First and foremost, Talkhouse Contributing Writer Liam Wilson is a good vibe technician. He’s known to moonlight as an avid psychonaut and enjoys occasional visits with his worldly possessions in Philadelphia. He spends most of his time wandering Earth in an endless pursuit of a clearer understanding of all things bass-frequency related with his band the Dillinger Escape Plan. Follow him on: Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
This past weekend, every news feed had the story about some urban vigilante who buffed off the beloved Philadelphia mural of the cover art for local musician Kurt Vile’s album Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze. I live in Philadelphia, between the Kensington and Fishtown neighborhoods, and I reverently walk past that mural almost every day when I’m not away on tour. When I saw the re-grammed photo of the “ignorant piece of shit” doing the buffing, I felt that queasy awkwardness that only happens in those rare occasions when life gets really dark and gloomy.
Instead of seeing some random stereotypical blowhard, some easy target for my aggression, I instead recognized a friend. DJ Lee Mayjahs is a neighbor, a local DJ with international appeal, and someone who is a major puzzle piece in the artistically motivated Philadelphia Experiment (PEX) — the East Coast Burner-centric collective which I consider myself a loose member of. I found myself at a socio-emotional crossroads; I felt personally robbed and violated, but tried to keep my emotions in check — maybe there was some sort of backstory excuse, maybe it was actually his building and some mutually agreed-upon terms were being violated. Alas, that was not the case at all.
As someone who has lived his whole life in the greater Philadelphia region, I take an at times foolishly unconditional amount of pride in most of what comes from there. I’ve helped run local shows for Kurt Vile in the First Unitarian Church chapel and saw his achievements over the last few years as wins for every musician struggling to make a name for them self both within and outside the city. I also cut my teeth (often literally) looking up to the artwork of Steve Powers, aka ICY SIGNS aka ESPO, who made that mural. From my almost-daily rescanning of the walls and rooftops all over Philadelphia to and from high school in the mid-to-late ‘90s, to discovering his pencil tags cleverly hidden like clues to some greater mystery under the concrete steps where I studied at the University of the Arts, I was a fan. I attended his presentations and reveled in the impromptu debates that would erupt from in-attendance leaders of the anti-graffiti network and his surprisingly articulate, and tactfully funny ways of suppressing their manifold arguments. His viewpoints impressed onto me some core values about art and public space that I still hold to be true. His “Love Letter to Philadelphia” series along the El is undeniably profound, as is the “Daily Metaltation” print that hangs in my kitchen and truly serves its namesake purpose.
For me, coming from the city that birthed the godfather of modern American graffitti, “Cornbread,” graff has always served as a sort of de facto barometer of culture for me when I travel around the world. When I don’t see any, I get suspicious of my surroundings. It surprises me that in 2014 anyone still really cares to fight back against graffiti in public spaces when there’s increasingly less control over the more suffocating varieties of pollution that we commonly endure on a day-to-day basis: noise from construction and all modes of transportation, a mind-gagging amount of logos on everything, religious and political propaganda, and billboards blocking better views with false adverts for a better life. We’re bombarded with unsolicited advertisements, like the flyers (MOOP for those in the know) Mayjahs himself uses to promote his PEX events on the very same stretch of street where the Kurt Vile mural was, a blighted strip that otherwise hosts little else worth glancing up for or making any eye contact with, and only confirms the nickname “Philthadelphia.”
Although in some ways the Kurt Vile mural itself is an advertisement, it’s so much more than that. Like the Rocky statue at the base of the “Rocky Steps” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this wall, immediately upon arrival, became something of a local icon and a part of a history beyond Philadelphia’s city’s limits. Especially as a “Burner” and recognized leader of a locally minded and globally evolving artistic community, Lee should have had a more intrinsic sensitivity to this. I can only assume that by the public response to what happened, and his subsequent statement, that he gets it. Lee has issued both a public apology and has offered to pay for it to be redone. Both Kurt Vile and Steve Powers have assured anyone paying attention that the piece will be redone, and that it’ll likely be better than ever, and to forgive “Mr. Buffman” for his misguided actions.
It’s beyond frustrating to think that even in the moment of confrontation he didn’t stop to listen with open ears and consider that the neighborhood and its residents truly loved the wall and took serious pride in it. Sure, there were people who didn’t like it, and probably never will; but I’m certain, if on principle alone, the majority of my neighbors near and far feel like Lee’s action was unwarranted. I saw “The Wall” as one of the first signs of things in the area truly changing for the better; whereas he saw it as a symbol of something else. (Isn’t art beautiful like that?)
What’s worse than my disappointment in Lee is the aching disappointment I have in myself and so many of my peers for displaying such a passionately bitter response. Lee’s mistake pales in comparisons to an embarrassing amount of other things glaringly wrong with the city and the neighborhood we’re focused on, like how bad our public schools are. These more pressing issues rarely or barely grab any serious attention or fuel any responsible action whatsoever from its inhabitants. Lee’s actions were undeniably myopic and selfish, there’s no question about that. But going from “Zero-to-Philly” on him in response won’t really solve anything. Especially considering the delicate mental state Lee claims to have been in and that everyone else seems to be downplaying and even ignoring entirely.
Everything we do in our lives can be boiled down to one of two categories: moving in the direction of fear, or moving towards LOVE. Admittedly, my initial reaction to all of this was anything but loving, but my conclusion and this response are quite the contrary. “The City of Brotherly Shove,” especially lately, has taken a bizarre pride in its negative and violent reputation. I’m over the public displays of self-righteous shaming. This is a quickly fading chance for everyone to come together in a concentrated effort to raise the vibrational level of the collective village and buff the real problem: stagnating negativity. Even though buffing off the Kurt Vile mural is one man’s terrible mistake, all eyes are on the rest of us to set a better example, and for that reason I think we all should show a little extra love for our brother who fell behind the pack and run those extra laps with him like a real team.