A philosophy professor talks about graffiti, respect, and a man in Amsterdam on a mission from God.
It’s been a week since Hurricane Sandy. The trees are half naked, but the colors that remain are beautiful. The sky is pure and sharp, and the winding road throws blinding reflections of the sun past each turn.
The house is a little sloped-roof cabin, out of sight from the road; I miss it the first time, and go all the way to Manchester-by-the-Sea before I realize I have to turn around.
Lisa, her landlady, is swinging a machete at the surrounding brush, her head covered in a fur ushanka. She has the effortlessly mod haircut and the friendly fuck-you confidence that takes most people a lifetime of living in Williamsburg to achieve. Her four children, with their patrician beauty and Slavic names, are eating homemade bread and chasing a couple of parakeets around the house.
I don’t meet Brian until what feels like late, although night falls early at this time of year in Massachusetts. I come in from the cold to find Brian sitting with Maia and her boyfriend, Neil, drinking homemade ginger beer. Brian is sorting through a box of paints, looking for the right diameter of spray nozzle, while watching a video of a hardcore concert that Neil is showing him.
Brian leans into the image until the song breaks and the moshing starts.
“Is his anger real?” he demands, looking at Neil. “Or is it just an affect?”
His eyes are glittering with an intensity that makes his question more than an artistic critique. It seems like he really needs to know.
On New Year’s Eve, 1992, in Seattle’s neighborhood of Westlake, Brian’s friend pulled him outside a party and handed him a can of spray paint. Brian watched his first throw-up take place, and tagged it with the name “Tred.”
“What do I write?” Brian asked.
His friend said, “Write who you are.”
Tred and Core became the rogue celebrities of Westlake, a Seattle neighborhood nightly overrun by skaters, punkers and hardcore straight-edgers. They were featured on the TV show “Crimestoppers,” with a $10,000 reward offered for clues to their identity.
The Seattle Times dubbed Core the “Evel Knievel of graffiti” by the Seattle Times–his signature move was tagging highway signs that no one else dared to reach.
A crew collected around them, centered in Seattle but eventually extending across the country; they called themselves Big Time Mob (BTM).
“Dude, I was everywhere.”
Brian smiles, remembering it.
“Everywhere. Felt so good.”
Brian was raised by Bible-believing country folk, but he found the gospel in hardcore punk. The music demanded a violent yank from the narcotic teat of conformity. Independence was its own singular code of morality, disdainful of the excesses of the 70s and 80s. The reason for being vegan, or sober, or monogamous was the same reason for avoiding religion as much as possible. No crutches, no conformity, no vices…unless you count violence. But that, Brian says, wasn’t a goal in itself; it was a way of negotiating societal vices, a demonstration of suffering on behalf of the innocent.
Brian’s parents, pastors of a small church with the Navigators, received the inevitable phone calls informing them, “Your son is Core.” But they already knew. They had watched him transform, refusing his mom’s food in favor of veganism, mounting public protests with a view to getting arrested, joining a hardcore band with his high school friends. Brian remembers seeing them quietly sneaking into his shows, watching him from the shadows so as not to embarrass him.
“That kind of respect is pretty awesome.”
He remembers his dad picking him up from jail on Mother’s Day, where he’d been locked up for graffiti. He expected to be chewed out, or at least given some kind of punishment. Instead, his dad looked at him sidewise from the driver’s seat, and said “You know, you’re doing it.” It took him a long time to realize that what his dad was saying was that he saw something deeper in Brian’s anarchic drive.
As he talks, Brian’s eyes start to glitter with something more than just intensity.
“You know what, thank you.”
He swipes the heel of his hand across his eyes.
“Your thing is working…dammit! I’m going to go call my parents now.”
Back in high school, Brian had a friend named Dave–a pastor’s kid like him, but a “freakin’ mama’s boy,” with a lot more personal investment in religion. Dave wanted to change their high school band, The Guilty, into a Christian group, in hopes of getting signed with Tooth and Nail. He wanted them to have regular Bible studies together.
A year after the band broke up, Brian ran into Dave while skating in Westlake.
“He’s like ‘How’s your faith, Brian?’ I’m like, ‘It’s fuckin’ great.'”
He rolls his eyes.
“Then his dad gets fired from Assemblies of God church, and his family’s world gets turned upside down, and his path starts.“
Brian was 19 years old and painting up the streets of Amsterdam on Queen’s Day, 1994, when he was interrupted by a man in a business suit with a New Zealand accent.
“I’ve got to tell you something,” the man insisted when Brian tried to shrug him off. They sat down, and the man opened a Bible–“Look, man, God just told me to do this. I just have to read the Bible to you.”
“I’m like, fine, ten minutes, whatever. And he starts reading the Bible to me. He looks up after five minutes…
“‘You know, I have an early plane in the morning, I have to get some sleep, could you hurry up? I need you to change.'”
He doesn’t even remember what the man was reading from the Bible, only that he found himself sobbing. The man, he says, was pleased.
“He’s like ‘Good, man, good. I know you’ve been stealing. I know you’ve been sleeping with girls. I know you do graffiti. I know you do all this stuff because God told me, and he wants to just free you.'”
The man left to catch his plane, and Brian went to the YWAM headquarters in Amsterdam.
For the next six months, Brian traveled around Europe preaching about Jesus. He brought along his paints. The culture is different in Europe, he said, especially in Amsterdam–cops would find him painting a wall and say, “It’s cool, man, it’s cool.”
But the first thing he did upon returning to Seattle was to turn himself in to the police.
He was sentenced to community service–they gave him the task of buffing graffiti all over town. His old crew saw it as disloyalty. But by then, most of them were getting older, joining gangs for protection, doing meth.
“My move away was kind of like a relief for them, because I was this straight-edge kid that wasn’t going to be in a gang with them.
“My crew essentially collapsed for about five years. And then I just had to struggle.”
The man from New Zealand had said that God wanted to help him be free; Brian confirms that the hardcore life had its own style of bondage. It’s expected that hardcore types shoplift their paint, and keep moving from one city to another. Unless you’re straight-edge, it’s also expected that you do drugs and sleep around. Neither street gangs, rival painters, nor the police hesitate to hurt you if they get an opportunity. At least one piece in ten gets you caught and locked up.
There’s very little freedom in the painter’s life, he tells me. It’s an addiction–not to creativity, but to respect. You have to get up on every wall in town, he tells me, or you and your crew forfeit that respect. And since your work is always getting buffed, the quest is never-ending.
His eyes light up and his voice is militantly reverential, as he talks about it. Clearly, the magic that he saw in it as a 15-year-old is still real to him. But in the next breath, he acknowledges that the hardcore punk lifestyle has by now become its own category of conformity, another prefab identity that lets people avoid the real risk of being independent.
“You know how when you hear stories, they suddenly help you tell your own story?
“Well, I read this guy David Foster Wallace a lot. He’s a gospel writer, in many ways, for me. He’s sharing the good news. And that’s one of his motifs.
“And I came to realize that in some sense, you know, the other sharer of the good news, Jesus Christ, is on a similar path–he’ll take whatever’s familiar and just undercut it. Defamiliarize it. Turn it upside down. And then he says yeah, this is what the kingdom of God is like.
“In hindsight, this is what has been my motif. Defamiliarizing.”
That same year, with nothing else to do, Brian signed up for classes at Shoreline Community College. It was there, in an intro-level course taught by Dr. Paul Herrick, that Brian was introduced to a new, more subversive way of breaking free from conformity.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, yes. Philosophy is how I can do this. I can be myself by coming up with novel ideas and inflicting people with them.'”
These days, Brian drives a minivan, throws up on a legal wall, and teaches in the philosophy department of Gordon College in Wenham, Ma. It’s not entirely comfortable to him, trying to remain himself within the confines of mainstream culture.
“It hurts. I mean, you don’t get the respect. But the young kids that are putting in the paint, the go-getters down in New York and Frisco that are getting busted, locked up…”
He sighs deeply.
“They’ll just shrug their shoulders. They’ll be like ‘Yeah, I guess that’s what you gotta do when you got four kids and a stable job.’ They don’t think they’ll ever be there.
“But I roll with them, hang out with them, pound fists with them. I know when they’re coming into town, so I’ll do a big old blockbuster on that wall, so that when they ride in, they’ll know, okay–respect.”
Brian has a number of semi-fanciful articles socked away that he can’t publish while he’s being considered for tenure, since they stretch the limits of what mainstream Christian culture would call doctrinally sound. He’s been counseled by colleagues that Gordon is a large puzzle, and he just needs to find his shape and where he fits.
“And I was like ‘Dude, if I ever find my shape, I’m going to freaking change it.'”
Two months ago, the new resident director of the college asked all the faculty to share their testimony at a meeting. It was the first time most of them had heard about Brian’s past as a graffiti outlaw. It was shocking to many people. At the same time, it gave the school a certain amount of cachet…though Brian balks at attaching “reformed” to his renegade past.
But they know, he assures me, that he’s still at work. Only recently, he and his friend Jeff, a local priest and disabilities advocate, went on a campaign in a neighboring town, pasting over handicap symbols in parking lots with a version redesigned by a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
People like this, he says, keep him assured of his identity. Ever since coming out with his past, he’s found a small group of like-minded artists at Gordon. I ask him what kind of art these people do, and he ticks off on his fingers–
“One is a movie maker, another is a psychologist, another works on Spanish literature.”
I feel a little bit cheated–I thought he was talking about some new art movement burgeoning in the halls of Christian academia. Then again, it’s nice to think that conceivably I could fit in among such people if I were, in Brian’s words, “engaged in the same motif of defamiliarization.”
People like that, he says, are essential if you’re going to mature in that motif.
“You meet these people, and you think, ‘I thought I was edgy. These guys give me permission.
“We have a common task. And in some sense, an obligation to be culturemakers at our institution. It’s pretty obvious who has the cultural sway. It’s not the oppressive administration, it’s us kids–the kids are having their say.”
The “kids” he sees whenever he goes back to Seattle are a different story.
“In 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about how, when you become a Christian, don’t leave the group of individuals that you once interacted with, because they still need the light. If you leave, they’ll never get it.
“I want them to be free…if they feel like this is a form of oppression and addiction for them. Tred, who still runs BTM, he’ll steal people’s meth and coke and heroin, to prevent them from doing it.
“One of our guys, Zeb, he’s locked up for 9 years in Oregon Pen. So I just keep writing him letters, encouraging him, sending him books–and it ain’t the Bible. He’s really into crime novels, so I keep sending him that. It frees him.
“And yeah, dude, I pray for them a lot. But I pray for their freedom, not for conversion or whatever that means.”
BTM, he says, is still together and stronger than ever.
“My boy Katsu’s killing it in new York. Lewy just hit the Brooklyn Bridge–FBI’s after him. You know, that’s the kind of notoriety our crew has. I go paint here in Boston, people come up and they’re like ‘Oh, shit, someone from BTM’s in town!’
“I tell them I’m a professor at a Christian college, and you can tell the conversation just spirals out of control, and even more respect is garnered.”
When Brian goes home to Seattle, he’s still regarded as a legend by the crew there, despite the misconception that many of them have that he’s a pastor, as opposed to a professor. To many of his old friends, their ideologies are not that different. Most of them, Brian says, self-identify as Christians, dope smoking and criminal activities notwithstanding. They look to Saint Fiacre, the patron saint of cab drivers, as their example of how to be a Christian still smoke dope or, in one case, run a strip club.
“He told God–this is like 400 AD–he’s like, “God, I don’t want to believe in you, but I will, if you help me protect others. I’m not going to pray to you, I’m not going to worship you, but you know what, you give me strength, I’ll self-identify as a believer.” And he was sainted for this.
“So when they come to church with me, it’s very important that they take the elements, because this adds extra protection.
“At bottom, the reason they’re engaged in the things they do is to protect others on the street. Why are a couple of them pimps? To protect prostitutes from getting really damaged by the johns. They see this as a Christian endeavor.
“If I look at their hearts, there is purity there. There is a depth of love that even I don’t possess. I’ve seen them take big hits for the oppressed. For them, Christianity is something very different. So…I guess I’m not interested in having them change. You know, in the normal ways.
“I think this has given me a lot of peace, recognizing how diverse Christian belief can be.”
In the fifteen years since getting saved in Amsterdam, Brian never felt entirely sure that he wasn’t going against God with his penchant for afflicting the comfortable, despite having channeled it into societally tolerable and (mostly) legal activities. He would find verses in the Bible that hinted God had a soft spot for the subversive, and take note of different characters who seemed to be blessed for getting way out of line. But these were just fragments; he would write them down on pieces of paper, to reassure himself.
“I was mentored by this guy Dallas Willard, at University of Southern California, andone conversation I had with him, I’m like ‘Are you a conservative or a liberal?’ And he gave me this disdainful look, and he’s like, ‘I’m a radical. I’m like Jesus.’ These kinds of things free me up to just be…
He searches for an adjective.
“…to just be.”
Only three weeks ago, he came across a new Bible interpretation that gave him what he’s been looking for the last 15 years.
“It says that the Hebrew Bible is really a way of distinguishing two types of people–cogs and wheels, and sparkplugs. God is always blessing the sparkplugs.
“Take Cain and Abel. Cain does what his father does, he farms. Then he offers the sacrifice to God from the fruits of his labor. Abel, on the other hand, doesn’t do what his father does. He rejects that way of life and he starts his own: shepherding. Then he just imitates Cain, sacrifices to God his fruits. And what does God find pleasing? The fruits of the innovator.
“When you read the biblical text through that lens, you see again and again God blessing the people who stand up and stand out.
That biblical text is now become a foundational piece in my desire for nonconformity and revolt and anarchy.
I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen for a long time.”
I ask him, in the words of his friend Dave, how his faith is now. I mean it as a joke, but Brian nods seriously.
“This is the right question to ask.”
“I get a nod, man–that’s how I feel. Every time I pray, I’m like ‘God, what is your will for me?’ And he just says ‘Work.’ So…”
“I’m a four- to six-hour sleeper; he’s given me extra energy. If there’s an open door, I’m freaking jumping through it. When it’s closed, I’m happy, because it gives me more energy, because I’ve got like 20 open doors right now. I’m just guided by him opening and shutting doors, so to speak.”
“That’s a really Christianese way of putting it.”
The same glitter in his eyes when he talks about graffiti, Brian also gets when he talks about the students at Gordon. For example, my friend Maia: Brian says he’s in awe of her state of “constant creative activation.” It’s students like her, he says, that make it worthwhile to channel his energy into a Christian college classroom.
“It puts a demand on me–‘Oh my gosh, you’ve just totally blown up my world. I’ve got to keep going with my now-blown-up world.’
“Freud has this interesting article, ‘Civilization and its Disconents.’ They are the discontent, and the fact that they’ve been able to stay motivated for ten, fifteen years, there’s something deep, deep inside that’s keeping them going.
Something that I want. So hanging out with them, you just get this recharge.”
“My wife is pretty much an anarchist, and sees life with God as pure adventure. If I didn’t have that, I’d be terrified. But dude, my wife is freaking down. Those six cords of wood that we have stacked? Yeah, that’s her.”
He shakes himself, grins, and growls lustily.
“Marriage really does take two anarchists.”
“I want to kill anything that’s familiar. That’s what art does, right? It defamiliarizes the familiar. We can take what’s normal and look at it in this non-normal way, such that you’ll never look at it the normal way again.”
Authenticity, for Christian circles, has gone the same way as punk did in the mainstream. It’s just another category, represented by clothes and attitude rather than true risk-taking and revolution-making. What could change this, he says, is philosophy. Specifically, philosophers being welcomed into the spiritual administration of the church, the way the wise man was numbered with the prophet and the priest in the Hebrew tribe. He’s waiting for the day when churches hire professional philosophers to be on their staff, along with worship leaders and Sunday school teachers.
He knows it’s likely to be a hard sell.
“People ask me, isn’t philosophy the wisdom of the world? Didn’t Paul reject the Epicureans and the Stoics at Mars Hill?
And you just tell those people to fuck off. Right to their face. That’s the best thing you can do for them.”
When his students have doubts about what they can achieve, as artists or as Christians, he tells them the same thing.
“You’ve got to tell yourself to fuck off.”
“I’m like ‘Oh, frick, it’s been fifteen years…I’m going against God!’ But it’s like Paul says, again and again–I only have my conscience to ride on. I gotta do it. Afflict the comfortable. To constantly be the plow turning over the old soil.”
“I didn’t feel this freedom until just recently. Like, things are just clicking now. I’m rolling hard. You’re hitting me at the good spot.”
Brian teaches philosophy, bioethics, philosophical psychology, a graduate course on David Foster Wallace and a PE course skateboarding at Gordon College. His classes are consistently over-enrolled.