An American Abroad

Willemstad Public Art

When I first saw these words painted on the side of a two-story building, I thought it was an ad for something. Maybe a local beer – although the “decolonized minds” caption didn’t quite fit with that. Come to find out that Tula is a local Curaçaoan hero, an enslaved African man who liberated himself and went on to lead a slave revolt here in 1795. He was eventually captured by the Dutch and tortured to death. Today he is revered as one of the most important figures in Curaçao’s history. Unknown to me until recently, there was a movie made about him in 2013 called Tula: The Revolt which featured Danny Glover in a supporting role.

These four striking paintings below were done by Alex da Silva, an artist who was born in Angola, studied in the Netherlands, and spent considerable time in Cape Verde. I was surprised to learn that there are strong linguistic and cultural ties between Cape Verde and Curaçao. Papiamento, the language of the Netherlands Antilles, is very similar to Cape Verdean Portuguese creole.

I liked this fish/submarine installation that’s situated in a small public playground in a quiet part of town. The medium is the message: the sculpture is constructed from objects the artist found washed up on the beaches here.

Across from the playground was this amazing whole-building mural, which picks up the color scheme of the fish/submarine.

Also nearby was this Miro-influenced work by Junius Isen, entitled Together As One. The 2011 mural is now in need of restoration.

The mural below is my favorite. It was created by Curacao artist Garrick Marchena. The text is in Papiamento and a translation of it reads:

They are coming.
They are close.
They take.
They don’t ask.
And we let them.

When I first posted this image to Facebook, my friends interpreted it as a referring to colonialism or to child rape. But according to local artist Avantia Damberg, it’s actually about how public access to the sea is being curtailed by hotel and condominium developments that illegally restrict beaches to their guests and residents. It’s about how Curaçaoan children’s future is being sold to the highest bidders. But though that may be the original intent, one way I assess the greatness of art is whether it’s susceptible of multiple interpretations. This mural clearly is.

While other cities treat “love locks” as a nuisance, Willemstad has embraced them. This installation by the waterfront seems to be a very popular spot for tourist pix.

There are a lot of walls in Willemstad with images or text on them that don’t seem like “art” until you put a frame around them. Like these:

The three photos below were taken less than a kilometer from where I am staying in a district of Willemstad called Pietermaai. Until just a few years ago, this district was known for its abandoned buildings, drug dens, and crime. But an aggressive restoration plan led to its rebirth as (in the words of one travel website) “the Latin Quarter of Willemstad.” Today it has boutique hotels, delicious restaurants, sophisticated music bars, and high-zoot apartments. The photos below show both what the whole district used to look like and how art is used to blunt the grimness of decaying, disused buildings that remain.

This mural on a wall in downtown Willemstad is also by Garrick Marchena. I think the illustration of the hawk is kind of anodyne, but the font for the text is wonderful. According to the artist’s website, it was “inspired by the Indian cave paintings of our ABC [Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao] islands and combined with the California Cholo style letters of the 50’s.” In Papiamento, the text by poet Hemayel Martina reads:

Avochinan preokupá mi ta invoká
boso pa eskoltá i yuda nos emansipá
sin odio ni vengansa ma ku amor
ya e presiosidat di hoya akí
por resaltá i mundu henter
skucha ora kriaturanan
dje paraiso akí ku
orguyo grita:
Ami ta Kòrsou.

In English, that translates as:

Worried ancestors, I invoke you to escort us
and help lift us into the sky of emancipation
abundantly devoid of hatred, but devoted with love and compassion
so the preciousness of this rock
may shine and the whole world
hear when voices from
this paradise reverberate
with a fervent cry:
I am Curaçao.

To my surprise, Marchena also painted the two murals below. He’s clearly comfortable working in very different styles and media.

One of my most delightful finds, though, was a whole row of whimsical spontaneous street art like this:

What’s cool about the Curaçao art scene is that the island is small enough so that most of the artists seem to know each other. I was introduced to the scene here by Avantia Damberg, a visual artist who conducts tours of the public art in Willemstad. When I was with her, it was impossible for us to walk down any given street without her meeting another artist she knew. Something about the climate here – both the beautiful Caribbean weather and the island’s reputation for tolerance – makes this place a good place for artists and those who enjoy their works.

Signs of Santo Domingo

I’m a sucker for the written word. At age ten, I went to summer sleep-away camp and quickly became noted (mocked) for reading books, newspapers, magazines and cereal boxes while other kids were out playing. The reading habit has stuck with me throughout my travels. I’ve posted photo essays about signs in Chefchaouen (Morocco), Hong Kong, Nicaragua, and Fes (Morocco). I’ve also documented graffiti around the world.

So on my recent trip to Santo Domingo, I took pictures in the Zona Colonial of the written word.

Christianity is abundantly represented in Santo Domingo, from the city’s very name to the names of the streets to the abundance of 500 year old churches that dot the Zona Colonial. There are religious references in many of the city’s signs. But I was more interested in the informal religious signs, like this one that says, simply, “Believe in God.” And I was amused that next to this profound message was a sticker from the Geto Boys’ album “We Can’t Be Stopped.”

A more complex message is delivered by this one that says “If God does not assume it, the people will assume it.” The “it” in this case is presumably responsibility — or power.

Surprisingly, not all the religious signs I saw were Christian, such as this building with a Buddhist symbol (and a translation conveniently scrawled above it) .

Other messages were more political. This one articulates one of my own deepest convictions: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

And this one, which is a quote from Juan Pablo Duarte (1813 – 1876), of the founding fathers of the Dominican Republic: “It has never been more necessary than today to have health, heart, and judgment. Today men without judgment and without heart conspire against the health of the country.” Appropriately enough, it was painted on a wall outside a health clinic. It sounds remarkably like some of the rhetoric that we hear in America today over healthcare policy.

I was pleased to see this sign on a second-floor balcony near where I was staying. The rainbow flag needs no translation; the caption on it reads “Normalizacion LGBTI Dominicana.”

This plaque above an old building on the Conde, Santo Domingo’s walking street, commemorates “intellectuals and artists” who were exiled from Spain. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a plaque anywhere in America honoring “intellectuals” as a class. It’s nice to see that in some parts of the world, the term is not a dirty word.

I was also glad to see that honest-to-goodness real newspapers and newspaper vendors still exist in the Dominican Republic. Their headlines are just as dramatic as those of US tabloids. The first paper’s headline reads, “Shocking Murder of Three Teenagers.” The second from a communist paper, says, “Corruption and Impunity Are Inherent in Capitalism.” And the third luridly announces, “Cruelty! Emily Perguero Was Beaten on the Head Until Her Skull Caved In and her Uterus Was Pierced to Induce an Abortion.”

In a residential area, I saw this sign marking the headquarters of the Board of Neighbors of St. Nicholas de Bari.

Nearby was a nice-looking little restaurant that, unfortunately, was closed each time I passed it.

Back at the pool at Island Life Backpackers Hostel, these signs conveyed perfectly the very British sensibilities of its proprietor.

Santurce Graffiti, Murals, Tags, and Unauthorized Public Art

The Santurce dictrict of San Juan can fairly be described as an aspiring arts mecca. Not that many years ago, many Puerto Ricans considered it a dangerous drug- and crime-infested place rather than a neighborhood to be proud of. Though there are still grim and blighted parts of Santurce, other areas have exploded with vibrant colors, new businesses, and young Puerto Ricans looking for a place to live. The neighborhood’s revival is another testament to the power of public art to change both the perception and the reality of an urban locale.

There’s a lot of street art in Santurce. And many of these works can be found on and around my favorite street, Calle Loíza.

Some of the most striking works depict human heads and figures.

The tagging is exuberant and precisely rendered.

Murals are common and certainly add life to otherwise derelict buildings. Click here to see what the building in the two photographs below looked like just a few years ago. Quite a turnaround, no?

The wall in the photo below, though, shows that far more subtle compositions can be even more effective at setting the mood of a streetscape.

All of these photos were taken on and around Calle Loíza, which runs parallel to the beach just two blocks north. But there are equally wonderful works of public art in other parts of Santurce. And eventually I will get around to photographing them.

The Murals of Toledo’s Old South End

Toledo’s Central Union Station, where my sons and I have caught the Lake Shore Limited east many times, is situated in the city’s Old South End. I had gone down to the tracks there to photograph an antique steam locomotive as it chuffed through Toledo on its way to Youngstown for a special whoop-de-doo. Like many such events, there was about an hour of waiting and about a minute of what I’d really come to see. Since I was already in the neighborhood, I decided to explore.

This part of town now has a significant Hispanic population, a fact that’s reflected in the public artwork there. Many of the murals had been designed by Mario Acevedo Torero, a Peruvan artist who has an ongoing relationship with students of Bowling Green State University, a large state school about a half hour south of Toledo. The murals were in good condition, with very little overtagging or other defacing.

The murals were painted on the concrete supports for a large overhead highway. They made what might otherwise have been a grim (or even forbidding) environment feel loved, tended to, and peopled.

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The murals below adorned the exterior walls of Adelante, a Latino community organization.

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I liked the idea behind the two pieces below. The use of the blank faces encourages viewers to see themselves — or maybe their friends and family members — as the artist’s subjects. Fill in the blank: you, too, can be famous.

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The one institution that I remember from years back that’s still in operation is the Green Lantern, a classic burger café that’s been continuously operated at the same spot since 1927. I’ve never eaten there myself (I think I popped in for coffee once several years ago), but it gets rave reviews from the diner aficionados on Yelp.

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Outsized portraits of American heroes such as Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King graced the sides of several old buildings on Broadway. These, too, were painted by a BGSU group.

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It was encouraging to see that even on obviously decrepit and decaying buildings, someone had made an effort to make them look cheerier.

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Less lawful artwork could be found under the highway and atop a nearby water tower.

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Oh, and the steam train I came out to see? Here it is: The Nickel Plate Road No. 765. Quite a machine to behold.

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Detroit: Chaos at The Eastern Market

The art in the gallery-like ruins at Brush and Baltimore is controlled. Mannered. Almost formal. So when I went directly from there to Detroit’s Eastern Market, I wasn’t prepared for visual chaos. My initial reaction was confusion bordering on distaste. It took me a good fifteen minutes to adjust my expectations and to appreciate a different but fine example of unauthorized public art.

The streets around the market were almost deserted on a Friday mid-afternoon, like so many others in Detroit. Since the wholesale food market there is still functioning, there were some pretty putrid smells in these back alleys, to be sure, but nothing worse.

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On one street, there was a sad reminder of how some people live in America today. Much as I like prowling the mean streets in search of the beautiful, it’s important to be reminded that real, vulnerable people sleep in places like this. This bower was someone’s home; I didn’t disturb it.

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Works like the one below definitely show the Juxtapoz aesthetic, which I grow weary of in large quantities but appreciate in isolation.

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Some of the other murals picked up on the historic function of the Eastern Market.

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The mural below has stood on this wall for over three years now and is, amazingly, almost untouched by other taggers. Maybe it’s the proposal and the “She said yes x1000” that makes people refrain from defacing it. People like to see people in love get together.

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Detroit: The Museum at Brush & Baltimore

I was thinking about why people make art when I came across a desolate intersection in Detroit. In the post-apocalyptic environs of Brush and Baltimore Streets, there are dozens of vacant lots where houses and stores once stood. Most of the remaining buildings have been stripped of everything burnable and salable; they stand like monuments to some undefinable slow-moving catastrophe. I shot a few photos of the ruins’ exteriors.

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Then a Chrysler drove up. The driver’s window slid down. I tensed a little, in spite of myself. Usually when something like that happens to me in neighborhoods like this, there’s someone who wants something from me that I don’t particularly want to give.

“Hey!” the driver said. “You should go in there.” He pointed to a burned-out shell of a building across the street. “All kinds of art in there. Wild stuff. Beautiful stuff.”

I was still a little on guard. “Just walk in?” I asked.

“Yeah,” replied the driver. “We go in there sometimes, party, look at art. Some of it’s done by the people from the gallery there.” He pointed to a windowless building across the street that was painted completely black.

I must have looked a little doubtful, because the driver smiled and said, “It’s cool.”

What the hell. If I’ve learned anything from two years of traveling, it’s that some of the best things happen when you say yes to things you don’t understand. So I walked up to the building the driver had indicated. Plastic bags stuffed with moldy, smelly bread were strewn around the porch. Flies buzzed around them. A cinder block was propped against the front door. I toed it aside, pulled the door open, and beheld an amazing art collection.

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The building I had entered had no roof, no windows, and no finished walls. It did have something much better: stunning portraits of ballerinas painted by Everett Dyson. Some of the them seemed to be dancing their way out of the shackles that once bound them.

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Elsewhere were palimpsests of tags, notes, and images, reflecting unintentional collaborations that are still in progress.

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As I photographed the artwork, a freight train rumbled by twenty yards away. Nearly every car on the train had been tagged extensively. Watching them pass was like watching a filmstrip on the tagging aesthetic. I wandered through the back door and found several other small buildings in the same bombed-out condition. The whole complex was a museum with different galleries. I continued to explore.

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Some of the works were text-heavy, illuminated manuscripts inscribed on cinder block.

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As I made my way back to the street, I again wondered what motivates people to make art. The question seemed especially poignant in this environment. Everything in the “museum” I had visited spoke of the transitory and the ephemeral. The murals that artists spent hours and hours meticulously painting will not long survive the elements or human depredation. In that respect, they are more like performances than fine art, dances that, once completed, live on only in memory. Unlike a “real” museum, the complex at Brush and Baltimore is subject to time, decay, and dissolution. Heraclitus, who famously said you can’t put your foot into the same river twice, would have understood. Perhaps the artists who worked here needed to lay down an I-was-here marker in the river of time more than they needed to occupy a static space.

Detroit: The Hipsters Move to Corktown

There are signs of an artist/hipster presence in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Near Michigan Central Station, some abandoned buildings have been painted up and turned into giant urban canvases.

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Other buildings show signs of being brought back to life, albeit slowly.

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There’s a cool bicycle shop and several new bars and cafes near the station, as well as a redeveloped commercial district designed to appeal to the lovers of vintage watering holes.

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And then there are some businesses that look like they’ve been there for decades.

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It’s easy — chic, even — to deride the hipsters who have settled in Detroit in the last six years. But it’s almost always a cheap shot and seems more aimed at their sartorial and tonsorial choices than at their values. Their critics also tend toward stereotype; not every dude in a pork-pie hat, horn-rims, and a goatee drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon is a pretentious jerk. Yes, hipster disposable income and insistence on certain amenities drive local rents up and may displace longtime residents. But if the alternative is keeping rents low while the neighborhood crumbles and dies, then I’ll give at least two cheers for a hipster influx.

Nicaragua 2008: Granada Signs

Looking back at my photos from this 2008 trip, I can see the beginnings of the same fascinations that still characterize my travel photography. Signs and graffiti, to name two.

Some of the signs for professional offices had a beautiful, simple elegance about them.

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Others were cheerfully cluttered with text and gave me the impression that you could obtain any kind of service within.

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And then there was this sign for a fried chicken joint, which amused me every time I passed by.

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I’m not sure, but I think this was a little love poem, a declaration of affection for one lucky Dario. But maybe some of my more fluent Spanish-speaking readers can set me straight.

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There were a lot of political murals and signs. And many, but not all, of them were in support of Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista party.

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This, below, was a popular political sentiment at the time. Still is.

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Toledo, Ohio: My Hometown

When I was growing up here, I couldn’t wait to leave. At seventeen, I lit out for the territories and swore on a metaphorical stack of bibles that I would never ever ever return to Toledo. I managed to stay away for nineteen years before returning. When I came back, I planned to stay just a little while. But inertia, the low cost of living, and the excellent school system in the suburb where I lived kept me and my family here.

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But I wasn’t happy about it.

One day while I was driving around town with my son Spencer, I started talking smack about Toledo. To my surprise, my son didn’t share my sentiment. “Dad,” he insisted, “Toledo’s got soul!”

“Whaddaya mean?” I asked.

“People here keep getting kicked in the mouth,” he said. “Layoffs. Downsizing. Factories closing. Stores gone out of business. Crappy political leadership.”

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“But,” he continued, “Toledoans get up every morning and go to work, go to school, do their thing, and by and large they do it with a good attitude. They have every right to be bitter, but generally they’re not. They’ve got soul.”

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With that conversation, I began to make peace with my hometown.

I’ve been away from Toledo again for the better part of two years, traveling through other countries. Now that I’m back in town for a while, I’m determined to explore the city in the same way that I explored cities on the other side of the planet. And so this evening when the sunlight was golden, I went out and shot the kind of photos I’ve taken in Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul, and Chicago.

As I’ve done in those cities, I focused initially on public art: the authorized, the unauthorized, and the unintended.

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Framed

Last month, I took some photos of unauthorized public art around Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. One of them featured this work:

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I took this photo because I was attracted to the Betty Boop vibe the original artist painted in. The girl’s missing mouth creates ambiguity in her expression — is it pride? happiness? thoughtfulness? strength? sorrow? The chips and cracks of age actually seem to improve the image and give it it an enduring quality, like the city itself.

A partner in one of Chicago’s larger law firms saw my original blog post and wanted this pic blown up and framed. I was thrilled. And so here it is, ready to move to its new home downtown.

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Having someone like my photos enough to want to reproduce them, as happened here and happened with my photos of the Hanoi Hilton, is immensely gratifying. If any of my readers want to purchase any of the photos on my blog, please contact me. I would be honored.