On our way back from Boston we made a stop in Portland, Maine to pick up some supplies. Portland has a pretty cool and pedestrian-friendly downtown filled with interesting buildings, and businesses. Our destination was a quirky art supply shop across from the Maine College of Art.
I’ve always liked neon signs. There’s something kitschy about them, of course, but also something classically American — bold, consciously attempting to be memorable and attract passersby, naked in their capitalistic purpose, and often dosed with fantasy or humor. Plus, neon really looks cool at night.
Downtown Boston has come up with a great way to celebrate — and preserve — some of these neon relics of a.past America. On one of the small strips of land between the downtown area and the waterfront, called the Greenway, neon signs have been positioned around the perimeter. The signs draw visitors like moths to light. Two of my favorites were the Siesta Motel, with its cactus and sombrero theme, and the Flying Yankee Restaurant, with its rocket ship and flaming trail. The Siesta Motel, which dates from 1950, was located in Saugus, Massachusetts — where its southwestern-themed sign must have stood out like a sore thumb — and the Flying Yankee Restaurant, which dates from 1953, long before rocket ships were commonplace, was located in Auburn, Massachusetts.
Don’t you wish you’d had a chance to see these signs on the great American road during the ’50s, and perhaps stop at the Flying Yankee for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie?
I continue to marvel at the weird art choices some hotels make for guest rooms. These pieces were placed directly over the bed, so the last thing you would see before bedtime are a creepy, bare-chested, mascara-wearing guy who seems to be wrestling with an ugly scarf, and a clearly troubled woman — no doubt because she’s positioned next to a disturbing guy who might well be the Boston Strangler.
Sleep tight, and don’t let Scarfface bother you!
It’s amazing how a little artwork can make a difference in your perception of a place and bring a smile to your face, besides. Whether it’s a pelican statue carefully perched atop a dead tree, or some colorful nativist paintings in a hotel room, art is enriching. It makes you appreciate the fact that someone cared enough and paid attention to what might seem like little details — but those little details can add such color and flair and turn a nice setting into a really memorable one.
Every time we visit the tropics I’m struck anew by the boldness of the colors of the native flora. They redefine “vivid.” Especially after a monochromatic midwestern winter, a short sojourn in the tropics reawakens the visual senses.
Is it any wonder that Gauguin found inspiration on an island? Were ever reds so red, or purples so purple?
The artwork at the Miami airport has a distinctly fishy feel. Every piece is created using local fish as the medium. It’s different, and in my view, vastly superior to your average generic airport art.
I’ve written before about the increasing number of tattoos you see these days — with reports estimating that about one-third of Americans are sporting ink — and what a cultural change it represents from the United States of my youth. (Arrows and infinity signs are popular these days, by the way.)
It turns out, though, that the current craze for “body art” has a very ancient lineage — and its known history has just gotten even older.
Researchers recently determined that two Egyptian mummies in the British Museum have tattoos. The mummies are 5,000 years old and date back to pre-dynastic Egypt, which pushes the date of the earliest known use of figurative body art, rather than geometric patterns, back by an additional 1,000 years. One of the mummies is a woman who has a series of four “s” shapes — perhaps coiled snakes? — inked on her shoulder, which may have been symbols of status, bravery, and magical knowledge. The other mummy is a man who has depictions of a wild bull and a sheep on his upper arm. The bull figure was supposed to denote power and virility, but it apparently didn’t help the male mummy, who died of a stab wound to the back when he was between 18 and 21 years old.
The markings were made using a technique that would be considered incredibly crude by modern standards. The British Museum thinks the tattoos were produced using soot as the coloring agent and needles of copper or bone to insert the soot under the skin.
There’s no way to know, of course, whether figurative tattoos have an even more ancient history, because we don’t have preserved bodies going back 10,000 years. The discoveries of cave paintings made by the earliest human ancestors, however, suggests to me that the creation of figurative art is instinctive and has played a key role in human development. It just makes sense that the cave painters would also have experimented with decorating an actual body or two. I’d bet that if you invented a time machine and went back to check out the humans of 10,000 or 15,000 years ago, you’d see your fair share of ink.