Progressive Writers Bloc

Zoombie, The Pink Lady, and Dead Heroes

Uncle Bill Warner

Recent publicity lauding a "graffiti artist" named "Zoombie" in Fresno has prompted me to do a lot of soul-searching on the subject of graffiti. Having put in some 2,000 hours of my life working as a Sheriff's Volunteer in Southern Tulare County wiping out some 200,000 tags, I can be expected to have strong opinions about visual public images (graffiti) of all types.

99.9% of graffiti is illegal, ugly, and used for individual glorification or to mark off gang territory, much in the way a dog does. You see local gang names and members' "monikers", as well as deliberately provocative things like "Kill Scrapas" (X-3's), and racist slurs.

Zoombie, the 28 yr. old "graffiti artist" sounds to me more like a real artist than a vandal. I have not seen his work, and so cannot comment on it, other than to say that the attached term "graffiti" gives it a questionable connection to art, and triggers immediate negative vibes . Much is made of the fact that his work is done with permission of property owners, which makes it "good." That immediately sets him off from the ranks of mentally-retarded, disturbed, and sometimes vicious young evil-doers who give visual offense to thousands of passers-by. Graffiti is definitely not all the same. My definition of it includes anything in the face of the public which gives offense.

On the morning of October 29, 1966, commuters in Malibu Canyon near L.A. were shocked by a visage that had appeared-seemingly overnight-on a sheer rock face above the mouth of the canyon tunnel. Cavorting on the cliff was a 60-foot-high, brilliant-pink figure of a joyfully nude maiden, clutching flowers. She became an overnight sensation! Who painted her? Was she art or graffiti? Would she be a traffic hazard as people gawked as they drove by? The Pink Lady of Malibu Canyon , as she came to be known, had been painted by a 31 year-old artist named Lynne Seemayer who objected to all the illegal graffiti tags around the tunnel and decided to do something about it. Hanging from ropes under the cover of darkness, she spent several nights laying out the outlines, unnoticed by the passing cars. Then, in one night, she painted it all in and went down in history. Of course, the County painted over it as soon as they could, using 14 gallons of brown paint, and billed Miss Seemayer, who finally admitted to having done it, for their expenses. The Pink Lady got obliterated faster than any gang graffiti that I can recall!

Interestingly, enough people approved of the illegal graffiti-cum-art to make it "controversial". There were several issues involved with the Pink Lady which need consideration: first, permission; second, safety; third, aesthetics and content; fourth, the possibility that it might encourage copy cats. Finally comes the question of permanence.

We are generally in agreement that permission is usually good, but if given the choice between a legal 70-foot-long war mural such as is presently underway in Visalia (which already has war memorials) or an illegal 60-foot high pink naked lady of which Visalia has none, I think I'd vote for the latter.

The safety "distraction" issue is real, but compared to the, legal, glaring, flashing and moving signs along the freeway distracting motorists, roadside nudity is probably small potatoes. People in Florence, Italy drive past nude statues all the time without running off the road.

The issues of aesthetics and content in public art are always important. Ask any lover of natural beauty in the wilderness what they think of the "legal" desecration sculpture on Mount Rushmore, replacing forever the natural beauty of the area with the faces of two slaveowners (Washington and Jefferson) and an unabashed imperialist (Teddy Roosevelt).

As far as encouraging "copycat" artists, it probably would. Copycats of New York style "artistic" graffiti are everywhere desecrating boxcars and bridge abutments. Stone Mountain, the largest environment-destroying"Rushmore wanna-be" sculpture in the world, features Confederate leaders like Robert E.Lee (who took up arms against the legally-constituted government of United States of America.) Just as Lincoln, the fourth President on Mt.Rushmore is hated by many in the South, Robert E.Lee is hated by many in the North. Should we have hated people done up in perpetuity as legal graffiti?

Painted images can be easily removed by whoever is in power. An airport named after a President can be changed quickly. Graffiti carved into stone is forever.

We will always have controversy wherever things are in the public view. Even the celebrated Eiffel Tower was once a hated eyesore in Paris. Perhaps controversy is what makes life and art interesting! Too bad "controversial" art cannot be kept inside museums...

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