Punk Rock Where You Don’t Expect: out of place in Mexico City

IMG_2546We went to that part of town to visit a library full of books written in a language I can’t read. I had never been to Mexico City before and this library’s design is world renowned. The shelves hang from the ceiling rather than standing on the floor. It is giant, cathedral-like, and filled with books written in Spanish.

 

I don’t Speak Spanish.

 

But I know what looks cool, and that spot is cooler than most, so we went.

 

As we opened the Uber door and stepped to the curb something unexpected happened.  Right next door, in a graffiti covered alley, was something loud that I recognized.

Blaring horns, a solid bass rhythm, and a heavy back beat. Played fast. I did not expect to hear punk ska in Mexico but expectations don’t matter so much when you are in the moment, and in that moment, I followed the sound.

 

The alley was packed full of temporary booths and tons of people. Ramones t-shirts, black leather jackets, and Doc Marten boots were both stacked on tables and worn by the crowds. A thousand or more people sporting full mohawks and spiked collars pushed their way through crowded stalls looking at stickers and buttons. I saw Bad Brains cassettes and Sex Pistols albums, anarchy logos and large gauged earrings everywhere.

 

And we joined in.

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My buddy looked at where we were, looked me up and down, and just started laughing. He shook his head and said, “Dude.”

 

I had to laugh as well. It wasn’t just my Anglo skin and bullet straight part -I was wearing khakis.

 

I was the very visual embodiment of “The Man”, a square, the epitome of suburban dorkiness, middle aged middle class might as well have had a flip phone clipped to my belt; shouldering my way unabashedly into a Mexico City punk fest.

 

I didn’t care.

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I didn’t care because I have rarely felt I fit in anywhere.

 

It isn’t that I haven’t wanted too, in fact I have made all sorts of efforts to find my place. It is more that in those efforts, on that journey, I have traversed so many spaces and places looking for a fit, that what I mostly found was overlap. It is natural (more so for some demographics than others) to see ourselves as the center of the world’s Venn Diagram, but I think my overlap was a little less centered. A bit more marginal. Like I am the outside circle of a million other group’s graphics but rarely checking off multiple boxes, or enough boxes to gain full membership. On such a journey one must either find a place and conform, or gain some sort of peace being a misfit.

This place had Misfits gear galore.

 

I didn’t care how I looked because I knew all the words to all the songs on those bootleg disks and coming out of those speakers. I learned them when I was 12. I learned them alone in my room listening to alternative radio or lurking around that one back rack of the record store. And here it all was in Mexico?

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I loved it.

 

I had no idea what the live bands were singing, but skankin’ just needs that rhythm and a mosh pit was never really content driven.

 

I fit just enough to feel at home.

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Toro

The hardest part, is watching,

when a bull doesn’t want to fight.

To see this muscled and behorned beast stand in the middle of the ring, looking around, shuffling its haunches trying to shake off whatever it is causing that pain in his back. He looks at that fool on the horse, those men waving those blankets, and all of us up in the stands, and he just stands there. Done. He wants none of it.

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But he is not done- yet.

 

This is when I learn a large part of the matador’s job, a part I had not considered, is to maintain both the attention and ire of that bull. The taunting, the waving and twirling, is not merely pageantry but an attempt to focus a confused animal in a raucous arena, on fighting when it might rather just die.

 

And the bull will die.IMG_6088

 

With blood flowing from its hump, spears protruding from his back, he will get the sword and he will fall. He enters the ring a raging beast and leaves a carcass drug across the dirt by draft horses. There really is no excuse for this being entertainment. It is not just blood sport but execution for pleasure.

But when that bull is mad.

When it fights.

 

That is a show.

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The bull is built to win. Strong, fast, aggressive, with its goring weapons built in. The man cannot do anything without the help of some other tools. Spears, swords, the walls of the arena, the entire arrangement is built to grant the matador some advantage, and yet his victory is never quite sure- though the bull’s defeat is definite. And it is fascinating. It is one of the oldest evidences of a completely first world behavior, the risking of human life in the process of doing something that could be done much better, safer and efficient, in some other way, almost any other way- in the name of sport. For fun.

 

For money.

Sitting in the grand stands of a giant arena, eating a chocolate churro filled with cream, my American friend and I are stunned into a silence when the first bull fell. All around us people are shouting Spanish words I do not know, waving white handkerchiefs in the air, and a brass band begins playing a dramatic dirge. The two of us pause, unused to confronting the death of an animal, or anything for that matter, live, right in front of us. We live and work in offices and restaurants, parks and museums, clubs and suburbs, all insulated from the death we know exists. We order a steak at Ruth’s Chris, bloody rare, drive past a dairy and complain of the smell, fully aware that we exploit both life and death for our own sustenance, and despite our knowledge and awareness of it all, we find ourselves ignorant in the presence of that moment of death.

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I do not like it.

 

I am not comfortable. It makes me ashamed in a way I did not expect. Not simply ashamed for participating, or being complicit in a blood sport, but surprisingly ashamed that despite my awareness of death, my acceptance of it, I look away when in its presence.

 

I am more comfortable when someone else does it. Somewhere else. Where I can’t see.

 

Prosciutto, jamon, bacon, whatever, and I am fine with it. I can move past ignoring the devouring of what was once living, comfortably into rationalizing and prioritizing, but it is at the point of doing that I cringe.

 

My inbred ideas of manhood are offended not by the death itself but by my repulsion to it. I can work my way past the masculinity only to then be halted by class. I have the privilege of enjoying the fruits of others destruction, rejecting any value in being the one to do the work or endure the pain.

 

In my own self-loathing, respect for those down there in the ring begins to grow.

 

No matter what I think of any of this, I sit up here judging while they are down there doing. Confronting. Risking. Acting.

 

They can be wrong about all this and still be better than me.

 

And then, thanks to my inbred training, hundreds of years of practice, I work myself through all the ways I am not so bad. Sure there is this or that, but there is also that other this and that, and when taken in bulk- I am good.

 

And if I am good while sitting up here in my feelings and those brave enough to act are better- then they must be great.

 

So I too start to cheer.

 

I learn to love the flair and the bravery of man versus beast. I appreciate the vain glory martyrdom of fighting in the face of sure defeat. I respect the idea of offering one’s self up to do that dangerous thing in order to give the condemned a chance for one last win.

 

The matador, offering himself as potential sacrifice, so the condemned have a chance to condemn another to a shared fate.

 

Brave and dignified.

But then that bull just stands there.

 

Hurt.

 

Tired.

 

Confused.

 

And we show ourselves, all of us, for who we really are.IMG_6095

What Do You See?

IMG_2672Who is that supposed to be? I get that question a lot when people see my drawings. If the image is of someone famous, or familiar, that question hurts just a little, since you wouldn’t need to ask if I had done a better job.

 

But if the drawing isn’t someone you would recognize, what do you really see?

 

What comes to mind? Do we just take it at face value (pun intended) or do we make guesses and assumptions? Do we ask questions? Maybe none of that. Maybe we just look and think that is all there is to see. Nothing more.

 

There is always more.

 

As an artist I get to choose what I include, leave out, or even change. How much do you trust me? Does it matter?

 

This is a drawing of Catherine Burks.

 

In 1961 she got on a Greyhound bus headed from Tennessee to Alabama. Police stopped the bus because racially integrated bus travel was illegal. They escorted the passengers back to the Tennessee state line, dropping them off on the rural roadside in the middle of night. Burks told the chief, Bull Connor, “We will see you back in Birmingham by high noon”.

 

She was indeed back in Birmingham the next day and this is a drawing of her mug shot.

This is the face of a freshly arrested college student who I guess is thinking, “told ya.”

 

By this point she had seen violence and police beatings and been personally threatened by the leader of it all.

 

And this face was her face.

 

Sometimes, even today, some of us think we know what is going on simply because we watch.  We see some things, we feel we are paying attention, and no one contradicts what we think we see.

But there is always more to the story.

 

We normally only get that after we ask questions and then listen.

 

Happy Black History Month.

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College Admissions Scandal

News broke Tuesday of a nationwide, multimillion dollar college admissions scandal. Andrew Lelling, an attorney for Massachusetts was quoted saying “There will not be a separate admissions system for the wealthy. And there will not be a separate criminal justice system, either…”

IMG_4683Lelling is wrong. There is now, always has been, and always will be, a separate admissions process for the wealthy. It will not go away. No matter who those wealthy are, no matter what legislation we pass- the rich will find a way.

Not because they are rich, but because they are parents.

Tiger Moms, Momma Bears, Daddy Warbucks, or just a sugar Daddy parents in America operate under the assumption, the idea, or even the charge, that it is their duty is to give their children every advantage possible in life. And where you attend college can in fact be a real advantage.

And the real word there is indeed “advantage”.

This, the idea that fighting for advantage in parenting is expected, is the biggest obstacle to a just and equitable world. Because as long as that is our system, the parents with the most resources will always win for their own, and those without, will continue to fight for table scraps.

American parents are raising their families in a hyper competitive world that is continually being painted as more perilous than ever. While impending doom (razor blades in Halloween candy) may not truly lurk around every corner, upward economic mobility has indeed been on a slow and steady decline. Wage stagnation looks to stretch from one generation into another and income over a career continues to correlate to educational attainment. College remains important, if not in fact, at least in the minds of concerned parents. Elite schools who admitted 15% of applicants a decade ago now only admit 6%. Parents are truly freaking out.

We live in a competitive environment that requires a level of engagement beyond the capacity of children, requiring proactive parents to set up a path to potential success for their kids. At the top levels this competition is cut throat and more often than not, the spoils go to the children of the best resourced parents.

When advising families in the college application process  I try to help them understand that for most of us, the name of the school we went to is much less important than the type of student a child has already proven to be. I work hard to help them find the right match of a school rather than chasing the school with the highest ranking. But if pressed, I will admit that for those who want to achieve remarkable things, those with the biggest aspirations, the most likely course is pretty narrow and goes through established pathways. There are a small number of schools that have produced presidents, Supreme Court Justices, and billionaires, and the odds of being the first from any given school, are incredibly small.

So what we have built is a competitive environment that gives the most benefit to those who already hold the most resources. But these well resourced parents are not just competing with the poor folks, but with each other. Again, this world is cut-throat. This environment leads to any effort to carve out a path, or channel resources to those who do not already have them- be it through state or federal funding or programs like affirmative action, to be immediately targeted as unfair.

Elite schools can afford to offer free schooling to poor kids for two reasons; first, because top schools are already well funded. Most educational donations go to the schools that already have the most money. These schools are indeed rich. Second, these schools can offer free education because the number of poor students who are accepted, is incredibly low.

The top predicting data point for who gets into an elite college is the wealth of the parent.

This happens for a constellation of reasons. These families tend to live in richer neighborhoods with better funded schools. These better funded schools tend to have more qualified staff, more stable student population, and a historical pipeline of feeding high school kids into elite colleges. These parents also tend to spend money on tutors, test prep courses, and specific extra curriculars that align with college expectations. These families also tend to make up the bulk of legacy admissions, or in other words, the parents of these families often attended elite schools themselves.

So my advice to financially struggling parents who are hoping their child will go to Harvard, is to stop saving for tuition and start spending now on a higher mortgage and tutors. Stop investing in basketball or track, and focus on fencing or crew. Even then, know that there will be some other parent willing to buy a building or bribe a coach in order to stack the deck in their favor.

As long as parenting is a high stakes zero sum self interested gladiator tournament we can never hope for any real semblance of an equitable meritocracy, not just in admissions buy in anything.

This mind-set, or maybe this reality, is why people hire their nephew or niece in both corporations and construction. It is why people lie to school districts about their address and why people cross borders without legal documents. We cringe at the thought of one demographic having privilege or advantage over another- we all say we want equality, that is until it comes to parenting.

Because of this, any proposal that would move anything, be it admissions or employment, to a place that would be fair or meritocratic is going to need to be bigger and more expansive than any of us may be willing to accept.

 

Because of parents.

 

Parenting is the best indisputable evidence that we don’t really believe in a meritocracy. Because we are either acting under the assumption that it doesn’t exist so we must fight to get our kids a fair shake, or it does exist and we are fighting to get our kids an advantage.

A Fanboy Obeys the Giant and the Necessity of Open Arms: Shepard Fairey

A part of growth and maturation is the humble re-learning of things we already know. We understand that what goes up, must come down, yet throughout our mortality we continually toss things into the air hoping they will somehow take flight. Ideas, aspirations, children, all tossed up and most of them tumble back down with varying effect or consequence.

But sometimes things soar.

There have been times and occasions when I have thrown about the idea of committing myself to being an artist. In those moments, before the idea falls flat, I have looked at the careers and works of two artists whose work I have simply always liked- and who I have in many ways imitated. Those that soar.

One of them is Shepard Fairey.

Back when my wife and I were young, and broke, and had nothing on our walls that I hadn’t painted myself, I would troll the Obey Giant website waiting for Shepard’s flash sales but never bought anything. It is hard to justify buying art when the kid needs diapers.

So. Many. Diapers.

In 2007 I made my very first art purchase. It was just a print. The image consisted of two small African children rendered in gold, green, and orange, below the word “HOPE”. It was affordable, $15 0r $25 if I recall correctly, and all the proceeds went to Darfur. It was a perfect purchase. It looked how I liked, had a message I appreciated, with the bonus of potentially tangible aid to a cause.IMG_0489.JPG

A year or so later I saw another HOPE poster by the same artist. So did the whole world

My oldest daughter, who I thankfully caught when tossed in the air, recently reminded me that having a fandom isn’t considered cool. I asked her in all of her middle school expertise, if there were some things cool enough that fandom would be excusable. She could not think of any.

This was in my mind when I shook Shepard’s hand last Saturday.

Not that I have ever had any real cool to begin with, but I did my best to keep it in that moment. In every instance I’ve made the attempt to keep my cool when excitement was bubbling hot below the surface, the results have been stiff and awkward encounters. I was awkward and gawky. I tried not to be, as I was in this instance the guest of a guest, but “tried” almost by definition denotes failure.

Luckily the person whose guest I was initially, was, and is, cool enough that I didn’t ruin everything, but at the end of the day- I met my Luke Skywalker.

I also met, but mostly saw, a world, or crowd, not my own. I like that world, I just don’t know it. And in knowing I don’t know it, but finding myself there that night, I felt myself world adjacent. I was next to it, I saw it, but I was never really in it.

That is how worlds work.

You can know all sorts of things without them being a part of you. You can want to know everything, you can look, stare and gawk, but to enter, you need an invite. A host.

How does one find a host in a world they know nothing of? I’ve lucked my way into a few of those in the past. I crashed a party or strolled past the guards unannounced and stumbled into the lap of a host here and there. But gate crashing only gets you so far. It can get you in the room, but not really into the group. I get that. I get it. It is what it is.

It being what it is, is why I have decided that when I have a chance, when I am positioned to be one, I will look for people who need a host. I will be that. In the event that one is outside looking into wherever I am, I will open the door and my arms, and show them the ropes.

No one can welcome everyone, and if where you are is a place everyone wants to be, I get the need to screen. Or protect. Or just rest. But I am not there. I am just here. Just is the right adjective. I am only in this middle place that only some people want to be but aren’t, so I can afford the extra company. If you want into my world, the one I know, I can and hope to be that guy. HOPE. The print I bought had that word, along with the words “helping other people everywhere.”

I cannot expect entre’ into all the spaces and places and peoples at which I gaze. Nor do I deserve it. But if I, or maybe you, catch the eye of an outsider, they will forever remain outside till one of us lets them in. And who knows, maybe one day I, or one of you, will toss out an idea, and it will be one of those hosts who give it wings.

Also… Shepard Fairey, and his art, and his studio, and his friends, are freaking awesome and I don’t care what my middle school daughter thinks!

And also also… Justin Bua is on notice.