This collection began
on a cloudy afternoon in 1985, when I strolled up Broadway and
a cryptic note flickered in the corner of my eye. A few minutes
later, regretting that I had not read it completely, I circled
back to the bizarre message. Barely clinging to its Times Square
lamppost, the weathered page, related to JFK conspiracy theory,
was easy to remove. It has proven infinitely more difficult to
The statements contained in SCRAWL are often political, biblical,
sexual, and/or psychological. They can be impeccably drafted in
unique calligraphy or scribbled in unintelligible palimpsests.
Ordinarily, the notes are all I have to parse, but once in a while
I've bumped into "street authors." In 1995 I saw my first, a lady
dressed in black, the hellish noir of years of unwashed clothing.
She was vigorously wiping an entire glue stick on a patch of brick.
I continued watching from a distance as she posted her proclamation
above busy Church Street. I'd seen the same ornamental writing
before, but had only been able to snag a torn fragment. After
she finished pasting, the lady wandered off, looking back over
her shoulder from time to time. I waited long minutes before crossing
the street. The glue was still wet. This time I got the entire
text, along with a serious case of the heebie-jeebies.
It was six years before I spotted another scrawler, a hefty middle-aged
man standing on the sidewalk in front of Zabar's, meekly distributing
elaborate and mysterious hand-cut messages. I could make neither
head nor tail of his curious-scramble of English and Hebrew letters,
symbols, and more, so I dared ask "What's it all about?" "They're
pictures not sounds so I don't talk about 'em," he murmured, turning
back to leafleting.
What's stronger, the visual, the verbal, or some combination
thereof? SCRaWL is rarely plain text or pure image, so what is
it exactly? I'm not sure, but reading Rilke helps a little: "...try
to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books
that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the
answers... Live the questions now." (1)
OK Herr Rilke, I'm trying. Are the jam-packed pages
of SCRAwL a result of horror-vacui (the fear of empty space)?
Are these outbursts stirred by oppressive feelings that there's
not enough room for what needs saying? Why isn't everyone interested
in these "visual equivalent(s) of overheard whispers"? (2)
What features does ScRAWL share with hieratic texts like Ethiopia's
healing scrolls, believed to be powered by the forces at the intersection
of medicine, perception and aesthetics? SCRawL can, as one critic
described, seem like "the incandescence of true psychosis ...a black
hole of absolute spiritual density... If most art seeks to express
the soul of its maker, here you have the soul itself, scorched
onto the very paper with psychotic force." (3)
One thing's certain, sCRAWl haunts.
It's simpler to describe what the collection isn't, than to peg
what it is. ScraWL is not:
Begging / Ingratiating
Literature, Music, Painting
Outsider, Naive, Brut, or Fine Art
Graffiti (here the law usually disagrees)
A small-town phenomenon
The first thing I tell strangers about
ScRawL is a collection of palpably urgent and captivating voices,
containing close to 100 anonymous or pseudonymous pronouncements,
from terse suggestions to indecipherably-complex amalgams of mathematical
figuring, philosophical posturing, and political ranting. The
notes range from the haragious to the habromaniacal (from scary
to silly). Rarely are they supplicating. The creators, reclusive
or otherwise, tend to the impassioned and visceral, often urging
their un-met public to do something to right wrongs both personal
and universal, to better our lots, to stand up and be counted.
ScRAwl inevitably leads to queries about its makers, especially
their states of mind. The form and content of the work suggests
psychological and social marginalization, but I'm unwilling to
pigeonhole. Some scrawlers are homeless while others might hold
good jobs and be surrounded by loving families. Then why the anonymity?
Maybe it's related to feelings of shame. Scrawlers may be alone,
or simply feel alone. Perhaps they don't dare express
their opinions verbally, and the choice to post anonymously is
about greater freedom of expression. Studying SCraWl is one way
to learn about the human cultural tissue that connects us all,
and the desire for such insight is a driving force behind my instinct
to "re-post" these heartfelt entreaties.
Most of the 40 creators represented in ScrAwL work with pen or
indelible marker, on paper or cardboard. The materials chosen,
and the manner of posting, can be revealing. Scrawlers are akin
to the people who make artists' books, in that they can afford
to publish widely by using inexpensive Scotch-tape, staples and
photocopies. Many scrawlers have the entrepreneurial and intellectual
wherewithal to travel and install their multiples in provocative
locations. Remember the early 1990s when midtown and lower Manhattan
were plastered with strips of paper and masking tape marked "Phone
Block Escort Service"? It was an all-out, one-man media blitz
any Madison Avenue ad exec would envy.
Other scrawlers are surreptitious, gently placing their one-of-a-kind
messages in discreet locations, like the Ouija-board-esque planks
I found in a Laundromat, partially hidden at eye level. Most of
scrAWl was found stuck to walls, but one ultra-political scribe
reaches large audiences by pasting a variegated lattice of adhesive
labels and highlighted color photocopies onto the clear glass
of MTA bus stops. Another scrawler has been posting inside city
buses for decades. His neatly-Sharpie©'d statements are presented
on the back of cardboard ovals removed from tissue boxes. I saw
him on the 6 train once, a presentable, longhaired man, breast
pocket chockablock with multi-colored markers. He was writing
intently so I didn't disrupt. What's behind the odd satisfaction
we feel when opening a perforated box top? Why does he choose
this medium for stock and voting tips? Where does he get all those
Puffs and Scotties? Is he a hospital patient or frequent visitor?
Is he prone to runny noses?
My longest encounter with a scrawler took place curbside on 53rd
Street, across from MoMA. "Step right up and play," a big guy called
out, carnie singsong style. I forked over a buck and just as I
spun the wheel for my chance at a million, he gleefully pointed
out the lack of a winning slot on his handmade roulette wheel.
Homeless in midtown, "Robbo" showed me his carts, laden with trash-picked
office supplies: reams of new copy paper, Fiskars galore, even
a Xerox machine plugged into a city lamppost. He offered the lease
for The World Trade Center and I snapped it up for four bits.
Manhattan Island? Sold, for a mere twenty-fifth of Peter Minuet's
asking price. Robbo signed me up for my own Homeless Express card,
and we spent a glorious half-hour chatting about art, real estate,
politics and more. I never did make it inside MoMA.
Will curators or shrinks or graphologists ever arrive at concrete
conclusions about these broadsides which publicly blazon forth
what trained psychiatrists admit are "the ancient mysteries
of the human mind"? Maybe ordinary citizens know just as
much as the experts — survivors of the recent Sichuan earthquakes
said things like: "I don't want to be indoors — I've fully mentally
prepared to stay outside for a long time... in a disaster time even
crazy things become normal." (4)
NYC can be trying at its best, a war zone at its worst. Who's
to say who's crazy?
Once, having no blank paper at hand, I stood on a street corner,
scribbling in the empty spaces of a newspaper to capture a fleeting
idea. I sensed a passerby gawking at me. He thinks I'm nuts, I
shriveled, just like the scribes of dubious sanity who post the
notes I collect. After two and a half decades I'm still not certain
precisely why I collect scRAWl. Is it salve for my "furious discontent,"
a way to gain some measure of comfort in the knowledge that others
are far more furious, more discontent? Do I do it for voyeuristic
or vicarious jolts? I do know I save these materials to prove
that I am both sane and unique; because few others seem to care;
and because sCrAwL helps me get inside the minds of my fellow
bipeds and fathom such modalities as reclusiveness in the big
"To be a collector is never to be satisfied, to continue on with
the thrumming frustration that there's something else you need,
want, crave, even if you have no idea what it is... Engage me, scare
me, draw me in. I'm waiting. I want you." (6)
I don't know exactly why I treasure SCRAWL so, but I do agree
with Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, "twice two makes five is sometimes
a very charming thing." (7)
© Harley Spiller
This essay would not have been possible without the smart
and empathetic pencil of Dr. Melissa Monroe; the gracious counsel
of Dr. Helen T. Hodys, Steven Rand, and Kerri Schlottman; and
the love of my gorgeous family.
Rainer Marie Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 1903, New
World Library, Novato, CA, Translated by Joan M. Burnham, 2000,
Jennings, "Urban Hieroglyphics: Hinting at the Hint of a Story,"
The New York Times, Feb. 24, 2002, p. 12.
A. Fowler, "China Residents Pitch Their Tents, Fearful of Homes,"
The Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2008, p. 1.
Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, The MacMillan Company,
NY, 1918. p. 82.
Lippman, "Loving the Ugly Mermaid," The Wall Street Journal,
June 14, 2008, p. W3.
op. cit, p. 75.
Selected from apexart's annual Unsolicited