Word on the street: Sidewalk poetry

Like most big cities, Chicago has its share of graffiti. Most of it is mindless tagging, the annoying human equivalent of animals spraying their scent to mark their territory. Only this is done with spray paint or markers or—in the latest defacement innovation—acid that actually etches into plate glass and has to be ground and polished out. This is vandalism, pure and simple.

But there’s a much more creative side to graffiti that, if it doesn’t exactly make me ready to forgive taggers, maybe causes me to adopt something of a philosophical “take the good with the bad” attitude. Most famously, graffiti has given us artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. It also gives us random poignant moments like this piece, spotted downtown last winter, near Columbia College:

And on a grander scale, this piece done with stencils and spray paint by graffiti stencil artist Peat Wollaeger:

Most recently, graffiti gave me a bit of street poetry. Well, sidewalk poetry, to be more exact. Walking up to the Bucktown offices of the ad agency where I work one morning, I saw a seemingly random word stenciled onto the sidewalk. And then another. And another. When I explored later, I discovered there were 38 words in all, in 29 groupings, spaced out over two city blocks. Someone or a group of someones had cut out these stencils and, in the wee-est of the wee, small hours of the morning [Bucktown and neighboring Wicker Park are infested with late night bars], had applied a poem to the streets of Chicago. Here it is:

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9 Responses to “Word on the street: Sidewalk poetry”

  1. Ronnie Ann Says:

    Very cool find, Terry! Vaguely reminds me of the old Burma Shave ads. But maybe even more the hanging ads we see here in New York City as we walk along the tunnel between Times Square and Port Authority. Not sure if the same one is still there, but for many years this was the message greeting commuters as they raced to and from their jobs:

    Overslept
    So tired
    If late
    Get fired.
    Why bother?
    Why the pain?
    Just go home
    Do it again.

    At the end, when I was one of those racers, I always said “Burma Shave”.

    Thanks for the post and for the piece by Peat Wollaeger. St. Louis looks more and more interesting to me all the time!

  2. Terry B Says:

    Thanks for the slacker poetry, Ronnie Ann! And St. Louis really is an interesting city—and it seems to keep getting more so these days.

  3. Ronnie Ann Says:

    While I was searching for the exact words, I spotted a comment somewhere calling the poem “demotivational” and asking why the hanging words were allowed to stay up. Words powerful enough to demotivate New Yorkers? Ah…what powerful poetry that must be indeed!

    As for me, it always motivated me…to smile.

  4. Helmut Says:

    In Vilnius I came across a series of stencil graffiti. These were homages to the Flexus movement of the 60′s & 70′s. One of the best known Flexus artists was Yoko Ono. I read she is still living in the NY Hotel where she and John resided.

  5. Terry B Says:

    Ronnie Ann—Yeah, I see that causing a smile and maybe a resigned “We’re all in this together.”

    Helmut—Yep, Yoko still lives at the Dakota, not a hotel, but a fabulous apartment building facing Central Park. In an interview, someone once asked her if she owned all of the Dakota [she’s apparently been buying up apartments in it. She smiled and said, “Not yet.”

  6. Grilled sausages by the book, er, magazine — Blue Kitchen Says:

    [...] Word on the street: Sidewalk poetry. Graffiti takes a poetic turn on the streets of Chicago, at WTF? Random food for thought. [...]

  7. Griffith Says:

    I found one of those poems on the sidewalk on the east side of Clark near Irving Park. I wish I could remember the exact cross street, but it’s hard to miss being at least a block long. The words are presented south-to-north and appear on average once every sidewalk square. It begins “Look up”. I hope it’s still there for others to find.

  8. Terry B Says:

    The one shown here has now faded/worn completely away. There’s something especially nice about the ephemeral quality of these random bits of street poetry.

  9. chris Says:

    love it…i’m from StL so i’m familiar with peat’s work. amazing stuff. check out his obama doctor near forest park. i just moved to melbourne, oz and graffiti is pretty big here. the city even promotes it to tourists. currently working on a writing covering the debate on the graffiti artists rights, or lack of, to cover the streets with their art. street poetry…i like it. might have to work with that one a bit.

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