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September 1st, 2004 Mary Ann Albright | Visual Arts
 

The Mark of the Arrow

An enigmatic street artist makes his statements from...above.

     
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A few weeks ago, Portland quietly acquired its very own Zorro: a self-proclaimed "street activist" who revels in anonymity and leaves a telltale mark. In this case, it's not a slashed "Z," but a brightly colored arrow hanging from an overhead traffic signal.

The guerrilla artist responsible for this mysterious urban decoration, who goes by the moniker Above, spent 48 hours in Portland in early July. In two days, he managed to hang about 35 arrow "mobiles" from overhead wires all over the city. The Portland invasion was just the latest phase of the 23-year-old's campaign, which began in France and has produced 600 hanging arrows so far across the U.S. and Canada.

Above works two day jobs to support this arrow habit, splitting when he has enough money for a road trip. Although currently in the middle of a whirlwind tour, the mononymic artist clued WW in via email to the how, when, where and why of his arrows.

WW: So the first question is, why?

Above: Why? I like the idea of creating on and with a medium that is ever-changing. Secondly, it's great to know that anyone and everyone has the capacity to see the work and react to it.

How and when did you get started doing this?

It probably started when I was a young child, and my parents gave me the freedom to find my style and interests as a person and an artist. The only incorrect aspect of art in our house was simply not creating any of it.

Why the arrow?

It's a symbol of upward movement. They represent to me a mentality that I strive to live by in my daily life: to "Rise Above" challenges and obstacles.

How do you get them up there?

I won a bid on eBay for a collapsible folding ladder that is almost 22 feet high, and I was able to make another 4-foot extension to it. During the night I drive around with the ladder and look for overhead wires. Once I find one that's suitable, I unfold the ladder and simply walk up and tie the arrow mobiles securely to the line using thick rope.

Sounds kind of risky.

The biggest challenge is putting the ladder in the middle of an intersection at night. Once the ladder's unfolded, people just drive around me.

How do you decide which areas to target?

In Portland, because of the river, it was easy to section off the city into pieces: Southeast, Northeast, Northwest, etc. Portland is full of overhead wires and cables--it's really a gamble sometimes, because some cities don't have them in the main downtown areas. I like a balance between highly trafficked areas, and subtler, quieter areas. If there is a street scene with lots of pop and color, I'll hang an arrow there and come back to take a photo of the arrow juxtaposed next to the scene.

Can the arrows withstand Portland's rain?

Yes, they are weatherproof. I've tested them in the rain, snow, wind, heat...you name it.

How long do they usually last up there before falling down or being taken down?

You never know. I've seen mobiles from last year still spinning in San Francisco and Los Angeles...and this tour I saw mobiles that were taken down the following day. The only thing I can do is try my best and leave the rest in the hands of others.

Do people seem to like them?

I'm not sure if people like them as much as they seem to evoke a lot of curiosity and imagination as to how they got up there and what they mean. I like that aspect of the arrows: they're vague. Each reaction holds its own true validity.

Any run-ins with the police or utility companies?

No comment on that.

[Note: Portland officials, in fact, don't seem to appreciate Above's unique self-expression. City spokeswoman Mary Volm says hanging mobiles from traffic-signal wires is both illegal and dangerous. Maintenance crews remove the arrows as they encounter them.]

What streets will your art take you to next?

I'm moving to Barcelona in April of next year. Before then, I can imagine going all the way to the East Coast and seeing what I can make happen.


For a photo tour of Above's worldwide campaign, visit his website, www.goabove.com
 
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