I’ve been in my hometown the last week, visiting family and re-visiting Pennsylvania in the summer, something I haven’t done since I moved to California 7 years ago. I wanted to take a look at where I grew up, but for the first time through my camera lens. My initial and gut instinct led me here. It was under this overpass that I spent my teenager years writing graffiti, specifically on freight train cars that made brief stays before heading to distant lands. It was here that one of my earliest and most influential creative passions was born.
Around the age of 13 I first recognized graffiti while visiting Baltimore. By 14 I had done as much research as a suburban kid could and I was drawing, a ton. Learning how to craft letters had reignited my love for drawing. Heavy line structure, shadows, 3-D elements, angles, and lots of color, graffiti was the art form of my teenage years. What I didn’t realize was how it would shape my view of art and influence my aesthetic of creation for years to come.
By 15 I couldn’t wait any longer and I had to get my hands on a can of spray paint. Living in a Pittsburgh suburb, the lore and classic arena for graffiti didn’t exist, so instead of forcing art onto unappreciated city walls, I discovered the freight train movement. As graffiti moved off of subway cars in the 80’s, there was a movement to keep the original transitory element alive via freight trains. Freight trains were rusty, ugly, textured, and traveled the continent. They were the perfect canvas, and prevalent in my home region.
Before I could even drive I would embark on missions with friends to this spot (sorry mom) to paint and grow. It was a (reasonably) safe and consistent place to send our colorful pieces out into the world. Even at an early age it taught commitment and dedication to one’s craft. Over the course of several summers we (a select crew of less than 4) left dozens of colorful art pieces to roam the continent by way of rail. By 18 I had decided to pump the brakes and keep the art on the paper. While I felt (and still do) that art on a rusty freight car ranks low on society’s problems, I figured it was a good time to quit while I was ahead and play by the rules.
During college my drawing dwindled as I pursued other forms of artistic creation, but my love for graffiti remained. I still wanted to created bold, colorful, and interpretive art. As my love for photography took over, I started recognizing similar aesthetics. Deep blacks, neon skies, and scenes better left for interpretation were all throughout my photography portfolio. Even more representative were my night photos. Much like painting graffiti, I had to learn how to see in the dark to create. I felt at home exploring and creating in settings that most would shy away from. The spirit of solo adventuring was alive and well in my photos, something I took directly from my midnight missions as a teenager. Discovering new views, vantage points, and perspectives mimicked finding a new train yard or even a spot to just watch trains pass.
Now living in Detroit the correlations are all still there. Roaming a city by bike looking for the next subject to photograph are too akin to a writer looking for his next canvas. Being immersed in a city filling with world class graffiti (at least for now) is adding yet another layer of subconscious inspiration. Being slightly more cognoscente of my influences has made me even more ambitious to explore my work and push it even further.
(disclaimer: graffiti is illegal, don’t do it kids ;) )