For lack of a better title. I don’t know what to call this dude, but I enjoyed tracking him all over Tribeca. Presumably done by Graffiti artist C?
The front side of 5 Pointz is obvious, and yet people still walk by without bothering to look. I guess if you don’t come to Queens especially to see this, it might not be on your mind to put off your day’s tasks to appreciate art, even on this mammoth scale. But when they notice me stopped on the sidewalk, it suddenly occurs to them to stop as well. They crane their necks upwards, step in a little closer. And then are on their way.
Along the side of 5 Pointz a guard patrols. Signs say No Trespassing, No Climbing On the Roof. My eyes claw over these as they search the best way to scale the wall. The roof is clearly a treasure trove of works, but for now unattainable. I imagine further inquiry could get me a tour, but not today.
This side street is lazy with traffic. I step farther away to see more, back up all the way into the parking lot of the city buses. So this is where they go to sleep. Art winds up the fire escapes, creeps into the cracks of the windows, seeps behind screens. Color spatters the sidewalk. Painted faces look up my skirt. Poles, tree trunks, bear the stripes of the test-spray, the artist’s warm up, 1-2, 1-2.
At the very back a parking lot borders on unused subway tracks. Chain-link fence is cut, and pulled back, and colored like everything else. Dead trains on the dead tracks sit and watch.
Through the parking lot to the back corner, the second side-street framing 5 Pointz begins. This is my favorite part, because it is the place least like a museum, and therefore most pleasing for me to see art in.
It smells like a pond. Muddy, stagnant water pools there, putrid. The fetid smell lies low on the ground. My shoes squelch in the mud. Overhead the subway roars, rattles, screeches, squeaks. Creaking like a wooden roller coaster. White vans pull up and unload. Men sit on stoops and stare unabashedly, but no one really bothers me. Police cars drive in and out of view on the main street ahead. The wind blows and the stench of garbage, then falafel wafts through. In openings in the wall, too door-less to be called doorways, I see Hillal Carts. This is where they must come from. Middle-Eastern men hustle around them, cooking and prepping for the day. Trucks idle outside.
A deep rumble. Water drips on me from high above. There’s a roar, groan, shriek, sound of a knife being sharpened as the subway tracks overhead. Shadows move on the walls.
Every surface- wall, sidewalk, fence, pole, sign, is scrawled upon. Every garbage can has a face or something to say.
I think it’s quite ideal.
In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.
It was much pleasanter at home,” thought poor Alice, “when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn’t gone down the rabbit-hole–and yet–and yet–…
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Sarah and I went to see the Watts Towers, something I had read about online, but as of yet had not convinced any of my friends to go see with me. My sell of, “Uh they’re these towers…” wasn’t very convincing. However, Sarah was game to go check them out, so we could find out exactly what they were.
When we got there, we were like, “this is a little ghetto.” It’s obviously a poor neighborhood. Dogs just roamed loose around the park.
Here’s what we learned: Simon Rodia was an Italian who immigrated to America at the beginning of the 20th century. Working as a cement worker and tile setter, in 1917 he purchased this triangle-shaped lot in LA. For 33 years Rodia worked in his free time to construct the Watts Towers, what he called “Nuestro Pueblo” (Our Town). Nuestro Pueblo comprises 17 interconnected structures: 3 main towers (98 ft, 97 ft, 55 ft) and 14 spires. Most of the Towers’ framework is made from scrap rebar. Rodia would bend the steel using the nearby railroad tracks as a makeshift vise. He used no scaffolding, machine equipment, welds, etc., only simple tools, pipe fitter pliers, and window-washer’s belt and buckle. And yet the tallest tower contains the longest slender reenforced concrete column in the world. Rodia would build each tower by digging a shallow trench, filling it with cement, and embedding four upright columns. As the towers grew, he encircled the support beams with rungs, which he would then climb ladder-style to attach the next rung, decreasing the diameter with each one until the tower finished at a narrow point. He solidified the joints using wire mesh and mortar. For stability he built more than 150 flying buttresses. When the city subjected the towers to a stress test, the crane applying the force broke before any towers did.
‘ “At a hundred percent load — ten thousand pounds — Goldstone[a former aerospace engineer]’s instruments showed a horizontal deflection of the tower amounting to only one and a quarter inches,” the New Yorker reported. “The only perceptible effect on the tower was that one sliver of concrete or mosaic tinkled to the deck.” ‘
[Rodia on his towers.]
Rodia would then cover the iron bars in mesh, coat them with hand-mixed cement, and decorate using an eclectic assortment of found objects: shells, rocks, glass, tile, porcelain, bed frames, bottles, and scrap metal. In search of material, Rodia would walk nearly 20 miles down the Pacific Electric Railway right of way. Sometimes neighborhood children would bring pieces of broken glass and pottery to Rodia, but most of his material was damaged pieces from nearby Malibu Pottery or California Clay Products Company. Green glass came from recognizable soda bottles from the ’30s to ’50s: 7 Up, Squirt, Bubble Up, and Canada Dry. Blue glass was from milk of magnesia bottles. Designs in the mortar were hand drawn; flower-like imprints were made with a faucet handle.
Asked why he built Nuestro Pueblo, Simon Rodia answered, “I wanted to do something big and I did it.” Speculators credit inspiration to the festival towers of Nola, Italy, and the Pique Assiette mosaic style Rodia would have seen in his native country.
The towers are now seen as an example of prodigious Naive Art, or Urban Folk Art, but at the time they caused suspicion from his neighbors. Rumors that the towers were antennae for communicating with enemy Japanese or contained buried treasure lead to repeated vandalism. In 1955, tired of the community’s abuse, Rodia deeded the property to a neighbor and retired to Martinez, California. Rodia never returned. He died a decade later.
Walking around the Watts Towers conjured images of a mosaic fantasy land. Whimsical and romantic, it seemed something far more likely to be found dreamed up in a Disney fairytale than in South Los Angeles between Inglewood and Compton. We were too late for a tour, but I wish I could have entered the towers- to literally stand within a man’s dream, brought to life by only his persistance, ingenuity, and two hands. Watts Towers is a hidden jewel within Los Angeles, well worthy of a visit.
Tours of the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia
General Admission: $7.00; Seniors and Youth 13-17 years: $3.00; Children 12 and younger: FREE
Call 213.847.4646 for more information about the Watts Towers Arts Center-Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center Campus events, classes, and about our Visiting Schools Program and Large Group Tour arrangements.