Thursday, October 24, 2013

Not my own

On the road less traveled by, I found this.

It's near the corner of Arden Way and Del Paso Boulevard in north Sacramento. I don't know what it means or how long it's been there.

I'm hoping you'd know.

Glossy yellow, highlighted on the
right edges of the letterforms with
light yellow matte paint, pushed
off the wall with matte blue paint.
You'll find it on the wall of a building emptied but for a jewelry and loan on the opposite side. I'm reasonably certain the art will still be there when you go looking.

In a perpendicular city in a perpendicular valley, Del Paso is unusual for crossing Arden Way at about a 30-degree angle. This wall is on one of the resulting acute angles, right in front of a triangle-shaped gravel lot where a gas station and convenience store used to be. Travelers north on Del Paso and east on Arden get a lingering sweep of the art.

In scarcity of gas and convenience on this corner, we can see it and wonder.

Google Maps'®™ latest spy view shows the lot had been barricaded by temporary fencing and the wall was bare except for the mottled and white patches you see beneath the lettering. How long between then and now is a mystery.

Rust primer was used to sharpen lines
and knock back the brick.
So is its meaning. Research so far yields nothing. I misquoted it to my friend Bob, an artist and designer, as "in Scarcity we Bare our teeth," quite a different sentiment — a threat, maybe; a warning. The changes much. Maybe it's still a threat or challenge, but it reads more like a statement:

This is what happens when we are diminished. (?) We bare the teeth in anger? In a cry? In a smile? In hunger? In want? In longing?

Whose teeth? The community's? Real teeth, or something else, the buildings of a spare street? Someone's rawness?

It's a poem in itself — someone's poem — sounding obtusely as if translated into English. Its message may belie its art.

Is it a shrine, a talisman? Is it graffiti or commissioned art? Yellow and blue are the colors of Grant Union High School, a couple of miles up the street, plus beveled edges of light yellow and occasionally the rust of automotive primer. Is it protected by Pacer pride?

It is unsigned, as far as I can tell, and passersby so far leave it alone. Was it painted freehand, or made using a cartoon like the Renaissance muralists, or projected onto the wall? The edges are sharp, as if masked. Though the tiniest big clunky in the long swooshes, the letterforms are even and tight, with the liveliness of slight variation.  That's difficult to do, even in the best circumstances.

Two blocks up the street I found another mural without credit, its art cool and monochrome, its words beautiful and without reference:
She speaks to me about the mud dauber wasp, reciting all she had learned from Encyclopedia Brittanica 1970. The way it flies across the patio,/

Moving bits of earth larger than one would imagine. She watches it build a nest beneath the eaves, a thing of beauty, shining in her eyes.
Google Maps©®™ shows a bare wall where this image of delicate scroll, stolid yet dangerous, now shines.

I want to know what and why.

I'm a poor anthropologist for Del Paso Boulevard, a street I used to cross many times in past lives. Funny how one can mark the chunks of life by the roads traveled or avoided. I used to go through this intersection frequently many years ago, when I was helping teach English to a Hmong family that neither wanted it (the parents) nor needed it (the children).

Next, I drove here on the way to the elementary school where I was studying for my teaching credential at night.
(Now that I think of it, why did we spend our evenings at the school instead of the Sacramento State campus, where the credential was offered? We did nothing particularly teacher-y in those rooms; they were just meeting places, no different from Sac State classrooms except the desks were smaller. Maybe the teacher-teachers were just trying to get us used to the classroom environment. But the thing we most needed to realize — the sour playground sweat of children — had been wiped clean by custodians by then.)
I criss-crossed here when I was a substitute teacher, then a full-time teacher at a school a couple of miles north.

I was only traveling this route to run an errand, thinking it a shortcut from one part of my current life to another. It was long instead, and serendipitous.

Del Paso Boulevard was worn the first time I went through. Stopping once for an item in a drug store, I encountered someone in the parking lot who wanted to sell me crack.

The street hints of a vibrant, cosmopolitan past, its heyday brought by the war years, World War II and the Cold War, when Sacramento had two Air Force bases, an Army depot and a rocket engine builder going full swing. The street still holds touches of mid-century streamline architecture and Art Deco signage. It's a street George Lucas might have lionized as prime for cruising, when cars were king. But economic forces shifted and the street got forgotten.

Now new things dot the street, including a theater for young playwrights and an upscale restaurant and wine bar, and art galleries and artists' lofts, and revamped mid-century diners turned into new century eateries. Empty storefronts lodge between the new ventures. The city's weekly alternative newspaper, the Sacramento News & Review, moved there. The Del Paso Boulevard Partnership calls the place Old North Sacramento.

The street widens and narrows, providing herringbone parking spaces here and many many narrow crosswalks there, which cut in between medians planted full with shrubs and trees, and unexplained statuary every so often, and low walls filled with glass brick.

It has the feel of an absentee owner sweeping and primping without a sense for the place that it may have been.

And the mysterious murals: Commentary or more out-of-place tidying?

If you know, tell me.


  1. I live a block and a half from the Teeth Wall. When it appeared, my first interpretation was "When times are hard, we become predators." Well, hopefully not all of us....

    I've since seen the poem of which the wall text is the first line and that modifies my personal interpretation a bit. But by itself, I still find the line inflammatory. We have enough predators as it is, without official(?) encouragement.

  2. thanks, ken. i saw it as a declaration of defense by someone, somewhere in the neighborhood. poetry is fine art, i think; its creator has an intent, but invites others to insert their own. i too finally saw the poem that inspired it and it now reads to me as a lament on a lost neighborhood.

  3. Thanks, gentlemen for your keen attention to the poem I wrote. I welcome all your readings. The poem is a bit of a quizzical one. I had hoped it would be provocation and insight all in one, so the mixed tone you correctly perceive is intentional. You can hear me talk about the impetus for the poem here [], but I will say that at the time I was interested in how we balance the moral life with the economic commercial life. These two things seem to be pitted against each other in American life. Indeed, when resources are scarce, the moral sphere of life seems to melt away and not be so important. We focus on getting what material goods we need rather than asking larger questions, entering into that moral sphere. We stop trying to determine what is the "good" life. Indeed, the "good" life becomes a synonym for having enough and living without care rather than something that is about how we value our lives (and others' lives). In short, we as humans all have the capacity to "bare the teeth" when we are stressed and unsure of how our material needs are going to be met. That cuts across ALL social classes. The 19th century practice of the poor selling their teeth is a central metaphor here. In those times of scarcity, the value of key elements of one's identity, one's face, one's countenance become up for sale. They are reduced to the value that the market places on them. With that in mind, it seems that my major commentary in the poem is how we suffer the same displacement of values whenever we reduce someone to the value of their net worth as the market would have it. Thanks again, for the time spent considering this work (which was commissioned by the Sacramento Municipal Arts Commission).