Born Again: The Babyland Totems

sculpture of black plaster head with fake white hair and flowers attached to utility pole

street totem by twilight

Those eyes! Wide open, wild as the wind, staring straight back at–no, through–you. The steely glare cuts right into the cold, dark, February night. Evocatively–as if arranged by set designers on a commercial shoot–the ice blue of those peepers echoes the color of rain-slicked Negley Avenue reflecting the deep indigo sky above. It’s only just six o’clock, but it may as well be midnight.

sculpture of black plaster head with flowers attached to wood

bean baggie baby on board

The Babyland Totems don’t always look quite so startling. But even in broad daylight they’re an exciting and unnerving collection of figures to come across purely by accident. Most of the little objets d’art feature plaster cloth-formed humanoid faces, painted either black or brown, and decorated with curly hair, red lips, and, of course, those pale blue eyes.

Each of the softball-sized heads projects from a bundle of colorful fake flowers within a decorative cloth wrap that serves as the little icon’s body. Random accessories–a beanbag, plastic barrettes, a toy army tank–make their appearances, too.

sculpture of black plaster head with fake flowers

verbena tiara

The effect is very much that of the youngest babies, released from the womb, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and surrounded by the magic and love of a new life. It’s hard to tell how content these little fellows are–some appear to be smiling, for sure, but others are mid-scream. We’ve all seen real-life infants taking the same wide range of emotions.

plaster head with fake flowers resting on brick window ledge

window ledge widow’s walk

At the same time, one cannot help but think of these as memorials. Close one eye, tilt your head, and almost every one of the totems takes the form of a simple cross. That familiar shape, the reverent individual attention, and those pink, white, and purple flowers remind us of fresh decorations on grave markers or the all-too-common roadside crosses that appear seemingly out-of-nowhere on the berms of highways and grassy undergrowth along busy through-streets.

The Orbit has spent enough time in and around graveyards to know that grounds crews routinely flush these kinds of plastic flowers–along with the accumulated teddy bears, deflated balloons, and past-date holiday decorations–a couple times a year. If some of Allegheny Cemetery’s fall cleanup ended up here–instead of the landfill–well, we can’t think of a better (re-)use of the material.

skull and bell attached to utility pole

skull’s out for summer

Babyland, the all-things-newborn supply shop, served Pittsburgh’s East End for over sixty years[1]. For anyone who was in the area before, say, the late oughts, you’ll not soon forget the circular cartoonish images of babies pulling their own diapers down that used to decorate the outside brickwork. Those were replaced by actual photos of super cute tykes not too long before the business closed in 2012. The squat retail space at the corner of Penn and Negley has been sitting vacant ever since.

Unlike some places in town, this will inevitably change fast–in fact, it’s amazing the little building at this prominent intersection hasn’t been razed for the next set of Legoland condos or a fluorescent-lit fast casual chain restaurant already. Development has come loud and hard to East Liberty and the Penn Avenue corridor and we all know there’s plenty to memorialize even where it hasn’t actually happened…yet.

sculpture of black plaster head with golden hair and flowers attached to utility pole

totem/pole

The other obvious–and most important–side to all this is the continuing story of displacement and eviction of East Liberty’s population. From the old Babyland location, one merely has to look east, across Negley Ave., to see a completely denuded landscape where the big Penn Plaza apartment complex stood for the last 50 years. The fallow ground is now an otherworldly red-brown as crushed brick mixes roughly 50/50 with barren soil.

Had the Babyland artist wished to eulogize Penn Plaza instead, he or she couldn’t (at least, not in the same way)–there’s nothing left to even hang a piece of artwork on. [In fairness, there is one set of steps, their handrails, and a full perimeter of chain link fence–but you get the idea.]

stairway leading down to large empty lot

former Penn Plaza apartments lot, East Liberty

In the last two years, Penn Plaza has gone from a large, lived-in pubic housing complex to a mountain of upturned brown brick to the big muddy field it is today. For those of us who didn’t live there, the transformation may have been startling, but we see this kind of ruthless, scorched-earth demolition and redevelopment happening all over.

But for the S’Libertarians whose friends and loved-ones moved away, who saw their community disintegrate, or worst of all–personally suffered the loss of a family home–the upscaling/gentrification/whitewashing (take your pick) of East Liberty has got to pack the same savage punch as a hurricane or tornado blowing through other parts of the world, dismembering the lives in its path.

sculpture of black plaster head with plastic toy tank attached to wood

Babyland: tanks for the memories

Without any better information to work from[2], all we can do is speculate and enjoy the Babyland totems while they’re still around–and they probably won’t be here for long. Like the former retail building they’re installed around or the old Penn Plaza apartments, something will take them sooner or later. Whether that’s a designated city clean-up crew, street art souvenir hunters[3], or just a heavy blast of rain, we can’t predict. But it’s another of life’s constant reminders that everything–even a big multistory brick and steel apartment complex–is really just here for a snap of the fingers or a blink of one of those haunting baby blue eyes.

playing cards wrapped in twine hanging from cowbell

the old Babyland, hanging by a thread

A note on the photos: These pictures were all taken on Feb. 13 (daytime) and Feb. 14 (evening), 2018. We have it on good authority that at least one more totem was part of the original installation, but it had disappeared by the time we got on the scene. Within a few days of the 14th, the two pieces from the plywood over Babyland’s Penn Ave. entrance [“bean baggie baby on board” and “tanks for the memories” (our labels), above] were also removed.

sculpture of black plaster head laying on wet sidewalk concrete

head down to Babyland! [4]


[1] “Longtime East Liberty business Babyland to close and move”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 8, 2012.
[2] In the course of reporting this piece, we located the artist who created the Babyland totems and made several offers to discuss the work. The artist declined to be interviewed for this story and since there’s no attribution on the individual pieces, we’ve decided to preserve that anonymity.
[3] The Orbit adheres to a strict code of preservation of street art so we do not condone taking pieces such as these for personal consumption.
[4] After finding this lost noggin on the sidewalk, we did our best to reattach it to the rest of the piece using a twig to join the two. How long that lasted is unknown.

Tin Can Pole Art

tin can lid painted with heart and text "I love you Pittsburgh. Goodbye." nailed to telephone pole. Pittsburgh, PA

“I love you Pittsburgh. Goodbye.” Lawrenceville

Such a lovely farewell kiss. The severed lid from a steel can–it looks like it was from one of the big 28-ouncers like you get tomatoes in–tacked into the rough wood of a Lawrenceville telephone pole. Painted onto the flat surface is a decorative white heart with the simple, touching message I love you Pittsburgh, Goodbye.

Less romantic, hypochondriac Orbit readers may get hung up on the totem as a sharp-edged breeding ground for tetanus–but don’t fall for it. The anonymous artist has left this Easter egg high enough off the street and applied it securely to the pole in a way that no one will be injured, unless they’re really trying. On the contrary, this little rusting love letter may just save a life.

abstract painting on unrolled steel can with message "We gave this place our best shot and no matter what happens now ... it was worth it & we made this work.", Pittsburgh, PA

“We gave this place our best shot and no matter what happens now … it was worth it & we made this work.” Shadyside

rusted tin can with painting of a skull, nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

skull can, Oakland

Someone’s out there, taking those most lethal occupants of the recycling bin and having a fine time dismantling the component parts, flattening them into two-dimensional work surfaces, and turning the little pieces into cryptic pictograms and coded messages, hidden-in-plain-sight curios and tiny objects d’art.

You may have walked by some of these a hundred times and never noticed. At just a couple inches wide, the little artworks are especially well-camouflaged against the deep brown tarred wood of the telephone poles they’re displayed upon, quite often out of eye level at the peak of arms’ reach.

tin can flattened and painted, nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

A Friday night “to-do” list: love, anarchy, the devil, and a martini, Bloomfield

Cut tin can painted with text and nailed to telephone pole. Text reads "Back then, if it exploded, we laughed", Pittsburgh, PA

“Back then, if it exploded, we laughed”, Shadyside

Whether we’re talking about one lone assailant or a whole gang of tin candidates is anyone’s guess. Besides a few name-like tags [J.A.K.; KYT; Nick (damn); Leroy…are these real people?] there is no attribution here to work from.

That said, many of these specimens have common elements. First, let’s just start with the genre. It’s a niche market, for sure–ex-food container nailed to telephone pole. Second, there’s proximity–all the ones we’ve encountered are in the same one or two square miles between East End neighborhoods Shadyside, Bloomfield, Garfield, and Lawrenceville.

Most importantly, though, the apparent paint pens, handwriting, style of dotted lines, arrows, and indecipherable messages is even more precise. Several of the tiny artworks contain the same iconography of a glowing martini glass, heart, anarchy circle-A, and devil figure.

small painting on steel can of devil with the text "I choose...", Pittsburgh, PA

“I choose…”, Shadyside

small painting on steel can with text "to follow my heart...up the mountain, or...", Pittsburgh, PA

“to follow my heart…up the mountain, or…”, Shadyside

There are some definite outliers in the field. Another large can lid spotted in Shadyside is painted with a night scene featuring a blue river valley between green fields and trees (below). The original pastoral feel has now been accidentally transformed into a scarier, menacing landscape as seasons of rust creep through to the surface. It’s also worth noting that this lid was attached with a pair of Phillips-head screws rather than the full-perimeter flat tacks we found on the other pieces.

painting on steel can lid of night landscape, Pittsburgh, PA

night scene with river, trees, and green grass, Shadyside

tin can lid painted with text "Me vs. Time, KYT, '02" nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“Me vs. Time”, Garfield

Lastly, there’s even a sub-genre to this already arch form. In a couple places, we came across the big steel can lids with their flared attachment edges and gaping mouth holes that make them look like absurd anthropomorphized flowers. We imagine these come from five- or ten-gallon bulk-size containers of asphalt sealant or roofing tar–but haven’t actually ID’d them yet.

It’s a considerably larger canvas to work from. The wider-than-the-pole size likewise shouts out at the passer-by, where a soup can is more of a whisper. I’m not sure these two examples (below) tell us much about the form, other than we like the possibilities and we’d love to see more of them in action, out in the wild.

round metal lid painted with long string of text nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“You spin me right round…”, Duck Hollow

cardboard "Clarence the Bird ... Make the World Beautiful" artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

big lid painting [plus Clarence], Friendship

Going Postal: Cap Man Fever, Part 2 OR Whither, Cap Man?

postal slap on light pole with portrait of young man in baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #12, Forbes Ave.

Cap Man has left the building.

More accurately, he’s likely left Pittsburgh entirely*. The possibility also exists that the young “postal slap” artist who decorated the lamp posts and traffic signage of central Oakland over the past year has just moved on to another less public hobby. But we doubt it.

postal slap with portrait of young man in baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #10, Neville St.

Let’s back up. Over the summer, we reported on the serial application of hand-created Sharpie-on-postal label artworks throughout the greater Craig Street and Forbes Ave. area of Oakland. A lot of folks use this medium, but few work in portraiture. [See “Going Postal: Cap Man Fever”, Pittsburgh Orbit, June 11, 2017.] These little sticker pieces were committed by an unknown, anonymous artist who appeared to be (perhaps overly) obsessed with literally plastering his face all over town.

No sooner had we published our second, tangentially-related story [“Going Postal: Rogues Gallery”Pittsburgh Orbit, July 30, 2017] than a new salvo of Cap Man (self-)portraits began appearing, including a nice run down mostly-residential Neville Street in Oakland.

postal slap with portrait of young man in baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #9, Neville St.

The image was unmistakably our guy–the same upturned, tagged, and jauntily off-center ball cap; the same flat expression and deep-seated eyes on a familiar young white guy face–so we bagged them. [Observant Orbit readers will note our photographs are from a point after some heavy mid-summer rains soaked the stickers thoroughly, leaving the dried artifacts crinkled, but still color-rich.] Then we waited for more…and waited…and waited.

But, as we learned from the years counting the seconds for Chinese Democracy to drop, there’s a point where it’s healthiest to just let go. This then may be a final goodbye as well as a thankful tribute to Cap Man. For whatever brief period, he made the sidewalks of Oakland a little more interesting and the art of the postal slap a little more creative.

postal slap with portrait of young man in baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #11, Neville Street

So what’s become of Cap Man? Our original hypothesis–a Pitt student who slapped his way across Oakland in the daily commute from a bus stop on Fifth and/or Craig Street to his campus classrooms–still holds water. Perhaps even more so, considering the termination of the ink portraits roughly coincides with the end of the university’s summer term.

That said, it’s safe to say there’s a fair chance we’ll just never know what was up with this dude. Cap Man may well have taken his business or computer science degree back to Philadelphia,  New York, or Washington, D.C. and is now safely installed running the numbers or pushing digits far from the telephone poles of central Oakland and the bus shelters of Bloomfield. Hopefully he’s still got his collection of Sharpies and they’re not just used for addressing large packages and system diagraming on large conference room brainstorming tablets.

Wherever you are and whatever you’re up to, godspeed, Cap Man.

postal slap with portrait of young man in baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #12, Forbes Ave.


* A little gender assumption here, yes, but as explained in the earlier post, Pittsburgh Orbit believes these are self-portraits of a young man.

Highway to Hell: The House of Hades “Toynbee” Tiles, Part 2

House of Hades "Toynbee Tile" imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

House of Hades “Toynbee Tile” #4 (detail), Blvd. of the Allies, downtown

A cautionary tale: Whenever one thinks she or he has reached the end of the metaphorical line and is dangling by the very last fibers above the abyss, know that if you’re successfully converting oxygen to carbon dioxide, you’ve still got a fighting chance. Heck, maybe one day we’ll finally get the high-quality hemp rope N.O.R.M.L. promised us back in the ’90s.

Just a few months back, we bagged what we thought were the very last “Toynbee tiles” in Pittsburgh. Those two little street artworks, both found on Blvd. of the Allies downtown, are actually courtesy of the equally-mysterious House of Hades, which is believed to be either copycat or super-fan, depending on one’s viewpoint. [Our handful of “real” Toynbee tiles are, sadly, long gone.]

linoleum art of city scene at night, imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

city at night tile (detail), Blvd. of the Allies, downtown

And so, as we said in that post, that was all she seemed to write…err, carve into linoleum and press into the street.

But (yes: there’s always a big but) how wrong a blogger can be! Within mere blocks of those two specimens, we encountered yet another pair of wayward street tiles–apparently from the very same hands. The first of these is on Smithfield Street, right before the bridge; the other just around the corner and up a block on the Boulevard (at Cherry Way).

The former (we’re calling it House of Hades tile #3) includes the exact same message as tile #1 from the previous post: House of Hades / One man versus American media in society ‘2012. This one also has the added ominous zinger To punish them all.

House of Hades "Toynbee Tile" imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

House of Hades tile #3, Smithfield Street at First Ave.

Tile #4 is a little more difficult to parse. The Toynbee half of it contains what we’ve come to recognize as a naked lady’s shapely gam across the top (there was probably a right leg to go with this left, but it’s gone now), plus some of the familiar big headline text: House of Hades / The resurrection of Toynbee’s idea in society ‘2012. It also contains an extra stanza in relative fine print with the disturbing message I must work harder to punish these butchers for all that they’ve done.

The most unusual thing about #4, though, has to be that it’s also immediately abutting/overlapping yet another linoleum street tile of an entirely different mood and design. This one, vertical in composition with rounded corners, features a night scene in one-point perspective of a car driving toward a stylized big city skyline [notably not Pittsburgh]. A crescent moon hangs overhead against the star-speckled black sky.

It’s probably safe to say this nightscape is not the work of either the Toynbee or House of Hades folks. Aside from the medium itself, it just has none of the tell-tale style elements or apocalyptic messaging. That said, it sure is curious that the two ended up where they did. With all the available, naked pavement out there, how do two road tiles lie nearly right on top of each other? Can’t we all get along!

House of Hades "Toynbee Tile" imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

The full scene. House of Hades tile #4/nighttime city scene, Blvd. of the Allies at Cherry Way

Are these really the last of the Toynbee (inspired) tiles in Pittsburgh? We sure hope that isn’t the case and we’ll not make the mistake of trying to declare such a truth again. Fool me twice, as they say.

Plus, like that desperate hero watching the fraying strands of her lifeline unspool from its anchor above, we like to think there’s a little more life left in these streets and–with it now legal in 30 states–hemp is on the way. We haven’t given up just yet.


See also: Highway to Hell: The House of Hades “Toynbee” Tiles: (Pittsburgh Orbit, April 9, 2017)

Going Postal: Rogues Gallery

portraits of naked women holding their breasts drawn on US postal service mail labels and stuck to steel light pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Mail-order brides, Bloomfield

Tiny one-of-a-kind artworks decorate a bus shelter, steel light poles, a cross-walk signal, and the back sides of street signs. Pictured on them are the faces of fading-from-memory pop culture figures, a couple buxom babes, and a kind of high school outsider iconography we hope is never lost. More than any other subject, though, are the bad guys.

The little ink portraits, drawn in heavy black felt tip on repurposed U.S. Postal Service “228” sticky-back shipping labels, are never signed. That said, the common medium, subjects, style, and presentation locale, lead us to believe they’re all the work of a single actor. The fact that new pieces just stopped all at once earlier this year suggests the artist has moved-on–either to other media or, more likely, literally out of the greater Bloomfield-Oakland area where all these examples were spotted.

"mug shot" portrait of man holding arrest sign drawn on US postal service mail label and stuck to glass bus shelter, Pittsburgh, PA

Mug shot, Bloomfield

portraits of criminals drawn on US postal service mail label and stuck to glass bus shelter, Pittsburgh, PA

Rogues gallery, Bloomfield

We don’t know who did these, but we’ve watched enough Luther and The Fall to consider ourselves well-prepped for psychological profiling. The subject matter here–kitschy demi-celebrities Gary Coleman, Rodney Dangerfield, and Moe from the Three Stooges, the skull-and-headphones of a Hot Topic silk screen, and criminal anti-heroes like Al Capone and David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz–just feels a little too on-the-nose to deny. We’re definitely making an assumption, but this is the work of young man.

postal label with ink artwork of skull wearing headphones, Pittsburgh, PA

Skull & headphones, Oakland

portrait of person with head in hands drawn on US postal service mail label and stuck to glass bus shelter, Pittsburgh, PA

Head in hands, Bloomfield

The other thing we’ve got on this theory is “Cap Man“. Our story on the string of (apparent) self-portraits committed in awfully-similar medium and style ran earlier this year. In that, we saw the same “postal slaps”–also penned in black Sharpie, stuck to street signs in the vicinity of Craig & Forbes–very close to all of the Oakland specimens here. The Cap Man drawings, however, are not based on previously-published photos, but rather appear to be self-portraits of a young, white, ballcap-wearing male.

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of Rodney Dangerfield, Pittsburgh, PA

Rappin’ Rodney Dangerfield, Oakland

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of Gary Coleman, Pittsburgh, PA

Whatchutalkinbout, Orbit? Gary Coleman, Oakland

What became of Cap Man? In the earlier piece, we theorized that he’s a bus rider, taking the 54C from Bloomfield to Oakland–perhaps even drawing his portraits right there in the back seats, his telephone and Google Images as visual reference, one-a-day on the short 10-minute ride.

If so, his destination was likely central Oakland and Studentland, U.S.A. If so, he’s got umpteen different explanations for taking his big markers home for the summer and allowing the post office to restock its supply of blank shipping labels. Maybe–just maybe–Cap Man will return for another season of infrastructure decoration in the fall.

drawing of Moe from the Three Stooges on US Postal Service address label stuck to bus stop sign, Pittsburgh, PA

Moe, Bloomfield

faded US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of Moe from the "Three Stooges", Pittsburgh, PA

Faded Moe, Oakland

mail label graffiti, Pittsburgh, PA

likely copycat, Oakland

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of smiling woman, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghosting postal: woman (partial), Oakland

 

Going Postal: Cap Man Fever

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #8, Schenley Plaza

The ball cap is cocked high, resting on the back of the head at a jaunty just-off-center angle. Its bill is pure black, minus a small rectangular label on the inside brim. When you can see the man’s eyes, they stare directly back with a cold, dispassionate expression. More often, though, they’re shrouded in the heavy shadows cast by his supraorbital ridge.

Cap Man–our name for this anonymous figure–is the subject of a series of tiny artworks currently on view for a limited time* in the general vicinity of Craig Street and Forbes Avenue in Oakland. You’re going to have to work a little to find them.

portrait of man with eyes closed wearing a baseball cap drawn on US postal service mail label and stuck to blue free paper box, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #1, Forbes Ave.

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #2, Craig Street

Both the medium and presentation for the Cap Man portraits are as DIY and proletariat as they come–thick black felt tip ink drawn on repurposed U.S. Postal Service “228” priority mail labels. The little stickers have been peeled off and applied haphazardly to a free publication bin, an electrical box, street poles, and–clearly the venue of choice–the back sides of metal street signs.

Cap Man’s creator certainly isn’t the first to use this medium. Alternately going by the general term sticker art or the more specific postal slaps, you’ll see similar pieces littering mailboxes and light poles all over the city and (apparently) across the country. Typically, though, they’re filled with either bright big-lettered tags that look like studies for future spray paint work or blunt messages like the series of FUCK TRUMP stickers around town. The Cap Man original ink portraits are something a little more interesting.

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #3, Craig Street

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #4, Bellefield Ave.

We don’t know who this person is–either artist or subject. It’s probably safe to assume, though, that the two are one in the same–self-portraits of a young man on the move. The angle of the image seems to suggest the artist is working from a lap-held mirror, or (more likely) his phone.

A theory: The proximity of where the stickers have been left suggests the possibility the perpetrator is riding the bus to Oakland, getting off at Fifth & Craig (or thereabouts), and then tagging the first bare surface he or she encounters on the ensuing walk down Craig Street and around the corner, heading toward the museum maybe, or Pitt.

In this scenario, the drawings may even be inked right there in the aft seats of the 54C or the 93A, a daily discipline perfect for the 10-minute hands-free commute. The shaky nature of this workspace would also help to explain why a couple of the portraits are clearly off–as if the otherwise competent hand that drew them was jostled mid-stroke…but this may just be a romantic pipe dream from a blogger who reads too many detective stories.

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #5, Forbes Ave.

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #6, Forbes Ave.

Let’s face it: ball caps look pretty dumb on anyone who’s not either twelve years old or actively playing baseball at that moment. That said, we’re glad Cap Man has given his stark two-tone/big negative space portraits something distinctive to, uh, hang his hat on. As a visual element, it makes his head stand out, provides structure, and frames the top of the drawings. It also provides a nice thematic grouping for the current exhibition in Oakland.

We suspect Cap Man’s old-school selfies aren’t the only street-facing work of this artist. Bloomfield is currently host to another pretty distinct series of postal slaps that look like they may have come from the very same hands. That, however, is a subject for another post on another day. Until then, a tip of the hat to you, Cap Man, it’s been a good time finding your tiny pictures.

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #7, Forbes Ave.

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #8 (detail), Schenley Plaza


* Limited, but unspecified: sunlight, rain, or graffiti cleanup efforts will eventually claim these pieces.

Easter Special: You Can’t Make an Omelet Without Finding Some Eggs

baby doll painted gold and hanging from telephone wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden baby, Lawrenceville

Matched ceramic salt and pepper shakers, ruby glass, bobbleheads, Hummel figurines, cookie jars–people collect all kinds of goofy stuff. Bakelite AM radios, Santas, and state plates, World’s Fair trinkets and glass insulators from telegraph lines. David from our West Coast rival Portland Orbit has some unique collections: cans of knock-off Dr. Pepper, eyeglass stems found on the street, other peoples’ grocery lists.

Easter may come only once a year, but every day can be the Orbiteer’s figurative egg hunt–which is really just the primordial collecting impulse–and it doesn’t cost a penny or take up any room on your shelves. Spotting is a lifelong and year-round habit: take the alley, poke behind the bushes, look down at the pavement and up in the telephone wires. [Oh, Golden Babies, how we pray we haven’t seen the last of you!]

Today, whether you’re a committed church-going, brunch-eating Easter reveler or full-on dance-naked-by-the-bonfire pagan, we celebrate some of the Orbit‘s favorite any-time/all-year-long city egg hunt targets.

protractor glued to metal driving barrier, Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh protractor, Allegheny River Trail, Millvale

Pittsburgh Protractors are the easy money, chump change, fish-in-a-barrel of local urban collecting. In that way, though, they’re a great entry point–the gateway drug–to hardcore egg hunting. Either way, you have to respect the work of the protractor perpetrator(s) and we couldn’t not include the protractors in the list. There are just so damn many of the little plastic doo-dads glued all over the place that if you’re in bicycle-accessible city limits and keep your blinkers open, you’ll probably spot a few even if you’re not really trying.

ghost sign for "Arsenal Brand Meat Products" painted on side of brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost sign: Arsenal Brand Meat Products, Hill District

Sal’s MeatsHipCo BatteriesMother’s Best FlourOwl Cigar. Who are these vendors and what is the business arrangement that traded a (presumably) single payment into a long-after-life of marketing products that may no longer be purchased?

The hand-painted, brick wall advertising of yesteryear was all put out of business (we assume) by the arrival of big, purpose-built billboards with their larger display areas, darkness-defying flood lights, targeted sight lines, and monthly rates. That’s part of what makes so-called ghost signs so enjoyable for the egg hunter: it’s pretty obvious that there won’t be any more of them[1], and what’s left is often fading fast.

brass marker showing the 46.0 high water mark for the March 18, 1936 flood of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

1936 flood marker, Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown

Waaaay back when, the very first story committed to these virtual pages concerned a cryptic message painted around two faces of an old brick building in Manchester. That [SPOILER ALERT!] turned to be a marker for the most famous rising of the waters in Pittsburgh’s history–the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day flood.

We’ve found a handful more of them around downtown and on the North Side, but surprisingly few considering the immensity of the event and the age of our building stock. That just makes the hunt all that much sweeter when we zero in on previously unseen prey.

Mary statuette in homemade grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Front yard Mary and grotto, Arlington

The blessed mother, hands spread with her palms open in a welcoming embrace or–far less often–the pietà image of Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus or holding the once-and-future as a baby [see above]. Whichever way we encounter the statuary, this is Front Yard Mary [even if she’s in the side or back yard] and we’ll take her any way we can get her.

There are so many Marys out there that we’ve got separate future features planned for South Oakland, Homestead, and the South Side Slopes (at least), which hardly makes Mary the most difficult egg to hunt. That said, this is ostensibly an Easter feature…

painting of woman with three eyes by Clohn Art, wheatpasted to wood, Pittsburgh, PA

Clohn Art, Downtown

Clohn Art is the nom de plume–or perhaps nom de paintbrush–of one John Lee, whose crude extra-eyed men, women, and animal paintings are executed on the placemats of Chinese restaurants and unfurled brown paper bags. They’re found wheatpasted at construction sites, alley walls, and, in at least one case, a rusty bus shelter in Homestead.

Wherever we happen to see the artist’s distinctive little paintings, they always pop off the wall surface and bring a twisted smile to our merely two-eyed faces. Mr. Lee declined The Orbit‘s request for a feature interview [John: we’re still interested!] so we’re left to troll the back streets, hoping to grab another of those rarest of eggs: a fresh, new Clohn to nestle in the wicker basket.

teddy bear and plastic flowers left on curbside, Pittsburgh, PA

Reasonably happy-looking sad toy, Fairywood

Like some mangy old teddy bear, dropped casually from a toddler’s stroller and forced to spend purgatory face-down in the weedy berm, Al Hoff brought the concept of “sad toys” into this blogger’s life and then cruelly left us by the side of the road to fend for ourselves.

Stuffed animals with their fur matted, flattened, and filthy; a basketball, punctured and concave in an oily culvert; doll parts dismembered and jettisoned like the work of a Lilliputian serial killer. So much pathos in such tiny candy-colored doses! It’s almost too much to bear…almost. But when we find them–and these are truly both the most random and the most reliable, renewable resource of today’s eggs–we can’t help but bag them.

outline of previously-existing "ghost house" against larger brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost house, North Side

Ghost houses–the imprint of one, now-extinct building upon its still-extant neighbor–is hardly a concept unique to Pittsburgh, but we’ve got the perfect environmental conditions to produce them here. Older building stock constructed right up against each other in a previous era when the density supported a pedestrian-based workforce, coupled with decades of “benign neglect” that demolished many–some falling all on their own–and landlords caring little about fixing-up the weird negative spaces on their vacant lot-facing windowless walls.

Like many of the other ova that occupy our oculi, ghost houses are special because–like a petrified forest, or the career of Steve Guttenberg–they’re the result of such a peculiar series of historic events, circumstances, and (non-)actions over a great period of time that we’ll likely not encounter the same perfect storm here again.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Clarence the Bird pole art, Bloomfield

With Clarence the Bird, the egg hunt changes parameters. Like picking up pawpaws, where there’s one of his handmade, ink-on-cardboard Make the World Beautiful instances, there tend to be a lot. Find a Clarence and you can safely spread out–looking up and down at the adjacent-blocks’ neighboring telephone poles and bulletin boards–and you’ll likely spot more.

So far [to our knowledge], Clarence has stuck to the greater Lawrenceville-Bloomfield-Garfield-Friendship portion of the East End, but that may just be where we’ve crossed paths with his big wings and pointy beak. I’m sure if we do see his trail elsewhere, we’ll see it everywhere.

poems of The Dirty Poet taped to a lamp post, Pittsburgh, PA

Poems of The Dirty Poet, Oakland

To call locating the telephone pole and street lamp verse of The Dirty Poet “egg hunt” material is a little bit of a stretch. His Dirtiness (yes: the writer is a he) wants the short, dittoed poems he authors to be read, after all. They’ve been taped and stapled at eye level on prominent foot traffic corners for just that purpose.

Regardless, it’s still neat to run across the prickly prose and lurid lines of the Bard of the Backstreets, knowing that one is literally standing in the creator’s footprints, inhaling his boozy breath, and shimmering in what’s left of his groovy vibes. To you, Whitman of the walkways, Dickinson of the downtown, Angelou of the who are you? may we always encounter your offspring sunny side up.

Toynbee Tile reading "Toynbee Idea in movie '2001' resurrect dead on planet Jupiter"

Toynbee Tile (no longer present), Downtown

It almost feels like cheating to include the so-called Toynbee Tiles in the list–we ran a feature on the House of Hades tiles just last week. But when you get lucky enough to spot one of the remaining, legit, first-generation street pieces, well, it’s a good day indeed.

As we reported, it is The Orbit‘s conclusion that none of these still exist in metro Pittsburgh and we’re left with a pair of ersatz Hell-bound tributes. But you never know! What does Easter–and, by association, spring–offer but the arrival of new hope, possibility, and opportunity. It is a new season: the sun is shining, birds are chirping, and flowers are popping with their tiny blasts of color across late winter’s gray-brown backdrop. Go out there and get you some eggs!


[1] There are, however, several efforts out there to restore/repaint old ghost signs as new mural projects. There’s a big one on Penn Avenue in Garfield and several in Braddock that we know of.