Much like Chris Farley’s “That’s going to leave a mark” clip from Tommy Boy, cancer is beginning to leave it’s mark on me. Naiveté regarding my ability to keep things pretty much “normal” disappeared along with the remaining hair I still had. My pillow looked like the dog bed of an old schnauzer. At the same time, the hair hanging on grows. Quite a look.
Before today’s chemo, I visited MD Anderson’s Barber Shop. Ursula used a Number One blade (i.e. short) because she said I looked patchy and shaggy; she also informed me that the grey hairs stick around longer than the others. Lovely. After the trim, Ursula picked me out a new wig (wouldn’t let me go darker like I wanted) and threw in a hat and two turbans, all for free! I remembered my lidocaine, port access went smoothly and mom was my “plus one” at chemo.
Houston graffiti artists leave their mark around town and, usually, I’m a huge fan. However, a Grinch-hearted artist stenciled “give up” on a shuttered building on the way into downtown and the medical center. This did not sit well with me. Like people need despondency directions, especially this time of year. Turns out, Give Up is a street artist voted “Houston’s Best” in 2010 by Houston Press readers. I found this excerpt from an online interview:
Tell me a bit about yourself and your back-story, so the readers can get to know you better. Who is Give Up? Where are you from? How long have you been writing?
Give Up: I grew up in a chemical town just south of Houston, Texas. I’ve been living in Houston since probably ‘97. I started writing graffiti in the mid ’90s but realized a few years in that my ego was bigger than my ability. I still wanted to get up but wanted to do something I could really own as my s^*# so i started doing GIVE UP around 2000, 2001.
Every name has a story behind it and I’m sure a lot of people have theories behind the meaning of your name. I want you to tell me the significance to your alias? Where did it come from?
Give Up: I never really thought of GIVE UP as a moniker. When I originally came up with the razor image with the text underneath it I thought of it more as a stamp or identifier than a signature. I thought it was this kind of tongue in cheek thing that was both self deprecating and threatening that my friends might get behind but would be a f&*^ you to everyone else.
Blame it on the cancer, steroids, chemo, or the fact that my grandfather forbid me as a high school student to “paint the wall” along Loop 323 under the veil of night (“Fools’ names and fools’ faces always appear in public places”), but I decided to do the world a favor and revise the messaging on that building.
I told Mark and the kids what I planned to do. Mark deemed my anti-give up campaign illegal; I doubted that a cop would arrest a bald woman wearing red lipstick trying to bring joy to the world. The four of us climbed in the car to case the joint, then I waited for nightfall. Eliza joined me, but warned she couldn’t get arrested or spend the night in jail – she had college applications to consider. Despite the risk, she served as the lookout person as I spray painted, “NEVER, NEVER, NEVER” above the stenciled “give up.” After I zipped into the pocket of my fleece the can of red spray paint, Eliza and I locked arms, ducked heads and walked back to the car. Mission accomplished, then affirmed when I saw this drawing today in an MD Anderson hospitality area.
Jean-Michel Basquiat (Bass-Key-Aht) first left his mark on lower Manhattan buildings in 1977 using the graffiti tag “SAMO©.” Pronounced “Same-Oh,” the moniker referred to the “same old shit” quality of marijuana he and his friend smoked. The letters came to represent a fictional character who sold fake religion for a living; ultimately, the pseudonym (not drug use) ended with the inscription “SAMO© is dead.”
Basquiat’s upbringing is atypical of a juvenile delinquent roaming streets with a spray paint can. Fluent in three languages as a child (English, Spanish and French), he read extensively about history, mythology and poetry – much like his mark-making predecessor and inspiration, Cy Twombly. Basquiat grew particularly fascinated with the human body after a 1968 accident resulting in broken bones and internal injuries; as a result, he lugged around a copy of Grey’s Anatomy to study the human body. Much like Jacob Lawrence featured in a previous blog post, Basquiat’s mother nurtured her son’s interest in art, taking him to museums and enrolling him in a youth arts program at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Basquait’s parents separated when he was eight and, after a brief time living in Puerto Rico, he returned with his mother and siblings to New York City where his mother began an in-and-out cycle at mental institutions until her death.
The “grown up” Basquiat dated Madonna, collaborated with friend/mentor Andy Warhol and died of a heroin overdose at the age of 28. Before he flamed out, Basquiat marked walls and canvasses with words, scribbles and racially- and socially-charged phrases. His most recognizable icon is the stylized crown, which Eliza and I found and LOVED on Alice & Olivia’s new Basquiat x A+O collection before quickly returning to the rack a fabulous long, satin skirt with embellished detailing which ran $1,300.
I took the image headlining this post in the contemporary wing of the Yale University Gallery of Art. Reflecting Basquiat’s obsession with anatomy, Diagram of the Ankle (1982) is actually two pieces hinged together – a diptych. The left panel incorporates sketches of a human ankle in the top right with Xeroxed copies of a maple leaf, medical terms written in oil stick and – the pièce de résistance – a “chicken man” from which Basquiat displaced his iconic crown (seen in the center of the opaque, black form) with the scratched out word “HALO.” You’re on your own to interpret this, but I can tell you that a piece of art that combines more than one traditional art medium (paint, paper, acrylic or oil paint, etc) is called mixed-media, and Diagram of the Ankle falls in this category.
Basquiat created the adjoined panel independently of the the “chicken man” one, but unified them with the off-center text box framing stacked words “THE ANKLE.” One source explained that the “junkyard dog” in the upper right “reads as the nemesis of the painting’s enigmatic cipher: the ankle.” Google defines cipher as “a secret or disguised way of writing.” Ironically, I found the Urban Dictionary definition of cipher apropos of the entire piece, especially in light of Basquiat’s biography and oeuvre: “Two or more rappers freestyling together in an informal context. They could be battling or simply playing off of each other.” That’s exactly what both components of the diptych do.
Although multiple art critics decried Basquiat’s “genius” and attributed his success to the heady, pre-Wall Street crash of the Eighties, I’m crazy about his work. I could frame the $1,300 Alice + Olivia skirt and hang in on my wall as art. Houston artist GONZO24/7 and his Aerosol Warfare inspired my love of street art two years ago when he created the annual HUE Mural Festival, summoning the world’s best graffiti artists to enliven Houston’s public spaces.
In honor of Basquiat’s graffiti genesis, enjoy this iMovie of photos I snapped in Houston, Detroit, San Francisco and New York City. If you still need a holiday gift, check out this children’s book mash-up of Maya Angelou and Basquiat called Life Doesn’t Frighten Me. And, finally, in acknowledgment of Give Up‘s artistic voice, adhere to his “Survival Tips for Street Artists.”