Urban Inspiration

Walk around any city & you’ll find public art. Some statues or murals may be commissioned or you may see the work of an illicit painter’s creativity. Even some marketing signs have an artistic flair. Whatever the intent, these visual distractions can make a mundane environment more interesting.

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The symmetrical sharp shapes of these windows with multiple panels are softened with the colorful arched design that surrounds them. The static pattern of bricks has almost disappeared into the background with the outlined form of columns. The artistic accents incorporated onto the basic form of the structure add to the character of the old building while giving a hint to what is inside.

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The sides of buildings where a parking lot has been squeezed into the empty space provide an opportunity for many types of murals. Usually work done in these spaces provide vivid color to an otherwise drab wall.

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Statues of Ancient Greece represented gods while some rulers hoping to immortalize themselves had their likeness carved in stone. In this country many of our civic monuments pay tribute to important individuals. No form of art is ever static. In the recent past objects, forms & surrealistic sculptures began to appear in public spaces often representing ideas. Empty Suit by Erwin Wurm in St. Louis fascinated me. Humanity has been removed from a typical form on a pedestal & the color demands your attention.

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Not to far from Empty Suit I found a sculpture commonly know as Hollow Head or just plain Head. I later learned its official name is Eros Bendato sculpted by Igor Mitoraj. Initially I enjoyed the absurdity of the work but discovered that Eros is the Greek God of love & desire. By making me smile when I first saw it & later thinking of what the artist may have been saying, this public art did it’s job.

05 copyWhile this wall in Mostar, riddled with the bullet holes, is definitely not the work of an artist. It does speaks to me in a more powerful way than any urban environment I’ve ever been in. During the war in Bosnia Herzegovina in the 1990’s, this city, which had been a beacon of coexistence between a cultural, religious & ethnic population, was laid siege. Centuries of cooperation & tolerance eroded into an atmosphere of distrust & anger. It is a constant reminder of the the lasting scars from the savagery of war.

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Translation…I am Fidel. My trip to Cuba was 2 months after Fidel died. One of Castro’s last wishes was for no monuments to be erected in his honor to avoid a cult of personality. The few murals I saw were of faded revolutionary icons. During my 2 weeks on the island I saw very little graffiti. I found it odd that with Cuba’s rich artistic culture I did not see more art in public places. 07

The attempt to brighten up an alley in downtown Denver with a dramatic work of art seemed like a good idea. However, the alley will always be a place for garbage dumpsters. The stark reality of the graffiti tagged container defines the superiority of function over form in this environment.

08This mural alongside a parking lot in the Strip District of Pittsburgh is also an advertisement for the business inside the building. Getting your attention is a shared goal of art & marketing. Both the design & the message are simple. In my mind’s eye that harmony helps to make it effective without being offensive. It also has balanced proportion with the cars in in front of it.

09Anyone with a bit of technical knowledge about video will immediately associate the color bars in the mural with TV. The iconic Apple logo requires no further explanation. Yet again it is on a wall beside a parking lot. In this case, the enormity of it with the stark design I find irritating. I’m not a graphic designer but somehow I think Apple could have used the space with a more creative brush. Just because it looks good on a monitor doesn’t always translate to the environment people will see it.

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On Beal St. in Memphis businesses uses unique signs to get tourists attention to lure them in & spend money. A clever name or a creative sign are the norm. One sign that grabbed my eye was the Pepsi Sign. The artist credited is Mark Davey. I can’t say for certain but this seems to be his unique expression of creative promotion not a Pepsi campaign.

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It’s no surprise that in the digital era urban art now includes video sculptures. At Millennial Park in Chicago, Crown Fountain displays dynamic images along with LED lighting presentations. The 50 foot tall screen can be overpowering when it shows the faces of about 1,000 faces of people from Chicago. The images of the faces are not static. Periodically a stream of water will shoot out of the subject’s mouth. From the appropriate distance it speaks to the diversity of humanity.   Hopefully it will never be used for advertising. In my opinion mediocre art is superior to most marketing eyesores.

Eye catchers

Sometimes a picture just makes you smile. Oftentimes it makes you think. I hope signs that caught my eye motivate a smile.

01 CoCo Nuts
Since misspelling is a personal flaw, I feel better knowing I’m not alone. In this case I wonder if it was part of a design to get attention. Being someplace where you see this sign instead of “Bridge Freezes Before Road Surface” is not a bad thing.

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On my trip to Cuba I frequently saw similar signs offering service to repair tires. At first I thought this was an unusual business. However as I got a better feel for the culture I realized that it was typical of the way people find a way to re-use everything. Few things are completely discarded.

03Liquors s
Hanging a sign outside of your place of business may be the oldest form of advertising. Doing street photography at night my eyes are drawn to how some lighted signs dominate a small spot on a corner. The window light in the upper right hand corner adds an unusual balance to the frame. This shot also makes me wonder if liquor comes in any other container than bottles.

04 junkmail
Most signs are for everyone to see. This sign is intended for just 1 individual. I love the fact it is not a hand-written message. It is a very formal presentation but it isn’t centered! Although it is a very common sentiment, by federal law postal employees are not allowed to make these decisions.

05 Barber sized
The word-free barber pole is a symbol that has conveyed a message since the Middle Ages. It also has evolved in meaning & design. The original red & white helix of colors represented a craftsman who would cut hair, pull teeth, perform surgery & do blood letting. In the US a patriotic blue stripe was added & they were put on motors creating an eye-catching optical illusion.

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Way back in time, movie production companies owned many of the theaters that showed their films in addition to having actors under exclusive contracts. They owned the product & controlled distribution to maximize profit & stifle competition. Paramount was, & still is, a force in entertainment although business models have changed dramatically. While many cities had/have Paramount Theaters, Pittsburgh never did.

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Before theaters with dozens of screens, the marquee of a theater not only identified the film playing but also listed the actors. As the multi-screen facilities have replaced the grand movie houses of the past the marquees only have the names of the films being shown. Gone are the days when the stars of the film had their names in lights.

08 Cleaners
If a sign or a photograph makes you smile that is a good thing. If you use the service & can remember where it is located it’s even better for the owner.

09 Nice Things
The message on a sign can also cause you to see something from a different perspective. In this case it made it harder for me to ignore the deteriorated environment without thinking of the individuals living there. It is a very valid question. If we try to understand the question the problem might be solved.

10 showgirls
Often these types of businesses are hidden or in very isolated places with an alluded name or message. Here on a major street in SFO there is no doubt. Subtle is not part of their marketing effort.

11 Diner
Immediately when I saw this sign on Bourbon St in New Orleans I knew it was a diner and I knew what the type of menu I would find. It is curious how graphic design can be so powerful.

Mixed Messagesized
Blame it on my degree in Visual Communications but I have spent more time than necessary trying to understand these symbols. I know the meaning of both & have used them appropriately. Why are they vertical on just the passenger side when a balanced horizontal placement on either side of the vehicle would be better? The juxtaposition of messages is confusing. Is this an indicator of the different views of the occupants of the car? Is the viewer supposed to read top to bottom or vice versa? Is the owner bi-polar? I understand the shinny rotating barber pole much better.