Words and photos by Michael Wanzenried
After three years of living in Spenard, I don’t know how many times I have been told or have overheard how Spenard is less Spenardian than it was XYZ-years ago. This is a game played in any community, which is basically every community, that has a past most agree seems more interesting than the present. I have been in that position before, leaning across the table, eager to share unsolicited aspects of my past, not because I wanted to but because I needed someone to know what a place used to be like. The conversational equivalent of trying to describe a fantastic dream.
The recent purchase, exorcism, and planned destruction of the Paradise Inn and the conversion of an adult bookstore into an actual bookstore (and café) likely sparked a thousand similar conversations. The loss of familiar and storied structures, dingy or dignified, dredges up existential crises for neighborhoods as a familiar identity, even an uncomplimentary one, gives way to something less defined. The good-doer work of non-profits, a burgeoning artistic community, and some businesses and homeowners are nudging the neighborhood through what an anthropology 101 class might refer to as a kind of liminal phase. While usually used to indicate a child’s entry into adulthood, this seems appropriate for a neighborhood that is undergoing a kind of (forced) maturation.
The continued presence of social and architectural elements of Spenard’s more recent pipeline past helps explain why a Spenardian nostalgia for its past, unlike a more romantic version that might frame its emotional unease with change with such things as a broken-down barn or childhood innocence tends to frame its past in more Bukowskian terms: bars, sex, gambling, fights, money.
A friend of mine and I talked recently about how people in Anchorage tend to reminisce over similar details from the pipeline days. Although some of her favorite memories from that time seem absolutely bacchanalian compared to her current life, the sex and drinking are aspects she remembers in the least detail. What’s survived, and what she considers more important, is the emotional intensity of having lived through a time and place where seemingly unlimited amounts of youth and money allowed her and her friends to do things she could never imagine doing again. Reference to a long-demolished strip club or suspected whorehouse works more as a mnemonic device to recall time spent with an old and usually long-absent relationship.
One of the strange things about living in a place like Spenard, where its history is still palpable and people from it are still around, is that your present feels continually entwined with it. An unexpected benefit of the social stigma surrounding Spenard, however, is that it has effectively provided my almost daily aimless, meandering walks around the neighborhood with a degree of solitude I don’t always find on some of the trails in Kincaid or elsewhere. Outside the more commercial districts, there are so few people outside their cars that if it weren’t for the constant noise you could almost pretend the city was temporarily abandoned. It also probably explains most of the graffiti.
In 2017, recently unemployed and enjoying the sun on a morning walk, I was surprised to see a neighbor standing outside of his house. When he noticed me, he gestured with a bottle of goo-be-gone and bristle brush at some freshly scrubbed letters on his retaining wall and demanded to know if I had any idea who did this. From behind a skim of blue liquid, I could just make out these almost cursive and sloppily joined letters: S-U-Z-I. Although his question was probably rhetorical, I was enough aware of the movie trope for criminals returning to the scene of their crime that I shook my head no and lingered long enough to ask what happened. Apparently, the one he was working on was new that morning and likely done out of revenge for two others he had scrubbed away a few days before. The older ones had the same letters but were done in a slightly different, more angular style. When my neighbor returned to his wall, I scooted off towards the pathway that parallels International Airport Boulevard. Although it felt too coincidental to be a coincidence, I came across another Suzi in the pedestrian tunnel and then a veritable abundance of them strewn across the retaining wall. Different designs. Bubble lettered ones. Some with little bombs beside a notation for the year they were produced. And so forth. Finding even more on dumpsters and fences closer to my neighborhood, it was clear Suzi had been busy for some time.
If asked, I think the answer to how I missed these after walking through the area so many times could be reduced to two things. The least satisfying would be to blame the winter darkness. More likely, in the absence of some motivation to take actual notice, Suzi tags, like much of the graffiti in Spenard, is seen but rarely results in a lasting impression. Perhaps it was meeting someone engaged in some kind of struggle that started it, but after that day I could not help but see Suzis everywhere. And they were everywhere.
Since that time, I have found Suzis on just about every conceivable public surface minus (to the best of my knowledge) actual homes or vehicles. Suzi’s vandalized garbage cans and dumpsters, conduit boxes, boundary markers, railroad bungalows, a gluten-free restaurant, retaining walls, a pedestrian overpass, street signs, a Hawaiian sushi place, political signs, light poles, railroad crossing equipment, benches, planters, CONEX boxes, fences, sheds, culverts, tunnel walls, support columns, a Polaris dealership, a ping pong table, several bridges, rocks, and the Spenard Builders on Minnesota.
I can’t say that being able to see Suzis brought any measurable improvement to my life. I also can’t say whether my walks started revolving around finding new ones. I can say that finding a new one provided a jolt similar to the dopamine rush you get from reading a text from an ex you know better than to engage with. It’s not what you want but it’s what you got. Things between Suzi and I, however, took a strange turn one afternoon while I was walking through the not-quite-a-park at Northwood and Spenard and then in the alley behind Thai Siam and Out of the Box. Here I discovered a kind of primordial soup to Suzi’s struggle with finding the just-right graphic representation. A place that was the equivalent of the notebook I presume other taggers use to play with ideas before going public.
Without getting too bogged down in describing Suzi’s stylistic trajectory, suffice it to say that these locations provided a rough outline of Suzi’s evolution from uncomplicated printed renditions of Susi, Suze, Sooze, and Soosie before committing to Suzi then cycling through increasingly joined, angular then organic, and finally abstract designs that, aside from a creative low point where anthropomorphic characteristics like a mouth and eyes became occasional features, seemed to indicate the realization of a vision no matter how questionable. The last incarnation of Suzi was largely abstract, written in a single motion, with a mirror image quality to it that, while recognizing it for the vandalism it is, was clearly superior to previous attempts. Based on the number of repetitions I saw, it seemed Suzi had finally found something permanent.
In a way, I could identify with this struggle. In elementary school, I found myself in a class with three other Michaels. In an attempt to reject my school given name of Mike W. I tried alternate spellings of my name. I tried Michael with the ‘e’ and ‘a’ reversed but that felt too close to a misspelling. I stuck with M-y-k-e for a few months before I realized what an emotional and psychological effort it would take to make it permanent. Not only did a failure to be consistent with it cause some confusion with the other Michaels, but when the teacher corrected the spelling of my chosen name, I was unprepared to push defend who my new self. I was no M-y-k-e. And for this, I will give taggers like Suzi some props for the emotional labor they have to undergo.
A side effect of becoming personally invested with Suzis is that I came to have higher expectations for them. Not only did poorly executed tags cause my eyebrows to arch—if you’re going to go through all the trouble of coming up with a design for your vandalism, at least try to be consistent with it—I also became sensitive to how few other tags there were to compare against Suzis. Clone, Niko, Grsy, Bent & Cream tags appeared with some regularity but not in a way that felt competitive. They generally occurred alongside each other and not, as occurs in other cities, in some kind of crowded competition with each other for dumpster space and recognition among their peers. The only tag that consistently topped a Suzi tag was another Suzi. At first, the instances where Suzi returned to update and/or modify old Suzi tags seemed like a strange thing to do. When I noted suspicious similarities in the ‘e’ of an early Suze tag with that of nearby Clone and Bent & Cream tags, I kind felt both a sense of betrayal and extreme pity. Suzi must be one of the loneliest taggers in the world.
If Suzi had been having, as I now think, a territorial struggle with themselves for the last few years, the effort to find the just-right tag became all the more bizarre. Why bother tinkering around the edges when the purpose of a tag is claiming responsibility for vandalizing something? Also, if there is essentially no one else you’re in competition with, who cares what your tag looks like? Either your peers respect you or they don’t. I hope they wouldn’t withhold praise based on perceived quality. Ultimately, it seemed like Suzi was working at cross purposes.
On one hand, they were scribbling on everything in sight—the hallmark of a typical tagger. But, on the other hand, they seemed to crave some recognition for doing it in a way that seemed more artistic. Suzi’s very public process of self-discovery achieved an aesthetic of sorts that their process could never lift out of mere vandalism. This conundrum shows why the common tag is so annoying. Unlike other varieties of graffiti that use spray paint or stencils to make some kind of commentary on the world that the viewer can agree or disagree with, tags like Suzi are more depressing in their essential navel-gazing narcissism. The message carried by such a tag—be it simply printed or more complex—will always be reduced to this: me, me, me, me, me, me, me, and me.
For many reasons, you would be forgiven for dismissing Suzi’s work as largely uninteresting, a public blight, embarrassingly amateurish, or simply failing to engage the public in a conversation about the intersection of artistic expression and the defacement of property. The only thing that Suzi seems to have added to Spenard over the last few years, besides widespread anger and frustration, is a sense of grittiness that people tend to associate with the old Spenard. As a kind of post-script to what will become of Suzi’s efforts, this year’s breakup came with a very thorough spring cleaning. Where the loss of Suzis could once be reliably attributed to municipal or waste management workers painting over their property, a large number of Suzis were reclaimed in a less predictable and uncoordinated way by home and small business owners throughout Spenard with layers of blue and yellow paint and less striking but no less efficient municipal styled gray and off-white blotches.