Serial Scrawlers: Who’s That Dude?

graffiti drawing of man's head with mustache, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District

Equal parts suburban dad and Dobie Gillis, our newest acquaintance shows up alternately smug, demur, sleepy, and shy. His hair swings between close-cropped gestural bangs and full-on mop-top beatnik. Occasionally he’ll let the grass grow into an anachronistic goatee or legit full chin beard. There is always a preposterous bushy mustache.

The ridiculous names Mike BoneCarl Gigimo, and Bobby Kaczar appear attached to some of the bemustasched mugs. We don’t know where these come from [don’t bother Googling them], but, you know, at this point, why bother steering?

graffiti drawing of man's head with mustache, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District

graffiti cartoon figure drawn on street feature

Garfield

Who is this dude? Where did he come from? What did he do last night to end up so dog tired today? and–you may be asking at this point–Why do we care?

Never you mind about that; unlike Melania, we do care. The more important question is, What makes a person take paint, crayon, or grease pencil to stray public surfaces? There are primal explanations, for sure–the need to express, to emote, to communicate the human experience. There’s probably a vanity angle, too. Why, do it enough times and you might find your after-hours etchings immortalized in some obscure corner of the blogosphere. [Ahem.]

paint pen graffiti of man with bushy mustache on painted board, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield

graffiti of man's face with bushy mustache on stone wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

More perplexing than the compulsion to create is the need for some minority of graffiti writers to do (versions of) the same thing over and over and over again. Why come up with a new face when this dude’s closed eyes and walrus top lip come so naturally? Perhaps it’s a self-portrait in caricature? If you’ve got an angle, work it! Who knows?

graffiti image of man with mustache on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District

graffiti drawing of man with mustache on white stucco wall

Lawrenceville

Whatever the motivation, these repeat offenders are all over the place. We’re no experts, but they seem to have too much line and not enough letter to be “tags,” but are really just barely getting by as full-on “street art.”

Whatever you think, there are a lot of them out there. There’s the psychedelic TV-VCR combo and the lightening bolt cloud, Mr. K.I.D.S. and that rock-and-roll sheep, the stylized row house and the dangling bat–the list goes on and on. Clarence the Bird almost counts, but having the original works on paper seems to put Mr. The Bird in different company.

We’re calling these folks Serial Scrawlers and they’re interesting enough to maybe get back to as time allows and the series unfolds.

graffiti face drawn on rusty utility pole

Bloomfield

graffiti drawing of man's head with mustache, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District

So, “Mike Bone,” “Carl Gigimo,” or whoever you are, you got The Orbit’s attention. That’s what a spray paint spree in a Strip District side street will do for you. That, and making us work the S key like a rented mule.

We don’t know why you find this particular middle-aged male likeness so intriguing–enough to reproduce those forewhiskers and loose locks on every alley wall from 16th Street to high Penn Avenue. But we’ve had a fine little time tracking your progress through the East End. Live long, Mike Bone, and keep that brow furrowed and mustache humming.

graffiti drawing of man's head with mustache, Pittsburgh, PA

16th Street Bridge

graffiti cartoon figure drawn on street feature

Garfield

graffiti drawing of man's head with mustache, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

The Protractor Files: One Last Big Score

protractor glued to Bloomfield Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield Bridge

Oh, their demon powers! The perfect arc, the cosine-solving magic, the eternal urban egg hunt! Wherever we go, that’s where we are–and so are they! Attached to the low wall of a concrete pedestrian walkway, stuck to the base of a lamp pole, glued to a park bench, painted red and white on a Polish Hill mailbox. Like the protagonist of any decent jewel heist flick, just when this blogger thought he was out, the Pittsburgh protractors held a dear family member hostage, blackmailing him back to the game for one last score.

protractor glued to base of light pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Squirrel Hill

protractor glued to electrical box, Pittsburgh, PA

#32, Strip District

When Pittsburgh Orbit first wrote about them last year, we suggested right in the post’s title that the protractors are “disappearing”. The existing stock seemed to be in the process of removal by authorities, stripped by trophy-seekers, weather-eroded, and/or painted-over with no replacements arriving to replenish the supply.

Given a little time and perspective, though, reports of the protractors’ demise seem to be somewhat–if not greatly–exaggerated. Many of the specimens spotted in this spree–certainly the solid purple and yellow ones photographed here–appear to be new, unnumbered additions to the landscape since last we looked.

If so, why the change of M.O.? Did the protractor perpetrator just get lazy? Lose count? Or do we have a copycat on our hands? One Office Max dumpster dive plus a tube of Shoe Goo[1] and anyone could add to the city’s long-running street art mystery.

protractor attached to mail box, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to Bloomfield Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield Bridge

And what a mystery it is! How does anyone keep their big yap shut for this long without spilling the beans?

Is there a message to the protractors we’re all just too blind to see? Do they actually mean something or is this just someone’s goofy prank? Like the Trump voter coming to the realization the pathological liar he elected was telling the truth in just enough horrifying ways, are we in on the joke, or the butt of it?

Ah, hell. Maybe that’s something that could–and should–be said of all art[2]. If these little plastic doohickeys glued to nondescript bridge joints and light pole bases get people off their keisters, stretching their gams, asking questions, and looking at the world a little closer, you know, I.R.L. we’ll be happy to take a few lumps for Team Humanity.

protractor attached to graffiti-covered mailbox, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to I-beam in city park, Millvale, PA

Millvale Riverfront Park

protractor glued to pedestrian overpass, Pittsburgh, PA

Pedestrian overpass, Bigelow Blvd.

purple protractor attached to "Receiving Entrance" sign on stone building, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

purple protractor attached to metal expansion joint on bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

40th Street Bridge

protractor attached to graffiti-covered mailbox, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to park bench, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

See also:
A Paean to the Disappearing Pittsburgh Protractors Pittsburgh Orbit, June 5, 2016.
A Protractor Bender Pittsburgh Orbit, June 30, 2016.


[1] “Sources say” this is the origin story and application method for the protractors, but that is not confirmed.
[2] That the protractors may be “art” versus, say, “prank” or “graffiti” is worthy of its own debate.

Behold the Hands of Holtz

Artist JR Holtz holding a painting of four women in bikinis

Artist J.R. Holtz with some of his sexy ladies

You may have run into J.R. Holtz just like we did (or do, quite often), out on the street. He sets up on Penn Avenue for the monthly Unblurred art crawls and every Saturday at the Artisan Market in the Strip District. At either location, you’ll find him camped out with an eight-foot folding table covered with dozens of his small- and medium-sized paintings. Each one comes in a repurposed picture frame–or even an entire wooden window–and they’re all for sale at extremely reasonable prices.

several small, framed paintings by artist JR Holtz

Holtz’ recent artwork for sale in the Strip District

J.R., who creates under the moniker Hands of Holtz, tells us he paints every day and he’s been at it since the mid-1980s. His subjects are all across the board: cartoon characters, superheroes, pop culture figures, nature images, family scenes, science fiction, and Pittsburgh sports. On our most recent visit, there were portraits of Prince, Jimi Hendrix, and Muhammed Ali; likenesses of Mighty Mouse, Captain America, and Wonder Woman. Several scenes from Star Wars made their way to Holtz’ glass panes, as had fad-du-jour Pokemon creatures.

painting of Prince in front of an open window with a purple sky and lightning by JR Holtz

Prince/purple lightning

2-color painting of Star Wars characters by JR Holtz

Star Wars

But let’s cut the crap: you’re going to notice the sexy ladies first. It’s hard to focus on Spider Man when there’s this much bare skin going around. Not since the glory days of Cinemax or those weird shaving cream ads they used to run during hockey games has there been semi-public soft-core erotica on display like this.

J.R. is the first to admit “I like the ladies!” and it’s safe to say he isn’t lying. There are strong warrior-princesses, tattooed big-boobed sports fans, tawdry hoochie-mamas, yoga posers with naughty underwear, and lots and lots of smiling, bikini babes–often with added glitter details and bonus Steeler emblems, just for good measure.

painting of woman wearing pink hat, gloves, boots, and skin-tight pants (but no shirt) bending over by JR Holtz

Pink Lady

Many of the images are taken from existing photographs, but Holtz says some of the ladies are friends who pose for pictures knowing they’ll be turned into future paintings. Individual requests and interests of the models are incorporated into the artwork, as are other extra bedazzled features including color-changing paints, glitterized jewelry, and inset photos.

I asked Holtz what the reaction is when unexpecting Saturday shoppers accidentally browse across the decidedly PG-13 content. “Some of them start walking real fast,” he chuckles.

Painting of man in 1970s clothes with caption "Back in the Day"

Back in the Day

J.R. describes his own artwork as novelty, and it’s tempting to overlook it as such. He paints directly on glass which gives the final images a glossy, finished look–almost like when you see framed “cels” from animation. The subject matter is as populist as it comes–you could imagine some of these pieces on sale in a turnpike gift shop. Matthew Barney or Damien Hirst, this ain’t.

But with the flat perspective, heavy black outlines, and single-color schemes, the end result reminds us of a different art superstar on the very other end of the spectrum, Howard Finster. Like Finster, Holtz’s style appears untrained or “naive”, but there’s a beautiful honesty to it–even when the subject is Jedi Master Yarael Poof*.

JR Holtz standing in front of his paintings for sale, Pittsburgh, PA

JR Holtz with more of his recent paintings, Strip District

Holtz is also one of the kindest and nicest artists you’ll meet. He wouldn’t ape for the camera, but don’t believe it–every time we’ve talked with him, J.R. is all smiles, high energy, positive vibes, and can’t wait to tell you about his work.

This blogger doesn’t know what he likes, but he knows art. We probably wouldn’t chose to decorate Chez Orbit with any of the beach babes–at least, we haven’t picked any of those up yet–but we especially love many of his portraits and simpler two-color work. When J.R. hits, it’s as serious as a heart attack and as true as an arrow.


* Not pictured, but among The Orbit‘s small collection of Holtzs.

Off the Rails: An Orbit Awakening in Boxcar Tagging

detail of boxcar with graffiti of puzzle piece reading "No sleep till Pittsburgh"

No sleep ’till Pittsburgh

What a pleasant surprise! To wake up to a subculture that’s been around forever[1] and yet somehow completely eluded any level of popular consciousness. At least, this blogger was totally ignorant of its existence until some time not too long ago.

Whether you pay attention or not, you’ve seen the big, spray-painted graffiti that either decorates or defiles freight trains, depending on one’s point-of-view. The same sort of multi-color highly-stylized calligraphs of tagger names and inside jokes that show up under bridges and the back sides of commercial buildings end up on the large steel canvases provided by Norfolk & Western and the Chessie System.

yellow boxcar with graffiti of a cartoon man smoking cigarette

Cash & Carry / Got head? / Sluto

But look a little closer–you usually have to get right up on the boxcars to see them[2]–and there’s a whole world of much more subtle human interaction with the trains. Here, there are small, simple line drawings, monikers, arch messages, and coded insignias, dates, and locations created (we assume) by an entirely different type of graffiti writer and likely intended for a very different audience.

Is this just street tagging on a different surface or is there something more going on here? Are these committed by train-hoppers, hobos, or just bored teenagers who live near train yards? Maybe the tags equate to an American form of trainspotting–more punk respectable and less trenchcoat nebbish?

detail of boxcar with graffiti of grave stone with message "The Ghouls"

The Ghouls

Almost always, the tags include three- or four-character numerical codes: 11/15 or 8/10 or 6/08, for example. We assume these are abbreviated month/year dates, but who knows? If so, apparently Y2K’s lesson in the need for full four-digit years doesn’t apply to these folks–they’re “future proof”.

It turns out that entire academic theses have been written on the subject. We haven’t read them (at least, not yet), so we certainly can’t answer these questions. But The Orbit likes to imagine the train cars become both the largest and most random of bottles to which these writers toss their messages to exchange whereabouts, news, and rail-riding one-upmanship in a very analog, low-tech manner.

yellow boxcar with graffiti of a mountain range

Retribalize, back to sea level / Lovely Spring / (unnamed)

Even in our extremely limited survey, one tag kept reappearing. In it, the sun is rising over a barren mountain, squiggly cloud gestures float in the sky, and the text Retribalize / adios – mutha is written in loose cursive over an arced train track/arrow. In each case, there’s an additional bonus message: Back to sea level or E.B. Creep – Co. or Wish you were here… A version of this particular scrawl showed up on so many cars that we didn’t even include all the photos of ones we found. A cruise around the Google machine proves this is no anomaly–the Retribalizer may or may not get around, but his or her tags sure do.

boxcar graffiti of mountain, sunrise, and train tracks with text "Retribalize, adios-mutha 10/5"

Retribalize, E.B. Creep

boxcar graffiti of mountain, sunrise, and train tracks with text "Retribalize, adios-mutha, wish you were here 6/08"

Retribalize, wish you were here…

boxcar graffiti of a jug with a hat and the message "Retribe's spot!"

The response: Retribe’s spot!

A final note: we have it on some decent authority that the Packaging Corporation of America, whose plant in the Strip District provided such convenient access to a weekly new supply of boxcars, is moving out of the city (to Cheswick). If that’s the case, and there are no longer any train cars on Railroad Street (sigh), that will definitely be a bummer. But we won’t stop collecting tags–we may just have to work a little harder to find them.

Until then, in the eloquent, bilingual words of Retribalize, adios – mutha”!

boxcar graffiti of old man with hat and text "here today, gone tomorrow"

Here today, gone tomorrow


[1] At least, around as long as hobos have been jumping trains.
[2] It goes without saying, be safe: make sure the trains are not in motion if and when you take a look.

Wheatpaste Roundup

drawing of a pig with the text "Every day is a fresh start" wheatpasted to mail box, Pittsburgh, PA

Shadyside

A drawing, some cut paper–maybe somebody else’s poster. A batch of homemade goo cooked up on the stove. It’s the lowest of tech, but when it works, wheatpaste jumps right off the wall–sometimes quite literally as the rough edges curl up, tears form where property managers have fought to scrape them off, or they inevitably fade and disintegrate in the weather. It’s always a surprise–graffiti, sort-of, but also like weird wallpaper. It looks equally good when it’s fresh and new and also when it’s falling apart. Sometimes they even manage to attract their own after market graffiti.

Enough talking about this one–this blogger will just get on with it. Here’s a batch of recent-ish grabs from around town.

image of hand-drawn telephones wheatpasted to glass bus shelter, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

image of three children wheatpasted to brick wall, Braddock, PA

Braddock

poster of naked man urinating into plant pots with text "Water save reuse treasure" and graffiti "Die yuppie scum!!!", Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

wheatpaste poster of psychedelic eagle with graffiti "Praise God" and "Survival is Political", Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

image of circular saw cutting off fingers with the handwritten text "Everybody makes mistakes", Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

image of man with camera wheatpasted to brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District

wheatpaste poster of bare hands holding bullets and pills with the text "Survival is political" and "Combat rations", Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

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.