Jay Fox (credit: Ashley Sears)
Not since the debut of Hunter S. Thompson or Thomas Pynchon has there been a book to emerge that speaks so clearly to a generation. Jay Fox’s debut novel, THE WALLS, is arguably the first iconic book from the Millennials.
Set in Brooklyn during the opening decade of the 21st century, Fox has captured the heartbeat, the zeitgeist, the essence of the echo boomers as they confront an uncertain future built upon a rapidly receding past.
The search, the hunt, the motivation to discover the truth presses Fox’s eclectic cast as they deal with their own lives, one day at a time. Certain to resonate now and in the rearview mirror of history, THE WALLS is a book, a story, a time capsule that snapshots and chronicles the quest to find a famous, elusive New York City graffiti artist whose greatest works can only be found in restrooms of underbelly dive bars in contemporary Brooklyn.
An excerpt from Chapter 1 of THE WALLS, published by Stay Thirsty Press, follows so that each reader can decide to jump in or walk away, to buy a latte or be moved for a lifetime.
Over the course of the past fifteen years or so, Coprolalia has come to be known as one of the most daring figures in the artistic community. To call him a revolutionary would not be entirely accurate, but he certainly has proven himself to be one of the most innovative artists in recent memory. This reputation has come about due to his activity in an arena that no other serious artist has thought to utilize. It is not because it is obscure or difficult to seek out—if anything, it is the opposite. The originality of his preferred medium arises because it had always been thought to be home to little more than dirty limericks, slander, and a rather phallic iconography.
I speak, of course, of the public restroom.
Due to the efforts of Coprolalia, the lavatories of a multitude of New York City bars are now regarded as home to some of the most captivating pieces the avant-garde community has produced in years (though it must be said that some scholars place Coprolalia in the arrière-garde, which, in this context, is a kind of avant-avant-garde movement that prides itself as being at the ass-end of that famous image of the snake eating its own tail). Not only is the work respected for its temerity—as Coprolalia's career is, legally speaking, based upon a string of misdemeanors—it is also thought to be incredibly controversial from a critical perspective. The majority of those who study Coprolalia feel that his work represents a new interpretation of the dynamic between public and private space, a commentary on the artist as a political figure, an insightful statement about the ubiquity of art, and a fresh look at the link between an artist's identity and his or her work. Competing schools have developed out of these debates, but the consensus within these groups does not extend past the theoretical level. For when it comes to the meaning behind any particular piece, virtually no one can agree on anything.
And yet a larger question persists. For while there is no want of critics, scholars, or laymen claiming to have unlocked the enigmatic works that grace the walls of so many city washrooms, there is one thing that no one can speak of with real conviction: the identity of the artist.
Coprolalia has never come forward to accept the laurels of the artistic community. Few have seriously ventured to seek him out, though many claim to have met him. A bar owner in the Bronx attests that the artist used to be a regular at his establishment in the late-nineties. According to him, Coprolalia was a rather surly and belligerent customer, who was eventually incarcerated for a number of crimes all involving the prefix ped-. A bartender in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill swears that Coprolalia frequented her bar regularly during the early years of this century. She described this figure as a pensive man who would regularly engage patrons in chess and academic conversation. She also said that he looked like a young Ron Howard.
Both of these claims, and all of the claims like them, have been discredited. So, too, have the claims of those who have declared themselves to be Coprolalia. The former group drowns in hearsay and baseless conjecture; the latter, connivance and delusion. In either case, only one figure has ever seriously caught the attention of Coprolalia scholars—Andy Bates, a former curator of the Earth Room.
Bates' tenure at the institution ended abruptly in the spring of 2002 after he suffered a nervous breakdown. While this is not the place to discuss the nuances of the episode that precipitated Bates' institutionalization, I do feel it necessary to mention the aftermath. After destroying what one can destroy in the Earth Room (which is essentially nothing, as it is quite literally just a room full of earth), he descended to the street, stripped himself of his clothes, and then ran down several blocks (naked) through SoHo and Chinatown shouting some very choice profanities (in a variety of languages, too) until finally coming upon a public bathroom in Columbus Park. There he remained for quite a while—at least several hours, as it was light when he entered the bathroom and dark by the time he was escorted out. It is certainly possible that he would have remained cloistered in the corner stall for longer had he been able to construct a more resilient barricade, but there is really only so much one can do with the materials one finds in a public restroom. Upon Bates' removal, the police were less than surprised to find that the stall had been covered in graffiti. They were shocked, however, when they realized that the substance all over the stall was not paint, that said substance was still fresh, that said substance had been made (or passed) by Bates, and that said substance coated the person of Andy Bates, the man whom the police had prematurely placed in the backseat of one unlucky officer's car. (Had this scene been written out for a bad cop drama, the director would have had the unlucky officer (perhaps Horowitz, as people named Horowitz seem to have a propensity for law-enforcement) look to the wall for long enough for the bulb of recognition to pop on, then the director would have had Horowitz bellow out a prolonged “Oh…” before cutting to an unrelated scene, as the following (and fitting) profanity would be obvious to virtually any viewer.)
Regardless, the incident proved to be the only discernible connection between Bates and Coprolalia, but many felt it was enough evidence to argue that the two were actually the same person. In time, however, the Bates enthusiasts lost support, especially once it was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Coprolalia's work continued to appear with Bates in state custody.
With such a variety of speculation—some of it grounded in complete fiction, some of it not—most have accepted that Coprolalia will remain in anonymity until he decides to step out from the shadows. Scholars consider it especially futile to make conjectures about his identity, and, as one can imagine, my decision to set out in search of the artist was welcomed with either derision or feigned confidence. At best it is a quixotic ambition.
Beyond the inability to describe the artist physically, there are further difficulties. For one, no one can discern a pattern that the artist follows as he goes from one bar to the next. In fact, no one has been able to pinpoint an area that would constitute his base of operations. The majority of scholars believe Brooklyn to be the borough that holds the highest concentration of his work, but many detractors argue that, as he does not sign any of his work, it is impossible to know if the entire catalog of the artist has been documented, and that it is therefore disingenuous to speak of preponderances. Some installations go for months before being brought to the attention of experts, who may or may not then confirm the authenticity of the piece. Consequently, they conclude, it is not at all unreasonable to assert that a sizable percentage of Coprolalia's work either has not been discovered yet or has been erased, lost to more intensive renovation efforts, or dismissed as forgery. The latter possibility is perhaps the biggest concern for all Coprolalia scholars.
“It's difficult to pin down any single feature that makes a piece genuine,” Professor Sean Winchester of New York University said reluctantly. “There is no one litmus test.”
Professor Winchester is regarded as the leading expert on the work of Coprolalia. In the theater of academia there are very few peacemakers such as him, especially in a field as subjective as urban art. Yet when arguments concerning the artist's work arise Sean very often has the final say: no one has dedicated more time to the study of Coprolalia's work, and no one has created a more complete series of tests to determine whether a piece is authentic or not. In fact, the Winchester Criteria, as it has come to be known, is currently the standard methodology employed whenever the prospect of a new Coprolalia arises. Furthermore, Sean also holds the largest private collection of Coprolalia photographs in the world, and his forthcoming book, Lavatory Diaries: A Coprolalia Anthology, will contain virtually the entire catalog of the artist's work from the late nineties to the fall of 2006. As luck would have it, he had been a professor of mine in the recent past, and I was able to contact him without much difficulty.
While I was initially hesitant about approaching him on the subject, he seemed to welcome the project with enthusiasm, especially when I told him that I had decided to spend a month exclusively searching out the artist. He did his best to encourage my optimism, and somewhat gingerly admitted that he had given up the search long ago. “This is not to say that I'm not curious, as I am sure quite a number of people are. I guess I just don't feel that one needs to know an artist personally to appreciate his or her work.” I asked Sean over the phone if, at the very least, he felt it would better his understanding of the art. “Yes, I suppose every piece is an extension of an artist's personality, but Coprolalia clearly doesn't want to be found…”