highlighted like an offset print job.

The metal enclosure even makes its way into the artwork. Random rust spots permeate the unpainted surfaces of the wheatpasted paper media giving the three faces pockmarked or freckled blotches across their skin and through the bare sections of background. Each person has a word bubble with the same arch message: all things are yours. (See photo, top.)

street art paintings of man with five eyes and panda bear

Shadyside, 2017

The Munhall painting wasn’t the first piece we’d come across attributed to the cryptic Clohn Art–there had been a couple earlier finds along Penn Avenue (see photos, below)–but it was the one that put all the pieces together and it still remains a favorite.

After that, the floodgates seemed to open just briefly as we spotted more Clohn Art all over: a series of animal paintings on Chinese restaurant placements in an alley downtown; a three-eyed, green-haired woman fused to plywood; stray blue period paintings on the back of a Shadyside garage. And then … it all stopped.

street art painting of woman with three eyes, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown, 2016

street art painting of rhinoceros, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown, 2016

John Lee (aka Clohn Art) (it’s pronounced clone; not the way Pittsburghers say clown) is a hard guy to get on the horn–and it wasn’t for lack of trying! Three full years after initially getting shot down, in comes the most welcome–if apropos of nothing–comment on an otherwise unremarkable Orbit Instagram post. The artist is ready to come in from the cold and he’s just decorated Second Avenue in Hazelwood with a new batch of paintings.

street art painting of wise men with Christmas gifts, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville, 2015

street art painting of four people with missplaced eyes, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield, 2014

“There’s a quote, ‘Writers write,’*” John Lee tells me, “so I figured that painters paint. I should be painting.”

And paint he does, usually six days a week at his Lincoln Place home studio, churning out artwork on a variety of recycled media: packing paper, placemats, plywood, and flattened cardboard boxes. There are so many paintings that they need to go somewhere, and that includes the tasteful redecoration of underused buildings–here in Pittsburgh and wherever Lee travels.

“With cardboard art you always have an outlet,” Lee says, “It’s the most respectful form of street art–you’re not really damaging anything.” Lee prefers to staple his cardboard paintings to the plywood covering windows and doors of abandoned/unoccupied buildings, though he’s also used wheatpaste to effectively glue paper artworks directly to wall surfaces. The results will still wash or peel away eventually, but they last a little longer.

street art painting of totem pole of various animals on cardboard

totem pole, Hazelwood, 2019

street art painting of polar bear in a brown dress suit on cardboard

Hazelwood, 2019

John Lee’s art has a couple common subjects: people–often with their facial features irregularly rearranged–and animals. You’ll also find a blending of the two as the series in Hazelwood included: a panda’s head on human body wearing a brown suit; a cat-man in pajamas; a person in western wear with a bird’s head costume. “You don’t know,” Lee says of the ambiguity in man-beast representation, “They could be anything.”

Other oft-repeated motifs include a sort of jointless free-floating position in the slender bodies–arms and legs extended, folding, and curved backwards in a kind of weightless space yoga–and stiff, awkward hands as if the characters are just forming their first words in sign language or attempting to flash caricatures of gang symbols.

street art painting of cat in pajamas on cardboard

cat’s (in) pajamas, Hazelwood, 2019

street art painting of bird wearing jeans and western-style shirt on cardboard

bird of the West, Hazelwood, 2019

In several instances, John Lee has set up what he calls the Honor System Art Gallery. Beyond just street art, the typically-smaller, often framed artworks are bundled together at a common location with instructions to Take one art work now and then pay (what you like). Details on purchasing via various app-based electronic payment systems is included.

artist John Lee (aka "Clohn Art") installing Honor System Art Gallery, Pittsburgh

John Lee installing the Honor System Art Gallery, Garfield

… and, because we didn’t have a “real” gallery show or other public event to hang this story on, John Lee suggested he set up a new Honor System Art Gallery just for the occasion.

That went up two days ago on the rough plywood of a condemned building on Penn Avenue in Garfield and I’m here to tell you it looks great. It’ll be a heartbreaker to see those little paintings disappear–however that happens–because they are such an obvious civic improvement to the old boarded-up Heavenly Cuts storefront. But … John Lee would also love for you to have a piece of his artwork displayed somewhere in your life.

artist John Lee (aka "Clohn Art") with Honor System Art Gallery, Pittsburgh

John Lee with a brand new Honor System Art Gallery, Garfield

An earlier “gallery” Lee set up on a chain link fence in Seattle currently holds the record for the best response/most (financially) appreciated artwork. So, c’mon Pittsburgh! We can’t let those latté-sniffing West Coast jagoffs hold a title over our (adopted–John Lee is originally from Albuquerque) home town guy! Get your keister to Garfield and buy a piece of street art!

street art painting of deer with large antlers on cardboard

Hazelwood, 2019

John Lee can be located online via the @clohncount Instagram account, clohnart.com web site, and clohn Patreon page.


* Best as we can tell, the quote is by Ralph Keyes and goes, “Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.”

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

Look Both Ways: Trafficking in Warhol Eye Cones

wheatpaste image of Campbell's Soup can on traffic cone with eyeballs

Lawrenceville

Ask anyone–they’ll tell you. It was a cold, ugly, brutal winter. Unrelenting weeks down in the ten degree range. Our thoroughfares were so pockmarked with crater-sized potholes the streets are only now becoming navigable. The Prince’s prophesy about snow in April–late April at that–was a little too true. And then into May (yes, May!) with the freezing rain and timid buds too scared to peek their tiny compressed flower heads out of protective branches. Oy!

That’s all behind us now, but weren’t we embarrassed to learn those cold north winds also blew in the most wonderful city-wide surprise right under our hunkered-down noses.

wheatpaste image of Andy Warhol wallpaper on traffic cone with eyeballs

Rachel Carson (neé 9th Street) Bridge

The first one we spotted was on the Rachel Carson Bridge. A likeness of a traffic cone, maybe 18 inches tall, wheatpasted to one of the vertical bridge supports. The image was full color, but not in the blaze orange you’d expect to see running wild in the street. Instead, the cone appears in one of Andy Warhol’s wallpaper designs–a repeating pattern of a maroon cow head against a brilliant yellow field. The piece is further decorated with eleven disembodied eyeballs, scattered loosely across the shape.

wheatpaste street art of traffic cone with Andy Warhol design and eyeballs, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on wooden board

Downtown

After that, a two-tone Campbell’s Soup design on an unoccupied Lawrenceville storefront and then another on some temporary plywood against the old Kaufmann’s building, Downtown.

A query to Orbit Nation rewarded us with the news that we weren’t alone–nor were we imagining these inscrutably arch street offerings. “I’ve seen them too,” from one, “What do they mean?” another. Most useful, a direct tag to the Instagram account of the apparent leaver of cones.

wheatpaste street art of traffic cone with eyeballs, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on spraypainted retail window, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

That photo stream–a series of unspecific pictures from Downtown Pittsburgh and a few near neighborhoods–Lawrenceville, The Strip District, the North Shore–was all it took to send Team Orbit on an obsessive egg hunt for all the eyeball-soaked, wheatpasted traffic cones we could handle.

We got a clue here and there–a location description like Downtown Pittsburgh or a recognizable detail from the Chinatown Inn–but this was no “gimme.” No, we spotted most of these just taking the old Orbitmobile out, in-and-around, and keeping the peepers primed for action. We didn’t find them all–that’s for sure–but bagged a pretty good collection.

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on retail storefront, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

ornate Chinese portico design over restaurant kitchen doors, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

We’re calling them Warhol Eye Cones for hopefully obvious reasons. [We have no idea what–if anything–their creator has named them.] The Orbit asked for an interview but, like The White House’s weekly rejection of National Public Radio, we were politely told to get bent…or, at least, no, thank you. Sigh. We’re here, if and when you ever want to talk.

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on concrete wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

wheatpaste image of traffic cone with eyeballs on brick wall

Downtown

The Instagram photos all date from March of this year and that seems like a pretty believable timeframe for their original installation. As we made our way around town looking for the eye cones’ tell tale triangular shape and somebody’s-watching-me exterior, it was already clear the clock is ticking on chances to catch them.

A number of the pieces have already suffered under the scraper, the aforementioned cruel winter, or, in one case, a die-by-the-sword instance of duct tape-on-wheatpaste parking variance lifting the face right off one of the Lawrenceville pieces. The account’s most easy-to-locate piece was on a parking sign for the Andy Warhol Museum, but it had been scraped clean by the time we got there. Sigh.

wheatpaste images of traffic cones with eyeballs on cement wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District

wheatpaste traffic cone on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

The inevitable question: what do they mean? It’s got to come up because someone always needs an explanation.

The short answer is we don’t know. As mentioned, the eye coner prefers to let their eyeballs do the talking, which leaves our fingers to do the guessing. It’s hard to draw any obvious line between this mundane, utile object, eleven arhythmic floating eyeballs, and the nods to Andy Warhol’s greatest hits.

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on wall with Pirates baseball mural, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

exterior wall of PNC Park with wheatpaste traffic cone, Pittsburgh, PA

PNC Park

The latter is probably the easiest to divine. Our wheatpaster appears to have been but a temporary visitor to the city–moving on/back to Chicago and San Francisco, based on their Instagram trail. Acknowledging Pittsburgh’s most famous locally-born artist, they’ve worked reproductions of Warhol silkscreens, early paintings, and decorative designs into the pieces. For the rest of it…who knows?

For our part, we’ll say it again: The Orbit loves a good egg hunt. Any excuse to take another look down the alleys, under the bridges, and by the electrical panels is enough to make this effort a rewarding one. The thrill of nabbing one more eye cone is something no discerning Pittsburgher should live without. Those eleven eyeballs may stare at you with the force of five-and-a-half infants, but they’re really whispering in your ear: come find me, I dare you.

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on electric panel

Lawrenceville

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on construction trailer, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Tin Can Pole Art, Part 2: A Date with Some Little Devils

tin can lid painted with sad devil and the words "She's gone", Pittsburgh, PA

Hell & Oates[1]: “She’s Gone”, Bloomfield

Farewell to all these smiling angels….I’ve got a date with some little devils.

That auspicious message, artfully paint-penned to the cut lid of a large-size steel can, is nailed to a wooden utility pole on South Aiken Ave. in Friendship. Immediately above it appears one half of another can lid, cocked upright, suggesting a single bunny ear–its mate either removed after-the-fact or just never made it to the pole the first time.

However nutty this inscription might seem, little devils are absolutely on the loose in the greater East End. And while pious Christians worry about getting right with God or facing Lucifer’s pitchfork in the keister for all eternity, the city’s devils clearly have their own concerns to stress over. Indeed, the red one appears on a couple different poles both broken-hearted and teary-eyed.

steel can metal painted and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“Farewell to all these smiling angels….I’ve got a date with some little devils,” Friendship

She’s gone were the only two words Messrs. Oates and Hall really needed as shorthand to heartbreak–that, and close falsetto harmony over a slinky Fender Rhodes groove. Here, the simple message is a clue to the devil’s distress (above).

A cat-like devil has an inverted pink heart for a nose and a topsy-turvy screwed-up mouth (below, top). Those sad eyes may say just as much with no words at all. There’s one more teary-eyed devil, this time with cupid’s arrows literally piercing his visible heart (below, middle).

steel can painted with sad devil and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

sad devil, Friendship

painting of devil with arrows piercing his chest, nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship [photo: Susan Peake]

steel can metal painted and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“I try momma…”, Friendship

I try momma… implores a blue devil, rendered in stark silhouette and levitating an electric martini with one hand, the other raised in salutation (above). A different pole devil clutches the circle-A anarchy flag while waving to friends (below)–no doubt shopping for bargain Clancy’s chips at the nearby Aldi.

This same common imagery of devils, hearts, anarchy, and martini glasses showed up a couple times in our first story on tin can pole art earlier this year. These were clearly no coincidence as the themes get even more of a workout this time around.

metal can lid painted with devil holding anarchy flag nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

anarchy devil, Friendship

tin can lids painted and nailed to a utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“So lost … pray for me, I’m down,” Garfield

Somebody needs to get this guy into therapy! Or maybe we all just need to be better friends to the devils we know. Whatever it is, she’s gone and the plea to appease momma aren’t the only cries for help on the city’s telephone poles.

So lost…pray for me, Mom, I’m down reads a Garfield alley two-fer (above); the simple message Struggle, along with a fire-dancing, heart-balancing devil, turns up on a nice, rust patina’d single-color piece in Shadyside (below).

small painting of devil with heart on tin can nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Struggle, Shadyside [photo: Lee Floyd]

While that’s a lot of devils clinging to East End telephone poles, they’re far from the only specimens in this tin can pole art roundup. We also spotted a number of other pieces with the same stylistic DNA as the devil-doer dealt–we’re talking about the tell-tale cryptic calligraphy, hearts, flowers, martinis, and anarchy.

BUT…[yes, there’s always a big but] there are some outliers in the collection, too. We’ve seen the swirling, psychedelic television/VCR combo scrawled on all sorts of walls and dumpsters, as well as turned into back-of-sign decals. But this nice, two-color paint can lid outside The Glitterbox Theater (below) feels like a giant leap forward–even if the perpetrator still can’t get his or her mind off the TV.

tin can lid painted with TV and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

North Oakland

steel can with painting nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“I try to stop…and smell the flowers (in life too),” East Liberty

steel can metal painted and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“My worst enemy has always been time, 2001,” Friendship

tin can lid painted with abstract face and nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield

can lid painting of flower with crying face, Pittsburgh, PA

sad flower face, Bloomfield

tin can lid painted with the message "It's all I know", Pittsburgh, PA

“It’s all I know,” Bloomfield

tin can lid painted with indecipherable image and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Shadyside [photo: Lee Floyd]

tin can painted and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Shadyside (partial) [photo: Lee Floyd]

While asking one’s mother for her prayers may or may not be common practice, doing so via painted kitchen tool on side-street telephone pole seems an especially unlikely way to share one’s feelings.

As if parenting weren’t difficult enough, kids are always coming up with new ways to communicate. First SnapChat, now GreatChee. “How’s our youth doing, honey?” We imagine a clueless Dad asking, “Why, not so good,” the response from Mom, “Haven’t you checked East Liberty for cheese graters?”

painted cheese grater nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

cheese grater pole art! “Mom – pray for me”, East Liberty

There are also a couple more of these giant, five-gallon driveway sealant drum lids, tagged-up and screwed-into poles/trees along Spring Hill city steps. The pair clearly begs for a deeper investigation of the neighborhood’s walkways as we’re guessing these aren’t the only two out there[2].

steel can lid painted and attached to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“I am home 16” / “free Rakan” / “R.I.P. Syzer”, Spring Hill

large metal can lid painted and nailed to a tree, Pittsburgh, PA

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Basin Street steps, Spring Garden/Troy Hill

Finally, a couple pieces that are absolutely metal and pole art, but don’t have their material origin in discarded soup cans. They’re a little off-topic, but we’re not going to sit on these waiting for a collection of stray non-tin can-but-still-metal pole art.

The triptych of embossed blank verse into sheet metal that hangs on a Harriet Street utility pole (below, top) gets high marks for its innovation in the genre, but the execution feels a little, you know, “smoke a little dope, skip a little rope”… but maybe this blogger just doesn’t get it, man.

Similarly, A boy from Frankford… (below, bottom) really feels like somebody who doesn’t know what he’s trying to do. Then again, I guess he says it right there: like anyone in the tin can pole art game, this “boy” is just trying to find his way.

metal sheets stamped with words and painted, nailed to utility pole in Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship

metal sheet painted, lettered, and screwed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“a boy from Frankford … trying to find his way,” Spring Hill

Thanks to Susan Peake for tipping us off to a number of the Friendship pieces and co-assistant cub reporter Lee Floyd for his work in Shadyside.


[1] Thank you, Chris Caldwell.
[2] Greater Spring Hill: if you spot more of these, let us know!

Something Fishy: Angling for the East End Dangler

boy with tree twig and strand of toy fish

The littlest Dangler angler with another clue from the trail, East Liberty

It started, as these things do, with just a single incident. Back in the early fall, out on an afternoon constitutional, the crew came across a curious sight. Tangled in the mid-level branches of a street tree on Centre Avenue was a six-inch plastic tiger shark, hanging by a length of rough twine tied around her tail fin. Following the string led to a purple dolphin, then a starfish, and so forth. Six miniature sea creatures in all, very much out of water, and awkwardly tossed into the leafy undergrowth just above head level.

strand of plastic toy fish tied together with twine and hanging from tree branches, Pittsburgh, PA

exhibit #1 aka “two sharks,” as found in East Liberty, Sept. 2017

As we’ve mentioned before, Orbit staff maintain a strict do-not-disturb policy when it comes to street art, pranks, and other happenstance findings in the public sphere. Our interns do not always abide by the same code of conduct.

Such was the case on this day, as cub reporter Lee extracted the string of toys from the overhead branches and brought it back home for further examination. While that felt very much like disturbing the scene of a crime way back in September, it would prove eerily prescient. It was only just recently that we became aware this was no isolated incident.

That’s right: Pittsburgh has a repeat offender on a loose and he, she, or they have struck enough times to warrant serial status. The East End Dangler walks among us, covertly decorating the city’s flora with strange garlands of (mostly) plastic fish.

6 plastic sea creature toys connected by twine

exhibit #1 aka “two sharks,” found on Centre Ave., East Liberty

Nearly seven months after that initial encounter, we were certainly in for a surprise. Walking back to the office on a chilly early spring afternoon–the belly still reeling from a lunch of huevos con chorizo con tortillas con frijoles con arroz y unlimited chips–to see a tiny die-cast aeroplane poking its propeller schnoz out of the newly-cut grass. On retrieval, we found the same tell-tale twine knotted around the plane’s tiny tail and rudder. It wasn’t until just this moment that the connection between aircraft design and sea life anatomy became so perfectly clear–but let’s stay on topic.

Our very same cub reporter not only identified the toy as “Dusty Crophopper” from Disney’s Planes but also spotted a tiny rubber fish nearby. The squishy little fellow was dislodged from the strand when its tail broke off, but in an unlikely and gruesome turn of events, the dismembered body part was still caught in the twine to confirm the relationship.

toy airplane on string of twine

exhibit #3 aka “Dusty Crophopper,” (partial) found on Centre Ave., East Liberty

The revelation that the string of sharks was not a one-time deal would have–should have–been enough, but we were in for a couple more shocks. Mere feet away–O.K., maybe one or two hundred of them–was another bare tree with another set of dangling fish. In this case, two bug-eyed, cartoonish blue fish and one tiny red-orange fellow. Unlike the previous two marks of The Dangler, this trio was connected by wire (not twine) and thrown way up high, out of arm’s reach, but well within eyesight.

plastic fish toys strung together with wire and hanging from tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

exhibit #4 aka “blue fish,” as found in East Liberty, April, 2018

Attentive readers are already yelling at their mobile devices, hopefully not in public restrooms. How did you jump from exhibit #1 to exhibits #3 and #4? What kind of amateur-hour investigation are your running around here?

Ah–that’s where the plot thickens! Lee had already bagged exhibit #2 (aka “orange fish”) and just never filed his paperwork. Way out of the relatively-small perimeter we were working, this yang to “blue fish’s” yin [three fish, the little one in the middle, single color scheme, wire connector–orange and blue are even opposites on the color wheel!] hung from a tree along Browns Hill Road, miles from Centre Avenue.

three plastic fish hanging from wire in a bare tree

exhibit #2 aka “orange fish,” as found on Browns Hill Road, April, 2018 [photo: Lee Floyd]

Like Ed Gein and Ted Kaczynski, Rudy Giuliani and Pauly Shore, we may never know what motivates The East End Dangler to do what they do. In lieu of any hard evidence on the person behind the dangling, we’re left with just the physical items: toys–specifically fish toys–and location.

On that first point, one popular theory holds that the perp is a parent, the child or children having aged out of their fish phase and into teenage alienation. What to do with those leftover sharks, goldfish, and neon tetras but string them up and throw them in city trees? A little goofy, but more unlikely events happen around us every day.

3 toy fish connected by wire

exhibit #4 aka “blue fish”, found on Centre Ave., East Liberty

These may also be the work of a prankster or frustrated conceptual artist. The nearby Goodwill on Centre likely offers an ample supply of second-hand toys at by-the-pound prices. If decorating trees with Happy Meal castoffs is your thing, it can be done easily and at bargain rates. As art? Well, it beats spray paint tagging.

A third opinion holds that we’ve got deeper symbolism here–something very specifically fish-related. All three of the Centre Ave. finds are within rock-tossing distance of the East Liberty Whole Foods; “orange fish” was spotted adjacent to the Hokkaido Seafood Buffet restaurant. It doesn’t take Hercule Poirot to connect these particular dots. Whether the Dangler might be addressing mercury in the food chain or the Pacific Ocean’s plastic vortex is unclear, but lines can certainly be drawn.

3 toy fish connected by wire

exhibit #2 aka “orange fish,” found on Browns Hill Road

We may never know…or this may just be the beginning of the conversation. If you’ve noticed the work of The East End Dangler (literally) hanging around a tree you frequent, please let us know. Until then, to paraphrase Casey Kasem, keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the fish in the trees.


BREAKING NEWS: On the eve of going to press, The Dangler dropped another bombshell on us. There, in those same Centre Avenue street trees hangs yet another dangled concoction. This one appears to be just two toy airplanes, one a bulbous, cartoonish propeller; the other, a second Dusty Crophopper. As of this writing, the dangled bits remain tree-side.

toy airplane hanging from wire in tree limbs

exhibit #5 as found in East Liberty, May, 2018

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