A death in Miami

Worlds collided last week, in more ways than one. But these weren’t romantic or progressive or productive comminglings. They were destructive and divisive and deadly.

Art Basel is an international celebration of modern art, and its sojourn in Miami has helped cement the position of that often-troubled metropolis as a new cultural hub.

Which is admirable, but like all cultural institutions, Art Basel can’t be accused of being all-inclusive. So maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe it’s indicative—either way it’s chilling, and it must mean something that midway through this year’s festivities a Miami artist (or was he a criminal?) was killed.

Delbert Rodriguez Gutierrez, a street artist with the tag “DEMZ,” was struck by an unmarked Miami police car in the early morning hours of December 5th. He died from severe head trauma four days later.

He was a lifetime removed from Art Basel, I’d argue, for the same reason that his art brought on his death. He operated in a furtive world, with his mode of creation proscribed, interdicted, policed. When the spotlight fell on him, he ran. At some point, somehow, he ran in front of a police car. And that was that.

In collisions like these, especially of late, there’s a reflexive need to assign blame. So the tragedy, in the minds of many, became an assault. Another assault.

Look. I wasn’t there. Just like I wasn’t in Ferguson or Staten Island or Cleveland. Chances are, neither were you. None of us can say with any certainty what happened, in any of these cases. But that doesn’t stop many of us—too many—from expressing certainty, on one side or the other.

The reason why, I think, is conflation. We’re melding deaths together. Thus, Trayvon becomes Tamir and Eric and Michael…and now, by extension, Delbert Rodriguez Gutierrez. Their names and faces and stories are melded together—into fuel. Fuel for anger.

Is that a proper, or even understandable, reaction? I don’t think so. Because it denies them something that all of them, and all of us, deserve both in life and in death: individuality. No one’s life or death should devolve into merely a statistic, even though that’s what largely seems to happen. By holding these deaths up as examples of a deplorable trend, whether that’s true or not, individuality is erased.

Trayvon died differently than Michael and Eric. Tamir’s death was not Delbert’s.

I certainly don’t regret a dialogue, if we can have one rationally, about policing and use of force, and about the very much unfinished business of racial equality. And if any sector of our society, whomever they may be, are especially victimized, then I fully support their right, their duty, to vehemently protest.

Still—I think it’s a disservice, the final and maybe the worst one, to decide on scant evidence that all of these things are like the others. Much has been declared (with the usual imprecision of declarative statements) about Ferguson and Cleveland and Staten Island. I’ll leave those be.

With equal risk of imprecision I’ll say this about Miami, and about DEMZ, and about the police officer who was behind the wheel: I think it was a tragic accident. I think the officer was doing his job, and that never in a million years would he have wanted things to turn out the way they did.

The same can probably be said for DEMZ. He was doing his job, or more accurately, following his vocation. But setting aside elevated examples like Banksy, that particular vocation is illegal. It is–usually–denounced and unwanted by the property owners who supply the canvases. Those property owners look to the police for relief. Police officers are individuals too, and it’s probably safe to say they have a gamut of opinions on street art or on graffiti. But whether they see beauty or they see vandalism, they’re expected to do their job.

The tragedy is that this conflict, this collision, led to the death of a very young, very talented artist. And tempted though I am to draw some kind of just-let-art-be-art conclusion from it all, I recognize that in doing so I’d be just as guilty of the same sort of conflation that I indicted just a few paragraphs ago. And I’d be stretching for answers where I honestly have none.

So there’s simply this, and maybe it smacks likewise of conflation but maybe that’s unavoidable in the end: Worlds collide. They just do.

Any or all of our worlds are dangerous enough on their own. When they collide? Casualties are inevitable.

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Kim Dotcom: Mega-Politico

Looks like one of the most outsized and out-spoken figures from the gray-hat worlds of file-sharing and internet entrepreneurship plans on insinuating himself into the already-bloated milieu of American politics. Being that Kim Dotcom dasn’t step foot on U.S. soil, where he’s considered the most-wanted pirate outside Somalia, his plans to shake up the American political scene seem optimistic at best. Still, the short history of twenty-first century digital culture is rife with chagrined examples of those who’ve underestimated Big Kim.

Born Kim Schmitz in Kiel, Germany, currently a resident of Auckland, New Zealand, he’s been making online waves since the nineties, having hacked the Pentagon, NASA, and a handful of international banks. His first brush with the law came in 1994, with his first arrest (and later conviction) for piracy. It would not be his last.

He’s most famous (aside from the self-indulgent name change) for his file-sharing site Megaupload, founded in 2005. It, and he, quickly drew the ire of copyright holders, particularly American film and music companies. Megaupload’s wide-eyed defense that it merely provided a platform and had no control over what files members were sharing, did little to dissuade the FBI from pursuing Megaupload and Kim Dotcom right ’round the globe. The U.S. Justice Department engineered the 2012 raids that seized Megaupload servers, shuttered the site, and ended with Kim Dotcom in handcuffs.

His case, and most particularly his extradition fight, has been raging ever since, and it’s undoubtedly an offshoot of that which led to his founding of the New Zealand Internet Party in March, 2014. The party has been well-funded, organized and touted with the typical Dotcom flair…and has been thus far utterly unsuccessful in electing candidates.

That’s probably understandable, given the movement’s youth. The most natural strategy would be to grow those grassroots, to allow the party membership and leadership to mature, and to take the slow route to political relevance.

But that wouldn’t be the Dotcom way, would it?

Thus, Kim Dotcom announced last week, without an over-abundance of detail, his plan to bring the Internet Party to the U.S. sometime in the New Year.

So what does this mean for American politics? In all likelihood, not a lot, at least not for the foreseeable future. The deathlock of our two-party system—enshrined in stark reality if nowhere in law—doesn’t leave much room for small issue-oriented upstarts…and certainly not for one instigated by a non-citizen, designated fugitive.

But hey, maybe that’s all the more reason to welcome the Internet Party to our shores.

I’ve always found Kim Dotcom to be fascinating, dubious, enigmatic, and more than a little buffoonish. That doesn’t mean I consider him iniquitous, or even especially criminal. And it doesn’t mean I can’t take his political efforts seriously.

Maybe I’m simply starved for political choice. In that I’m certainly not alone. There are legions of us who feel that the American political system is utterly stagnant, rampantly corrupt, and thoroughly non-representative of (and probably uninterested in) our interests. Doesn’t seem likely that Kim Dotcom can make much of a dent in that, but if he’s willing to try the least I can do is be willing to listen.

The platform of the Internet Party N.Z., which would presumably be largely imported into the U.S. incarnation is, unshockingly, tech-centric. It includes calls for digital freedom, expansions of connectivity, and a curtailment of government surveillance. It’s also pro-environment and against social inequity.

Don’t know about you, but I can get behind all that.

Kim Dotcom, you haven’t yet convinced me. I’m not promising my vote, or my time, or my involvement. But I’m intrigued, and endeavoring to be open minded. You just might be onto something here, and I’m inviting you to press on. So please – tell us more.

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A tad less impermanence

Countless lifetimes after the art we last explored found its inspiration, we’re happy to see new art, via a modern medium, similarly inspired.

Muralist Eric Skotnes, who paints with the intercession of aerosol accelerant, created this tableau and the timelapse, below, of its genesis, to dissertate aesthetically on the concept of Awakenings.

It’s a worthy subject, tackled admirably. Buddhahood, after all, is simply the state of being awake. And it surely must be that transitional phase, the awakening itself, in which the (r)evolution feels most acute.

May we all awake. And may all art wake us, or at least shake us.

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The art of impermanence

Hat tip and thanks to Huffington Post’s Antonia Blumberg for today’s gorgeously illustrated exploration of the ephemeral art of Tibetan Buddhist sand paintings, or mandalas.

In both Buddhist and Hindu traditions, the term mandala is layered with meaning. It can refer to both a symbol, and a reality. It can be a focus for creating the sacred, and it can be a factual statement of the very much mundane.

In the most familiar, and possibly the most moving respect, a mandala is a two-dimensional, mathematically precise representation of the Buddhist universe, containing ideations of spheres of existence, of convergences of energies, and of wisdom itself.

And since mandalas convey the graphical equivalents of Buddhist thought, it’s important, maybe vital, that they embrace the most important aspects of that philosophy. One such aspect is impermanence: These examples are built of that most shifting of substances, sand.

Another central Buddhist theme: non-attachment.  It’s almost inconceivable, especially for an artist or indeed for anyone who might spend hundreds or thousands of hours on a creative endeavor—but an integral phase of mandala construction is its inevitable and looming destruction.

If you ever get a chance to see the creation of a mandala, by all means take it. You’ll be blown away by the detail, by the meticulous craftsmanship, and hopefully by the thought and intent. You needn’t be Buddhist, and you need not sit and meditate on the dharma. But, understanding that the artwork before you will be born, exist, and die in the course of a matter of days, you’ll experience transience writ in the microcosm—something that can and should be compatible with all strains of faith, or none.

It’s been quite a few years since I stood, transfixed,  and watched three monks build their fleeting pattern of the Wheel of Time. Days later it was reduced to its constituent parts, and was gently released into the river.

Parts of it, and maybe its whole, must surely still be there. I know they’re here with me.

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Lies, damned lies, and viral videos

Could have seen this coming. In fact many of us did see it coming: Viral videos have become commodities, which welcomes lying and cheating into the clicks-into-cash equation.

So no surprise, then, to see a dishonest follow-on to October’s NYC cat-calling video, wherein Shoshona Roberts, with the help of a hidden camera, shows us what it’s like to walk the streets of Manhattan as a woman. Nearly 40 million hits later, the result has been a much-needed discussion on the difference between friendliness between strangers, and unwanted sexualized attention. All good so far.

But then along comes poseur Stephen Zhang, and his attempt to horn in on some of that sweet social-dialogue clickbait. On November 8th, Zhang posted a video on YouTube purporting to show a woman’s travails on the opposite coast. In it we see a young woman acting drunk, really drunk, in the middle of the day on Hollywood Boulevard. No way I’m going to link to it, I won’t be responsible for lending Zhang a single further undeserved click. But if you happen to go search for it, please note that he’s disabled comments. And draw your own conclusions.

Conclusions were drawn, and then some, as soon as the video went viral. Salon led with the headline, “Gross men being gross.” I’ll admit I was snookered as well. The video seemed to capture numerous instances of random men trying to take advantage of the inebriation—to lure her back to their cars, their apartments, their houses. It seemed sickeningly plausible.

Too bad it was all a big fat lie. Within four days the men in the video all began coming forward, all telling essentially the same tale: They were told they were helping create a student video, or maybe it was a comedy short. All of them had been fed their lines. All were told exactly how slimy they should act.

It’s deplorable. Not least because the video claimed to show a reality that was actually manufactured to match a communal preconception. And not least because it raised a worthy question, and would have been a worthy experiment if only it had been honestly undertaken.

It’s deplorable because, who knows, maybe one of those guys might have been inclined to help that girl, and in so doing might have given us a bit of viral restoration for our faith in humanity.

Instead we got a viral confirmation of all the worst.

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Danish musicians can take the heat

Okay, yes—they look to be in pure agony. And before the last note fades, they drop their instruments and run for the exits like the pyretic victims they are. But judge not — they faced their crucible (almost literally so), and performed nearly without flaw.

“They” are the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, and their tormentor/collaborator is Danish chili-pepper aficionado (isn’t it good to know there’s such a thing?), Chili Klaus. Their challenge, for whatever twisted reason, was to consume the world’s hottest chilis—ghost peppers, Carolina Reapers, Trinidad Scorpions—smack dab in the middle of a performance of Tango Jalousie.

How did it go? Better than you might expect, actually. No, they don’t look to be having the times of their lives (although the second violinist, my new hero, looks like she could eat a peck of these perfidious peppers while shrugging her way through a Wagner opera or two)…but they toughed it out. More than that, near as I can tell, they missed nary a note.

The video of this—what to call it? “Stunt” hardly does it justice—has only been up for a week, yet has garnered more than two million hits. Deservedly so, it’s a spectacle unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Please, for their sakes, watch it all. Resist the temptation to skip ahead to the capsaicin-laced climax. And if you really want to give them their due, go ahead and munch the hottest chili in your larder just before you hit play.

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Jian Ghomeshi – a predator in the spotlight

Short of a confession, in these vexing and vicious cases of “he said/she said,” the next best thing for determining guilt has to be a preponderance of evidence. And short of evidence—because the predator often takes care not to leave any—we have to settle for, and let ourselves be convinced by, a preponderance of accusations.

And that’s exactly what’s come to bear against former CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, creator and until very recently the on-air icon of CBC-Radio’s flagship show, Q.  When he was first publicly accused a couple of weeks ago of sexual abuse and predation, he was able to leverage doubt, leavened with his own flat denials, and to hide behind his victims’ very anonymity. He also, not surprisingly, played the ‘jilted lover’ card, in a painful-to-read multi-thousand word Facebook-posted diatribe, wherein you’re apt to learn much more than you ever wanted to know about Jian Ghomeshi’s sex life (although that’s becoming a widely reported-on subject, media-wide).

But the denials, and those self-serving counter-allegations, start to dissipate in effectiveness when the accusations come in floods, and even more so when some of the accusers step up and name themselves.

The result is a conclusion that’s unlikely to ever be reached in a court of law, but it’s real and inescapable nonetheless: Jian Ghomeshi is a serial abuser and a sexual predator.

And that’s a strange and quite uncomfortable conclusion to reach about anyone—especially when you consider that there are so many, too many, people for whom that description is apt. But most of them are faceless. Jian Ghomeshi isn’t.

To be sure, he’s far more famous in Canada than he is here. But I was well aware of him, if not his personal life nor anything about his pre-Q career, far before his name became so stained. I was a regular listener, and an admitted admirer of his skills as an interviewer. I’d said more than once that some of the best interviews I’d ever heard, I’d heard on Q.

All of which raises an uncomfortably familiar question: What is the relationship between celebrity and the presumption of guilt? The question becomes more acute, and much more uncomfortable, in these cases of sexual villainy, where the truth lies somewhere between the word of the celebrity and his accuser. We’ve seen this before, with Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, and in each of those cases, as with the earliest moments of the Ghomeshi mess, we saw a tendency to believe the celebrity, and in some reprehensible way, to indict the accuser.

Why? Because celebrity itself is a shield.

I don’t know what this is, but it’s as widespread and as regrettable as a disease—and as much as it pains me to say it, I’m just as susceptible to it as anyone. I didn’t want to believe what I first heard about Jian Ghomeshi, and the only reason I can think of for that is the faint praise I offered above: I think he was talented at the art of interviewing. For that dumb, simple reason, I was willing to give him more than his fair share of the benefit of doubt. All that brought me back from that ledge was the flood and history of allegations (apparently Ghomeshi’s reputation was so well known that the University of Toronto wouldn’t place interns on his show).

In this all too uncommon case, there’s been a semblance of justice. Doesn’t seem to be any criminal proceedings in the offing, but Jian Ghomeshi has been fired by CBC, and his reputation is (deservedly) in the toilet. His nature has been caught out, and he’s been irrevocably tarnished by his own deeds. He can never escape that.

And likewise, we can never escape the fact that if so many of his victims hadn’t been brave enough to speak out, he’d still be getting away with it. He’d be safe under the protection of our sick culture of celebrity worship.

Someday, somehow, we’ve got to come to grips with the truth that the universe of celebrities is like any other population of human beings: some undoubtedly decent, maybe even saintly; the vast majority of them are probably as situationally ethical, sometimes good / sometimes bad, as the rest of us. And some of them, statistically, are simply monsters. We’ve got to recognize that, accept it, and deal with it.

Until we do, people as bad as Jian Ghomeshi, or people even worse, are going to bask in public glory even as they wallow in private depravity…and we’ll all be their unwitting yet willing accomplices.

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RIP Tom Magliozzi (June 28, 1937 – Nov. 3, 2014)

Another regrettable loss – just over two years ago we said goodbye to Car Talk, a truly legendary National Public Radio property. Today, as reported by NPR, we sadly say goodbye to Tom Magliozzi, one of Car Talk’s irreplaceable Tappet Brothers. Tom has died at age 77, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Car Talk has continued, thankfully, in the form of replayed weekly archived shows. If there’s any bright spot in this dreadful news it’s that NPR, and Tom’s surviving brother, Ray, plan to continue these.

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RIP Jack Bruce (May 14, 1943 – Oct. 25, 2014)

Fond farewell to a music legend—songwriter, vocalist, and one of the most influential bass players to ever stride the earth. Jack Bruce, certainly best known for his lead role in the trio that defined “supergroup” (pardon to those who mistakenly assumed Mr. Clapton was at the helm of Cream)—he wrote, sang, and strummed the heartbeat for the seminal songs that signaled the maturity of rock and roll. His importance in music history cannot be overstated.

Born in Bishopbriggs, Lanarkshire, Scotland, just north of Glasgow, Bruce started with jazz bass in his teens, and was eventually granted a music scholarship to the Royal Scottish Academy. Later he was turned out from that apparently staid and stuffy establishment for the crime of continuing to play jazz.

He followed a well-trod path for the musically gifted in 1960s Great Britain: from jazz to the blues, and finally rock and roll. This put him in the orbit to which he belonged, and in proximity, naturally enough, to the comparably talented percussionist Ginger Baker, and six-string strummer Eric Clapton.

The three performed as Cream for three years only, disbanding in 1968. They produced just four studio albums. All had distinguished and prolific careers in the post-Cream years. But I think Messrs. Baker, Clapton, and the late Mr. Bruce would affirm our assessment that their collaboration, brief though it was, was magical, transformative, and has never been equaled.

Which takes nothing away from the life Jack Bruce has lived since 1968. He created brilliant solo projects, partnered with equally legendary musicians like Ringo Starr and Frank Zappa, and aged gracefully into the position of rock elder. Perhaps more importantly to him, he settled into life as a family man: husband, father, grandfather.

Fittingly then, he died at home. No cause of death was announced. The only detail released was the most touching, and it is perhaps all we need to know: he was surrounded by his family.

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Is the art world wracked by fraud?

Seems like a dirty little secret of the art world, one that’s probably been whispered about since art became a commodity and collections became investments, is breaking out into the open. Dealers, curators, and those investment-level collectors probably aren’t sanguine about the rest of us being privy to this, but the (startling) word is that more than 50 percent of traded artwork is now said to be faked, forged, or at least misattributed.

Which maybe shouldn’t be as surprising as it so painfully is. After all, the time-honored method of art authentication is expert review—that is, the acknowledged experts of a given artist, period, or style would examine a piece and render an informed opinion as to the accuracy—or dubiousness—of the attribution in question. Leaving aside for a moment the inherent weakness of visual-only analyses, this model also arguably places a bit too much onus on the authority of experts, and leaves too little opportunity to review their methods and conclusions. Add into that the inevitable conflicts of interest—remember that the authenticators are usually being paid by a party with a vested interest in the outcome—and you’ve got a system rife for gaming.

How long this has been going on is anyone’s guess. Art history tells us that practice of signing artwork dates from about the 15th century, and that the art of forging artists’ signatures was perfected almost immediately thereafter. More recent scandalous behavior includes the winked-at custom of wealthy donors offloading suspected fakes (or confirmed ones) from their collections onto museums, and taking a healthy tax deduction in the process. The museums, it’s said, are perfectly aware of the scam but play along so as to not alienate their high-powered patrons. As a result the ratio of forgeries is apparently even higher in museum collections, perhaps approaching 70 or 80 percent, although the bulk of these are in permanent storage, and never displayed.

The backlash against the expert-review paradigm is one of the reasons this story is breaking open, and it has led to more widespread acceptance of the logical alternative: scientific review. Indeed, it’s material analysis (testing paints and canvases to determine if they’re consistent with the attributed period), along with the use of high-tech, multi-spectrum examination tools that has identified many a fake that had long been widely accepted as genuine.

Which might lead one to think that the side of truth might be winning out, but instead what we have here is a classic arms race. Art forgers have long been accustomed to procuring properly aged canvases, and to mixing period-consistent pigments, and you can be sure they’re just as busy learning to defeat whatever new authentication methods that are coming on line. The incentives for doing so are counted in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Art forgery, then, is a simple and very predictable matter of economics. It became all but inevitable in tandem with the commoditization of aesthetics. It’ll continue—and flourish—as long as the collection of artwork remains the playground of the rich.

In that light it’s hard to work up much sympathy, or even undetached interest, in the point-counterpoint of art forgery and art-forgery detection. It almost feels like a game being played out in another world, even for those of us who aren’t rich, but still love art.

But here’s the thing. There’s a lot of wonderful art out there, created contemporaneously by incredibly talented artists…that’s insanely affordable and certainly not being forged. That’s how we regular folk get in the game: by supporting regular artists. By becoming patrons and collectors in our own modest but still very real and very committed way.

And if by some weird quirk of fate you find yourself in the possession of a fake, don’t lose your cool. Just ask yourself the questions you’d ask with any art: Do I like it? Does it speak to me? Or does it at least pull together this room? If the answer is yes, then guess what? It’s art. Hang it, let yourself love it, and let yourself also forget the worries of provenance and attribution. Those are concerns for a different class of collector than you. You’re the better sort—the kind that’s in it, just for the art.

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Tattoo new – culling sound from the ink

Staying with the tattoo theme for just a moment longer, the Deconstruction offers the sincerest of hat tips to Muscovite artist Dmitry Morozov (nom d’arte ::vtol::) for creating something brand new with what we’ve just this past week nominated as a most ancient art form.

The mechanics and technology couldn’t be much simpler: the tattoo is a bar code, and ultimately, a musical score. The reader is a cobbled-together, cyborg-esque instrument. The result (which as both a project and performance piece deserves more examination, so see here) is a weird and compelling sonic assault that the artist quite literally bled for. Forget practicality (which is anathema to most art and most tattooing anyway) and simply accept this as an unexpected progression for both music and body modification.

And give a listen — let ::vtol:: play you the song that’s written on his skin:

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The art, it gets under your skin

Since no one is really painting on cave walls anymore, we have to agree that there’s just one art form that has survived since primordial times, and is practiced just as fervently and reverentially today as it was then, as it has been all along.

And as an art form, there’s a lot about tattooing, that deep dermal variety of cosmetic modification, that stands very much alone. The practitioners, wielders of the needles, are artists of the highest caliber—never doubt that. But they’ve selected a medium that weirdly, almost inexplicably blends permanence and impermanence. That a tattoo is permanent is something that’s drummed into your head as soon as you start to consider receiving the ink. Someone, perhaps many people, and almost certainly the artist, will hit you with nearly these exact words: “Are you sure? It’s going to be on you forever.”

And maybe from your mortal, temporal perspective, that’s true. But take a wider view, the artist’s view, and you’ll see it’s not quite so. Almost every medium is ultimately perishable, naturally enough—even the occasional Van Gogh canvas has been lost to the flames. But all artists must fantasize, don’t you think, about creating something bound to last for the ages. They all must yearn to fill museums and to astound patrons as yet unborn. If they choose to work on canvas, or in marble, or in a thousand other inanimate media, they’ve got the barest shot at that. But the artist who works with skin knows that in less than a lifetime their work disappears forever. Yet they carry on.

How and why that is fascinates me—I’ve explored the question but I’m not quite sure I’ve found any coherent way to answer it. I’ve talked it over recently with David Maynard and Eric Starr, both of Arkham Tattoo. We started with this premise: that today’s tattooer is, and must be, an artist. Are there horrifying exceptions? Oh sure. But a modern convergence of events, namely the invention of the electric tattoo machine, and more importantly, the almost-mainstreaming of tattoo culture, means that market forces have attracted the best to the industry. They’ve been given the tools, and the competitive atmosphere, to create tattoo art unlike anything yet seen.

Watch them in action and you realize something almost at once: these artists could excel in just about any other form. Many of them could make their living as world-class illustrators, commercial artists, what have you. And realizing that makes you wonder about something else: Why aren’t illustrators, graphic artists, and all the rest trying their hand at tattooing?

I asked Dave Maynard about that and he told me something enlightening—”A lot of them do,” he said. “They think it looks easy so they give it a try.” But there’s a temperament, he added, something unique about the tattoo artist’s outlook, that is apparently a non-negotiable job requirement. Lacking it, you simply don’t last.

So what is it? Either Dave couldn’t articulate it, or I couldn’t grasp it. So I tried another tack. What about the customers? What brings them into the shop?

I knew even as I asked that there could be no easy answer. The number of reasons for getting tattooed are just about equal to the totality of tattoos ever given. But whatever the reasons, they must be strong, maybe even overwhelming, to endure the process. Getting a tattoo is, at best, an intensely uncomfortable sensation. Sometimes it’s downright torture.

To go through that, you have to be completely invested. Clearly, you’re invested in the outcome—this goes back to the “on you forever” thing of which we’ve already spoken. But, Dave told me, you need to be a partner in the creative process as well. The art on your skin must be as much your product as it is the artist’s. In fact, Dave told me, that’s one of his few deal-breakers. He said he tends not to tattoo anyone who doesn’t have at least some idea of what kind of art they’re going to wear.

That’s when another lightbulb went on, and I recognized something else unique about the tattooing art. It’s the most intimate collaboration imaginable between artist and patron; not just because of the intimate nature of the medium (although that’s an undeniable factor), but also because the creative process is so equally shared. Yes, you can go into a tattoo shop, pick a piece of flash from the wall and ask to receive it line for line (I’ve done that very thing). But what you should do is have an idea for a custom design, something you can describe, something the artist can understand and expand upon.

Do that, and you’ll receive a lifelong-lasting, deeply meaningful work that you helped create.

By the end of the conversation I had a glimpse, maybe some insights, a partial understanding of why this art form has not just endured but continues to dramatically expand. I still had questions, though, and it bothered me that I couldn’t find my way to the answers.

That’s when I realized what a fool’s errand I was on. The tattoo, like every other visual art, is in the final analysis ineffable—that’s why it’s visual. Try to express it in words, and it transforms into a novel or poem or koan. Try to make it answer questions or articulate a philosophy and it slips away from you like water through your fingers. This is no flaw or failing, it’s the entire point of the thing.

If you’re wearing this kind of collaborative art under your skin, people will still ask you about it. They’ll ask you why, and how, and what. They’ll expect you to be able to answer. Maybe you’re not as tongue-tied about it as me, and maybe you can handle it. Go ahead and try. Or you can embrace ineffability, eschew spoken explanations, and just point at it. You can answer by telling them, “Just look at it.”

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Da Vinci’s drafts

Nearly five hundred years after his death, Leonardo Da Vinci is still celebrated, and widely recognized, as one of the Western world’s most accomplished polymaths, inventors, and above all, artists. Even the most uninitiated can easily see why—a glance through his notebooks reveal an uncommon and deeply penetrating mind at work. The sketches of his inventions demonstrate a grasp of mechanics and dynamics far ahead of his era. And his art? It’s not just the beauty of his work, although that’s evident in abundance. It’s the technical precision, the startling fidelity of his capture of his subjects, almost mystical in the execution. In reality it was simply because he was very, very good at his craft; he understood light, he understood perspective, he understood motion…and he excelled at distilling these things through pigment, onto surfaces.

As to exactly how he did that—well, lacking the opportunity to look over the genius’s shoulder and watch him work, the best we can do is to study his paintings, and ever so gently, deconstruct them. And in that respect, a major discovery has just been made.

Leonardo’s circa-1480s painting Lady with an Ermine, is perhaps his second most famous portrait. Like the Mona Lisa the renown partially arises from embedded mystery: enigmatic elements, and even controversy as to the identity of the subject.

Although the matter is far from settled, the woman in the Ermine painting is widely assumed to be Cecilia Gallerani, mistress to Duke Ludovico Sforza of Milan. Perhaps the most compelling evidence in that regard is that shortly before the portrait is believed to have been commissioned, Sforza was inducted into the heraldic Order of the Ermine by the King of Naples. The prominent inclusion of that strange, sleek animal, then, might have been Leonardo’s less-than-subtle salute to his patron.

It’s long been known that multiple layers of paint—early drafts, essentially—were hidden beneath the Lady with an Ermine. That was revealed by X-ray examination of the portrait decades ago, and similar testing yielded similar results for many Da Vinci paintings. Until now, though, there hasn’t been a noninvasive, non-destructive way of peeling back those layers, and seeing what Leonardo chose to cover up.

Enter, thankfully, LAM (layer amplification method). The technique of exposing surfaces to multiple, sequential wavelengths of intense light, then measuring the reflections, has been employed by engineer Pascal Cotte of Lumiere Technology to unveil not one, but three versions of the Lady with an Ermine portrait. Examining the evolution of the work gives us remarkable insight into how Da Vinci approached his work.

What’s most noticeable is the ermine, and particularly its complete absence in the first, deepest layer. Next came the grey ermine—smaller, more subdued, and much less life-like. If the painting’s subject and provenance are indeed what art historians have concluded, then it’s tempting to suspect that Ludovico Sforza’s insistence might have spurred the inclusion, and finally the refinement, of that haunting little creature.

It’s also interesting to notice the evolution of the Lady’s attire. If she sat for Leonardo (if, in other words, Leonardo didn’t somehow paint this from memory), then we have an almost exact idea of what she wore that day. But why does the small black bow at her neckline disappear between the first version and the second? Why does a blue cloak appear over her left shoulder, concurrent with the arrival of the ermine? These are relatively tiny questions of detail, historically unanswerable, but so very fascinating to ponder when we consider the process of a master painter at work.

Finally, and very tellingly, notice the Lady’s face. Not a brush-stroke changes there. Of all aspects of Da Vinci’s skill, his grasp of the human form was probably his greatest strength. At first pass he captured the Lady’s likeness; he knew it, and he was intelligent and confident enough to never second guess it.

It’d be trite, and maybe not entirely honest to end by proclaiming that “there will never be another Da Vinci.” Yes, he was a resounding, history-shaking genius…but unto every generation is bestowed not just monsters, tyrants, and legions of the mediocre, but also a far share of geniuses. There will be another Da Vinci, or at least someone of comparable talent and depth. That someone might be in art school right now, or in grade school, or on the streets, spraying masterpieces onto concrete-block walls.

With luck we’ll see that genius at work, in real time or close to it, and get some dim idea of how perfect genius expresses itself. With luck a half-millennium won’t pass, and future admirers won’t be left to look back, and only hypothesize.

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Revenge porn and the law of unintended consequences

The fact that revenge porn exists illustrates an entire tragicomic spectrum of unhappy, unintended con-sequences. More aptly, it demonstrates the lowest of the low: infantile exes who aim to shame, and the profit-blinded thugs who give them the platforms for doing so. Both categories are beneath contempt, and I hope we all can agree that they can and should be stamped out.

But back to the consequences unintended—how did we come to a place where such a hurtful phenomenon could be so widespread? I suppose there have been similar instances, probably mostly isolated ones, for as long as there has been sexuality and ways of commemorating it. But it wasn’t until we all began carrying cameras everywhere, all the time; and we all had access to vast and instant sharing networks, that this thing became an epidemic.

I’ve heard it argued also that a more intimate aspect of culture, sneeringly called the ‘hookup culture,’ plays an equally culpable role. I won’t go there, it smells too much like victim-blaming. In whatever way those pictures are generated (ways that are patently not my business) the only thing that the wronged party in one of these scenarios is guilty of is trusting the wrong person. And we’ve all been guilty of that, haven’t we?

When they built cameras into our phones, no one intended for them to be used as weapons of such a cowardly caliber. And whenever trust is granted, certainly no one intends that it can came back at them, later on, in such a life-shattering way. It’s probably true that the only intended things about revenge porn are that which is intended by the guilty parties: to hurt, and to capitalize on hurt.

That’s such a self-obvious injustice that, maybe belatedly, something is being done about it.Thirteen states have now enacted legislation criminalizing revenge porn; fifteen others, along with Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, have bills under debate.

These are positive developments, no? Well…we are dealing with the law of unintended consequences here, and no one triggers that law quite like lawmakers who don’t really understand the issues and the technology under their purview.

So that’s why eleven plaintiffs, including the ACLU and the Association of American Publishers, have filed suit against Arizona House Bill 2515, effective as of July, calling its prohibition on sharing private or intimate images overbroad and unconstitutional.

Why? Here’s the operative text: It is unlawful to intentionally disclose, display, distribute, publish, advertise or offer a photograph, videotape, film or digital recording of another person in a state of nudity or engaged in a sexual act if the person knows or should have known that the depicted person has not consented to the disclosure.

That seems perfectly reasonable—spot on, in fact—until the plaintiffs point out that it would criminalize one of the most iconic images of the last half century. It would also make it a felony to publish the most obvious and relevant photos alongside an article on public breastfeeding. It rises from the level of nobly intended civil protection, to the unwanted heights of censorship and prior restraint.

It is, in other words, a hell of a conundrum, and it’s one that is probably applicable to the anti-revenge-porn laws that have been enacted nationwide. On the one hand, there absolutely should be criminal penalties for jilted exes and sleezy revenge-site operators.

On the other hand, there absolutely shouldn’t be censorship. Ever.

In an age when it’s difficult to get legislators at any level to agree on anything, much less act, it’s something of a miracle that these laws even exist. It’ll take another, trickier kind of miracle to get them fixed to target only the bad, and leave be the good.

So fingers crossed for that miracle. Without it someone will lose, someone who did nothing to deserve that fate. That fate, of course, is the most common unintended consequence of them all.

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Here’s to Scotland

By any objective standard this summer has been just fucking awful. There has been war and disease, barbarism, and more than our usual apportionment of inexplicable and inexcusable slaughter. Mere hours remain now until the equinox, but even the longer nights, the ushering in of a more gentle season, this hopeful, symbolic cyclic passage—it brings no promise. The lingering awfulness shows every sign of hounding us unto autumn, and beyond.

But when hope dies, we die. And I’ve found hope through the example set by a comparatively tiny outpost, a bastion of culture and gravitas, the northernmost reaches of a liberal empire—a place the Romans could never conquer and that the English only barely did.

Thank you, Scotland. You just gave the world something it sorely needed.

The vote that just happened is, first and foremost, Scottish business. London and Westminster are almost as much bystanders as the rest of us. The vote was a necessary and earnest conversation, Scot to Scot.

And although the independence referendum was momentous—hugely historical—from an outsider’s perspective it never really mattered what the result would be. What mattered was the process.

What we’ve just witnessed is either a geopolitical anomaly, or an example of what self-determination can and should be. Declarations of nationhood, or even halfhearted feints at that, are usually bloodbaths. State history and nationalism are chronically synonymous with revolution and civil war…and proud of it. These twisted truths are enshrined in our national anthems and painted into the murals we hang over parliamental assemblies. We thrive on bloody birth-pangs.

But Scotland has shown us it doesn’t have to be that way. In the most thoughtful and deliberative way, they’ve demonstrated something new, something different, something far far better. They’ve shown that a nation can decide, en masse, where their destiny lies, and that they can pursue that course peacefully and with nothing more passionate than speech and conviction.

They’ve elected to remain British, which is something they’ve always been, and to remain part of a United Kingdom, which is comparatively new. We can respect and honor that decision, every bit as much as we’d do if the vote had gone the other way. If Scotland had become our world’s newest country, then I’d expect and hope that most of the planet would greet them as allies and cousins, partners and friends. This is nothing less than the Scottish deserve—have earned—in their declining of independence. The decision itself, again, is no one’s business but theirs.

The fact that a breathtakingly huge percentage of the Scotch electorate deliberated and decided, peacefully, is why, henceforth, we should all look to the north of the River Tweed and the Solway Firth as the example of progressive civilization. The fact that the marshals of Scottish independence have gracefully accepted defeat and are ceding power shows that politics needn’t be messy, and shouldn’t be deadly.

Scotland has set a high bar for humanity. We’ll probably rarely measure up, going forward. The next independence movement, wherever it rises, will likely be serenaded into existence with the song of artillery, and screams. The next politician who fails to exhort an uprising will doubtlessly try again, in a much more unspeakable way.

Be that as it may. It doesn’t mean we can’t strive after the Scottish example. Scotland showed it can be done; it’s up to the rest of us to prove it can be done again.

In the meanwhile, I’ll thank Scotland, and I’ll salute her the best way I know how.

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