Thomas Crone writes over at 52nd that word is going around that prolific, thoughtful graffiti tagger Ed Boxx has died. People say he was attacked “while painting on the east side.”
Sad, sad news.
[I should pause to say that I AM NOT INTERESTED in reading an argument about the ethics of graf here, and why you think graffiti is 100% always wrong all the time. This ain’t the time or place, so kindly hold your tongue if that’s what you’re after. I will not hesitate to remove comments I find to be insensitive.]
Ed’s work is kinda sorta everywhere. He usually just writes “ED BOXX,” “RED FOXX,” “4GIVE YOSELF,” or “GET UP! GET GOD!” But he has done larger, more complex works, stuff on a level of effort, wit, and skill that one just doesn’t see coming from most taggers around here. I mean it’s one thing to slop one’s name hastily at arm’s height in ugly handwriting, and it’s another to develop signature fonts and characters, and to do occasional all-out installations.
One of my favorite Ed Boxx pieces took up the inside of a Near North Riverfront warehouse. It was a small, two story warehouse, and the only thing Ed painted was the insides of the steel sash windows, such that it looked like cartoon stained glass, the religious scenes replaced instead with stylized cat heads and cigarettes. He only used a couple of colors, I think blue and yellow and green. The limited palette really popped next to the red brick of the building. In good light, the whole piece seemed to slightly glow.
Another favorite took up every window on an entire facade of the Spivey Building skyscraper in East St. Louis. While exploring the building last fall, my friends and I noticed what appeared to be abstract designs in every single window of one side of the Spivey, painted with lilac and white house paint. But once we got outside and looked up, we realized that all those stories of painted windows added up to giantly spell out one of Ed’s aliases (I want to say it was REXX RAM, but I don’t have the photo in front of me, gah!). He had to have thought about that one for a long, long time, and executing something like that had to have been pretty complicated.
Another favorite, albeit one jeered by many, was when Ed edited (ed-ited) the facade of the Orpheum Theater, making it into the ED BOXX Theater.
My feelings about graffiti are complicated, but Ed’s art was something I almost always felt good about. He actually made some really interesting, compelling, thought-provoking pieces. His best works were site-specific pieces that incorporated the location into the work, rather than just the simple throw-up tags that anyone can do. Even when I was preservationist-ily muttering “On terra cotta! That glaze is so delicate! How will they ever remove the paint without damaging it?” I found myself smiling at Ed’s work.
I’ve had a lot of folks say things to me along the lines of “Forgive yourself? What’s that supposed to mean? How is any of this thought provoking?” All I can offer is that it’s kind of like a poem or a really great rock lyric: It doesn’t have to be explicit and obvious to anyone but the artist, to mean something and to make you think. Sometimes the cryptic-ness of the language in and of itself is part of the message.
Even though I never got to meet Ed Boxx, I’ll miss his presence as his tags vanish, one by one, from the city. I get to some fairly hidden spots in the city, but I saw Ed’s work everywhere I went, following me on my travels. You could tell just from where he went that he was really paying attention to the city. I’ll miss walking through some crazily hidden, industrial corner of the Near North Side and stumbling upon one of his works, which has been a small joy for me many times. Running into a particularly thoughtful Ed Boxx tag in a completely unexpected spot feels in a teeny, tiny way like bumping into a friend when I least expected it.
Ed, your presence in the landscape will be dearly missed.
I don’t have photos of some of his better, more complex pieces, but I have these:
Detail of an Ed Boxx piece in a vacant, notably roof-less building in the Carondelet Coke complex, April 2007.
Palimpsest of Ed Boxx graf and an old advertisement (Not saying I would have modified the neat old ad myself, but I did think the result was interesting). Recently, he seems to have gotten more into this editing of ghost signs.
An unspectacular tag in and of itself, but the location was the walking surface of a completely isolated pedestrian bridge that pretty much no one uses. Coming up here and seeing this tag totally made me grin, full of amused, “What the HELL?” I mean this tag was basically done for a handful of pedestrians walking to/from one of the sketchiest parts of the whole city, and helicopters. Who else would bother? That was part of the joy of Ed’s work.
Edited 4/10/12 to add: As several commenters have noted, Ed Boxx is not dead. The thought that he might’ve faked his own death occured to me when I first heard the news, and it turns out that was indeed the case. I should have waited for clearer news before I published this, but I was so upset by the news that I just wrote. 4give me.