Friday, December 22, 2006

but is it art?

[Warning: this post is dense with Caltech trivia and unabashed nostalgia. Proceed at your own risk.]

I didn’t have a lot of walking-around money when I was an undergrad. I had squirreled away the proceeds of several summer internships, internships that I approached with a fair amount of stoicism but little real enthusiasm. How could you be enthusiastic about spending the summer in the confines of a windowless building like R6 (or its even uglier fraternal twin, M5) writing Fortran code you knew no-one would ever use?

That money always felt hard-won. It made me into an unrepentant cheapskate. It made me think twice before I bought anything.

To be honest, I don’t remember how much those big fat indelible El Marko pens that I coveted cost. Maybe they were cheap. Maybe they set me back as much as a bottle of Night Train Express, an amusing -- yet unpretentious -- little full-bodied wine with a nose reminiscent of Sheila Shine Stainless Steel Cleaner, an odor ripe with methyl ethyl ketone and other fruity solvents and a taste only slightly more appealing than Aqua Velva. Come to think of it, Night Train Express smelled suspiciously similar to the black El Marko pens.

But even excessive thrift couldn’t keep me from buying my very own complete set of El Markos, one where none of the colors had dried out. A set where the yellow marker hadn’t been muddied by coloring over a blue patch with it to make sea green. A set where red hadn’t gone missing. A set where none of the tips were smushed into pulpy blurs. I wasn’t willing to submit to the vagaries of the communal pens that were stored in the Alley 1 hallway cabinet along with the pyramid of spent Whip-It cartridges.

I didn’t buy the markers all at once. The Caltech bookstore had the basics: black, red, green, blue. [Now I regret not having splurged on one of those euphonious "I'm a Caltech Beaver" women's t-shirts while I was shopping, since they seem to no longer be available.] I gradually found the jazzier El Marko colors -- purple, brown, yellow, and orange -- at places like Vroman’s. There were other brands of pens with sexier colors like turquoise and magenta, but El Markos were the only pens with sufficient stamina to write on the rugged Dabney House walls. When those pens were fresh, the colors were sweet and pure.

At first, I was reluctant to add my marks to the walls. There were still old Darbs around who knew Paul Re, the artist who painted The Birth of God (from an early photograph) in the Dabney entryway. That mural (only the facing side is shown here) set the bar awfully high. Then there was Adam Melch’s classic re-rendering of S. Clay Wilson’s Lester Gass, the Midnight Misogynist up in Alley 2 (“Phaw! These skinny cigars taste like shit!”). And Dave Webster’s tiny but meticulous psychedelic noodlings on the interstices of the Alley 1-2 staircase, the drawings that were at eye-level for me on the fifth step or so.

It was like those freshman physics qualifier problems: I felt daunted. Subdued. Overshadowed by the talents of my classmates. How could someone who’d blown Qualifier Problem A, messed up on second chance Qualifier Problem B, watched Qualifier Problem C whiz by (“aw c’mon now” my frustrated physics TA Mark Zimmerman said), and was quickly approaching the outer reaches of the Physics Qualifier Problem alphabet possibly have enough self-confidence to use indelible markers on the sacred alley walls?

You can’t get by on partial credit when you're drawing in public.

Gradually the Dabney graffiti was democratized. Gesine drew a Tender Boof in Upper 7. Mark Parisi inked a big “HARF” above one of the door frames. The ever-quotable Paul Wagner wrote something alluding to Finnegans Wake’s Anna Livia Plurabelle outside Room 45.

My inhibitions waned, especially after I took a hearty whiff of blue marker. The solvents associated with each ink color were slightly different; I remember blue as being a pretty good buzz. Even today, I’ll find myself writing something on the whiteboard at work and I’ll stop for a minute and whiff the marker. It’s an old habit, one that dies hard, one that’ll sometimes leave me with tell-tale blue nostrils.

Ring around the nostril. Ring around the nostril.

Meanwhile Erik Brune and Vickie Roberts had painted the two Alley 2 doubles in insomnia-inducing red and orange and yellow enamel flames. Any empty space was considered fair game – you didn’t have to be Diego Rivera to embark on a mural project. And after awhile, you’d learn some tricks. Green and blue were mutually soluble and blended into each other pretty well. You could mix some of the other colors too with not half-bad results.

Funny that I remember only a fraction of my own graffiti; I was so invested in it at the time.

You might be thinking: that’s what comes of whiffing solvents. Brain damage. Singed nerves, frayed axons. But perhaps the drawings just weren’t that memorable.

I covered the west wall in Room 15 with ink; I must’ve been a senior by then and Dabney House Secretary to have such a swell room pick. Earlier, when I was a sophomore, I might've drawn something under the stairway in Alley 1. My roommate Audrey and I might’ve worked together on a design opposite the Alley 2 showers when we were frosh. Some years later, I even noticed some familiar artwork in Real Genius, that I thought might’ve been a reconstruction of something I’d drawn, but by then it could’ve been someone else’s graffiti just as easily.

There’s something distinctive about this kind of graffiti and something generic. In the immediacy of undergrad life, I’m embarrassed to say that I was mightily pleased by my efforts. Now they seem ordinary, and I’m not sorry to see them go.

One of the hardest tricks of preservation is to know what to save and conserve, what to deliberately toss (“deaccession” in library parlance), and what to simply leave to benign neglect to determine its fate.

When I heard that the walls were being repainted (and that was quite awhile ago now), I thought, “It’s about time! Probably every square inch is covered. Where would you draw now?” And Caltech generations are short: even someone who lingers over their undergraduate education, savoring every last incomplete and UASH petition, is hard-pressed to make it last more than a decade. E2 – who I think of as the record-holder – only spent 12 years as a student.

Graffiti rife with intense sentimental value in 1974 is apt to be mysterious by 1984 and in the realm of the Lascaux cave paintings by 1994. By 2004, the Alumni Association could be selling pieces of the student houses as if they were chunks of the Berlin Wall. Perhaps they do.

I had so much fun with all that pristine enameled wall space and my eight perfect El Markos; I’m glad other Techers will be able to pull all-nighters in Upper 7, drawing on the walls with a full palette of fresh El-Markos (taking a whiff now and then), an unwilling audience to a fifth consecutive playing of Dark Side of the Moon (or the modern equivalent), celebrating what will surely turn out to be a failing score on the Math 1b final.

As it turns out, neither Dabney House graffiti nor Math 1B’s winding numbers are eternal. And perhaps it’s best that way.


Anonymous Steve Gabriel said...

The painter of "The Birth of God" was Alan Rice, not Paul Re.

A photo of the "birth" itself is at

"..cigars taste like shit" is at

and a cockpit view from plane crashing into Milliken Library is at

This was painted (well markered actually) more than 30 years before 9/11.

Thanks to Dave Zobel for the above links.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

I stand corrected (and possibly slapped silly?) as to the provenance of The Birth of God.

Thanks for the links to Steve Allen's head-on views of the mural and graffiti in question.

And -- indeed -- be sure to look for Dave Zobel's forthcoming article about the old house walls. He's got his facts straight, unlike those of us who have spent too much time with the blue markers uncapped, whiffing the good and true fumes. (Not to mention those hours spent polishing the larger kitchen appliances with the Sheila Shine Stainless Steel Cleaner...)

4:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Cathy,
A few weeks ago I was at the Last Gasp Xmas party on 20th and Florida. I'd arrived earlier than usual, and had some time to explore the nooks and crannies of the place, and behind some object or another I saw the very original of Lester Gas, the Midnight Mysogynist, framed and hanging on the wall. Do please come by next year.


10:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the record holder is not e2 (9 years entrance to exit) but chuckles (10 years e-e), although e2 holds records for max petition mojo...

1:29 PM  

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