Tuesday, November 13, 2012 / 8:34 AM
Annually (right around this time of year, in fact), we’re treated to countless stories about the turkey. It’s an animal that doesn’t seem to hold interest for most of us through the course of the year, but in November, the bird becomes one of the leading stars in Thanksgiving’s soft news coverage.
And if we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s this: if you’re like most Americans, the stuffed bird that lands on your Thanksgiving table is a far cry from the one that was eaten in Colonial times. Factory farm-raised birds grow more quickly, seldom see the light of day and are bred for the maximum amount of meat. Wild turkeys, though, the ones that you still see in a rural environment, have the power of flight and are sleeker, more aerodynamic beasts.
Around St. Louis, you can find turkeys not all that far away from the urban core. A week ago Sunday, for example, we ran across a large flock of them living in (and flying through!) the densely wooded areas underneath the multiple bridges that criss-cross the western edge of East St. Louis. In that environment, you can find a real mix of wildlife, from rabbits to the occasional coyote, one of which we spotted ambling down to the east side riverfront, just a few dozen yards from the Casino Queen.
The reason for our two-man expedition that afternoon wasn’t to account for some kind of urban Noah’s Ark. That was all a fun side effect of tracking down the work of a local graf writer, Rat Fag. Seeing his name around town is one thing. A prolific graf writer prone to hitting high up, easily spotted locations, Rat Fag’s nom de plume rings out all over town, on both sides of the river and in several counties. While some pieces are tucked away in areas known to only the homeless and other graf writers, Rat Fag’s pieces have become part of the St. Louis fabric, a name that gets name-checked in casual conversations about our urban scene.
My goal for a full week to find as many pieces as possible, both in solo expeditions and with a friend, which is a good way of working when flitting through some of the grittier, less-traveled areas of town. Interestingly, a few pieces that I’d seen over the years were gone when re-visiting with a camera; some brick buildings near Blair and I-70, for example, have seen the name come down, eliminating the name from one high-profile location. But in plenty of other spaces, Rat Fag’s tag is holding steady, often because the pieces are found on abandoned buildings, or other structures are far enough off the grid that they aren’t going see a anti-graf work crew come rolling by soon.
Talking to a few people involved in the local scene, I’ve gotten a decent sketch of who Rat Fag might be, but I’m not going to share that info; nope, I’m discreet that way. Working the same sort of back channels, I’ve sent smoke signals to those who know him and those who reputedly do. To date, no word back, but this piece might serve as an open-invite to an interview, in whatever form.
Those conversations, true as they may, or may not, be have suggested this much info. Rat Fag, as a name, is a play on the old putdown of art school students as “art fags.” And the double name’s also said to be a nod to the bold and prolific Red Foxx (aka Rex Ram and Ed Boxx), another writer with a widespread base of operations in St. Louis. (Though Red Foxx’s retirement’s been discussed, some pieces spotted last week seem to indicate a more-recent pattern of getting up.) And from simple eyeballing, Rat Fag’s been running with the equally-prolific Ilson, as their names appear in-tandem on numerous walls around the City and beyond, along with the added OFB, a nod to the Out for Blood graffiti crew.
To put a bit of information about this type of underground culture is to invoke reactions from just about every quarter. There’s a strong contingent of civic types that see no role—none, nada, zilch—for graffiti in the urban context. Even as graf writers put their names in the most public of spaces, those aren’t exactly an open invite for press to come a’callin’. Crews and individual writers of a higher level occasionally “beef” with one another, or individual writers, whether it’s over diss tags or placement on prime walls. There’s also the law enforcement angle, which goes without saying.
All that aside, I’m interested in grabbing some words with the subject of the attached photo essay. I’m intrigued by the name, which is obviously going to bring a strong response. (One friend, not himself a member of the GLBT community, is vocal in finding it “hate speech.”) And I’m intrigued by the patterns of work, which clearly take place during off-hours and in environments that repel a lot of people.
Tracking Rat Fag for the past week’s been an interesting experience, whether it’s been putting out the low-key word for a chat, or running across a young writer working the underside of train tunnel. I’ve come across new stickers and stencils and wheatpasted posters all along the way.
And then there were the turkeys of East St. Louis. Without Rat Fag, I’d have not seen these birds taking to the air. To see a turkey fly isn’t a daily activity. And when it’s your birthday and the turkeys around you take flight, it’s a sight to behold, indeed.
Photographs by Thomas Crone
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