StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

85A Log: “How It’s Done in West Town” excerpt; Todd James, Michael Bevilacqua @ Gering & Lopez Gallery

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on February 6, 2010
Todd James, "Hot Dogs & Hamburgers," Gering & Lopez Gallery, New York

Todd James, "Hot Dogs & Hamburgers," Gering & Lopez Gallery, New York

A couple weeks ago, I went to see graffiti artist Todd James’ new show, “Make My Burden Lighter,” at the Gering & Lopez Gallery in Midtown Manhattan. Though James is an artist who began his craft as a teenager, tagging in the subways of New York, the whole experience brought me back to the kind of graffiti that was erupting all around Chicago in the Eighties.

But I’ll get to all that in a minute.

Point is, “Make My Burden Lighter” is an event that’s at once shocking and masterful. The images are pointedly obscene but rendered with a gimlet eye on the excesses of our uber-consumerist society, which now has much less money to buy. You’ll soon be able to see my review of “Make My Burden Lighter” in WhiteHot Magazine.

Todd James’ “Make My Burden Lighter” shows until the February 20th at the Gering & Lopez Gallery, which is located in the Playboy Building at 730 Fifth Ave (b/t 56th & 57th).

If, God forbid, you miss James’ show, keep a weather eye on what will be happening next at Gering & Lopez. They never disappoint.

For instance, I was awestruck by this other painting, which was hanging in a room off to the side of the James exhibition, by the insanely talented California artist Michael Bevilacqua.  It’s called “White Punks on Dope”:

Michael Bevilacqua's "White Punks on Dope" at Gering & Lopez Gallery, New York

If I’d had the cash, I would’ve bought it on the spot. But genius like this doesn’t sell for cheap. So instead I stared at “White Punks on Dope” until I damned near passed out. I’m so glad this kind of work is in such high demand now that 85A is on the market.

In honor of, and in resonance with, the James and Bevilacqua boom, I’d like to post part of the “How It’s Done in West Town” chapter of 85A. Once again, the book is set in Chicago in January 1989. The narrator, Seamus O’Grady, is fifteen years old and, in this chapter, he’s referring back to his freshman year of high school when he was 14 years old. Now, he’s also got one hell of a mouth on him and he worships Johnny Rotten. (He’s also recently seen Amadeus on Channel 9, so now he wants to be Mozart.) Like so many Chicagoans of his day, he’s also intensely race-conscious and is fascinated by African-Americans and Latinos. He wishes he wasn’t just another white kid but there’s not much he can do about it. But his best friend Tressa is a young black woman who is always helping to open brave new worlds to him as described in Chapter Ten, “How It’s Done in West Town.”  (Naturally, all rights are reserved on this chapter. No part of 85A may be reproduced with my own expressed written consent.)

"Money Bags McCoy" by Todd James, Gering & Lopez Gallery, New York

From “How It’s Done in West Town,”

Chapter 10 of 85A

(circa late 1980s)

By Kyle Thomas Smith

The bus is on fire. It’s got bloodlust Ozzy Osbourne eyes, Jaws’ razor teeth, and a face like the Soul Train on Soul Train. There’s a white guy in a Gestapo uniform. His eyes are bulging. His tongue is wagging. He’s sticking his finger in the blue bus’ ass. There’s a Red Dawn explosion behind him, a nuclear holocaust. There’s a black hooker painted space-invader green. She’s standing on top of the burning bus with a great big fuckin’ fro, a tight-as-fuck pink mini, ten-stack platform shoes, fists clenched and pinned to her hips.

Too bad you can’t paint that shit on buildings without a permit. It’s cool as fuck.  Takes a shitload of talent too. Man, I wish I could paint, but I can’t even doodle out a damn circle. No wonder I’m flunking geometry. If we were in a state of anarchy like we should be, we could paint whatever the fuck we want, wherever the fuck we want. Just listen to Mozart. Did he have to wait till he had a permit to make music?—Well I guess maybe he did. There was that scene in Amadeus where he had a bitch of a time getting approved by the imperial court to do a harem opera. But…whatever, man…it shouldn’t fuckin’ be that way.

But, I gotta admit, some of the murals the city does dole out permits for are pretty fuckin’ impressive too. I mean, lots of times they use rubbish Day-Glo colors and a lot of times they paint a lot of corny-ass get-high-on-life, school-is-cool themes, but you can tell the painters put their heart in that shit. Lots of times they get little neighborhood kids to help out and they teach them to paint and let their imaginations roam. And, even though I think we should all have the right to paint whatever the fuck want, wherever the fuck we want, I gotta admit, it does bother me when gangs spray graffiti on murals little kids helped paint.

I don’t think Raul’s ever defaced a kid’s mural, but Tressa says the cops are on the scent of whoever put graffiti art like the nuclear-holocaust bus up around Logan Square and West Town. Apparently the Nazi finger-fucking the bus’ anus isn’t Raul’s only brainchild. Just his most famous. He sprayed it on the back wall of the roof where, from March to November, pitbulls wheel around a parked Harley-Davidson and crumpled Miller cans. Raul tags under the name Snipsta, and he’s tight with the dude who owns the pitbulls and Harley. I don’t know what that bandito’s story is, but I always wonder how the fuck he maneuvered a Harley all the way up to his roof. Did he drag it up the fire escape or hang pulleys down to the alley? Who knows? Drug lords can arrange anything, at least that’s what I hear.

I’ve met Raul a couple times at Tressa’s house on Logan Boulevard. Skinny kid, brown as a colt, kind of sits around a lot with his head down, groovin’ to EPMD, making macho street gestures in time to the beat. He’s friends with Tressa’s brother Joshua. Raul’s in some gang; I don’t know which; I didn’t ask and I won’t. Agatha is afraid Joshua might be in a gang too. Joshua got busted for graffiti twice. He’s twelve years old and on parole. I’m sure he’s just fuckin’ around with his friends. I don’t think he’s in any real kind of gang. He’s too sweet a kid to ever hurt anybody. He always gives me a hug good-bye whenever I leave their house. He gets lots of As in an IB program like Tressa and he’s learning Russian so he can talk to Babsha better now that she’s slipping and thinks she’s still back in Stalingrad. Joshua’s not Raul, he just dresses like him—a gangsta wearing jeans that are, like, twelve sizes too big for his scrawny ass, and, when Agatha’s not looking, Joshua puts a blue bandana on his head. But he’s no more in the Folks or People than the fuckin’ metalheads in Jarvis Park are Satanists or Gaylords. But even sweet kids get killed out here, especially if the wrong assholes see that sweetie pie tagging the wrong name on a wall.

I worry right along with Agatha and Aubrey about Joshua being on the streets. He’s the little brother I never had. And there are all sorts of stories out there about how gang leaders threaten to kill kids who won’t join up and do drug runs for them. But, then again, I don’t think Mexican gangs in Logan Square and West Town are gonna go out of their way to recruit a black kid. That shit just doesn’t happen.

The L’s already out of Logan Square station and the West Town tunnel. Tressa didn’t get on this morning. Not surprising, we’re almost never on at the same time. She doesn’t have class first period at Lincoln Park, so she usually doesn’t leave this early. When she does step on the L, though, her patchouli precedes her.

For the longest time, all I knew about West Town was what I saw out the L window. Riding above the neighborhood, you look out and see blocks and blocks of tenements. Most of it’s not public housing, though. The buildings look a lot better than they do in Cabrini Green or the Abla Homes near St. Xavier. They’re not caged in at the backstairs and there are almost as many gorgeous buildings mixed in with the uglies. Got lots of turn-of-the-century graystones and whitestones too, like Tressa’s house, where gargoyles still perch on ledges and people still grow bountiful gardens behind filigree gates.

But when you look at the alleys and rooftops: fuckin’ graffiti everywhere. And not every graffiti artist out here is a gifted artist like Raul. Some of this shit goes way back to the disco days—balloon letters in hot pink, blueberry Bubbalicious blue, and Squirt yellow—shit straight out of The Warriors, shit they just left up there, never took down with turpentine. I mean, shit, if you’re gonna keep graffiti up, at least keep it in the same decade as now.

Lots of the other scrawl on those brick walls will spook your shit if you stare at it too long. See the lynched skeletons and rolling skulls painted on the buildings? See the names tagged next to them? Joshua tells me they’re all on the Folk Nation’s hit list and that, when you see a line sprayed through a name, it means the Folks made another hit and are making their way down to the next name, the next hit. Look at all those fuckin’ crossed-out names! Not an inch left on the walls. And I hear some of the names belong to El Rukns, Chicago’s biggest street gang, the one on trial now for accepting money from Muammar al-Gaddafi to blow up the country. Man, I’d rather have fuckin’ George Herbert Walker Bush running the country than the El Rukns—and, coming from me, that’s saying some shit.

Other hit-list names belong to that white supremacist gang, the Gaylords. The metalheads in Jarvis Park keep tagging the Gaylords’ name in the underpass, even though none of those pussies ever met a real live Gaylord. But, if they’re gonna scam a name, it figures they’d pick the KKK gang. Wonder if those racist fucks ever noticed there’s a “gay” in “Gaylords.” Bet they wouldn’t be so quick to say, “I’m a Gaylord” then. Gaylord wannabes in my neighborhood think watching Faces of Death and Headbanger’s Ball makes them badass, but they ain’t never been within ten miles of a drive-by.

Gangs in Logan Square and West Town don’t play. They’re not Satanists like the metalheads near me try to be, but the pitchforks they spray in the alleys are satanic in their own way—their own motherfuckin’ psycho way. Gangbangers here think nothing of massacring whole warehouses full of rival gangs. If the metalheads in my neighborhood only knew the shit that goes down on this side of town, they’d piss their Metallica-Megadeth pants sopping wet and plant their asses on the 85A back home, pronto. There’s a whole lot of killin’ going on in these parts. You can see Agatha’s got cause for concern. I mean, that non-permit, finger-fuck mural that Raul put on that pitbulls-beer-cans-and-Harley roof is tame compared to the pitchforks, skeletons, severed heads, and crossed-out names on the backs of the buildings right down the alley.

But last year, I noticed something else happening at the West Town stops: whites getting on. That’s right, whites. Hot ones too. The guys, man, lots of them had this shoulder-length hair, but not at all like the dumb-fuck metalheads. No, this was classical-looking long hair—refined; in Mozart’s time, people got wigs custom made to look like them. Except these guys were also wearing the kinds of moth-eaten coats and clothes that people clean out of their attics and give to the poor.

– Excerpt from Chapter 10 of 85A by Kyle Thomas Smith

BTW, the pic I used for the back cover didn’t work, so I had to offer two new ones. I tried to get Julius to take quick pix of me in our gangway but nothing took. I had to resort to a couple shots we had on file.

This is one of me at Castle Warwick in England. I’m not a big fan of any of my own pictures, but this has a pensive quality. Julius doesn’t like it at all. He says I look like I might be contemplating suicide – and if my skin got any whiter, my picture might wind up on some fucking Ghost Sightings series or something!

He infinitely prefers this one. It’s a shot he took of me off Cape Good Hope in South Africa. He says I look like an actual writer in this photo. He even went so far as to say “author.” But I have all those goddamned cowlicks in it!

He called them “wind-swept.”

So if you ever wonder why I’ve chosen to spend my life with him, there’s your answer.

In conclusion, I’d like to close with a Public Service Announcement from the BBC, Seamus’ favorite (favourite) broadcasting system. Especially you of the fair sex, pay special heed to “Women: Know Your Limits!”