Set Your Sights High, Son

Self-Expression And The Transamerica Pyramid

Top And Flop

Top And Flop

We all have our long foul balls in life – the solid hits that power over the fence, but just outside of that yellow post at the edge of right field.  As a photographer, mine have mounded into a motley pile of not-quite-good-enough shots that I periodically revisit to see if I can do better.

For example, consider the pleasant vignette to the right, from August ’06, informally titled Top And Flop.  It melds the clean lines of San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid with the rougher textures of a vintage Chinatown hotel sign, tidily evoking the many schisms at the edges of downtown Frisco.  Of skyscrapers to bay windows; bankers amongst bike messengers; conservative versus radical; breeder and gay; the materialistic sterility of today’s financial district, contrasted with the brash, sloppy pleasures of yesteryear’s Barbary Coast; et cetera.

Top and Flop is no home run.  Still, it’s got potential, so I had it up on the screen, under review for content, framing, light, and focus.  Scrolling across the Transamerica building at 100-percent zoom, I noticed something weird - a subtle, strangely-organic blip.  Hmmm.  I leaned closer.  What is that?  Etched upon the dirty concrete of the Pyramid’s windward edge, in Comic-Sans-meets-Script font, 600 feet above street level…

A series of crops of Top And Flop at increasing zoom, photo-enhanced for readability.

A series of crops of Top And Flop at increasing zoom, photo-enhanced for readability.

A tag?!?!  Yes, that’s clearly the letters L-E-O.  Definitely not the biggest or brightest doodle known to civilization.  But, oh, the placement!  Over the time that it lingered – hours, days, weeks, months, years? - it achieved immortality, forever captured in the zoomed-in snapshots of countless tourists.  A work lacking the scale or sophistication of a Banksy, to be sure.  Nevertheless, on its lofty merits alone, a defining moment in graffiti history, destined for the Hall Of Fame, where it might slot directly below the time that Fairey stenciled Andre’s mug on the Capitol Rotunda.

Forty stories up on the window cleaning platform, it probably went down something like this.  A couple of young bucks.  Break time.  Wafting testosterone.  Four minis of Cuervo apiece.  The Dare.  And bam!  Leo was hanging off the corner of the building, power spraying his name into the grime.

The next night, cutting loose on nearby Columbus Avenue, he gestured upwards towards the Transamerica.  Confused, his buddies craned their necks to see, and beaming a Cheshire grin, Leo serenaded them with this little ditty:

Yo sucka yo my name is Lee-oh,
I got mo’ smoove than Captain Eee-Oh,
Up the Pyramid, I holla with my hose,
Don’t try to stop me, I spy the po-po,
Bet you wish you could write like Mee-oh,
Can’t touch this my name is Lee-oh.

Cue the chuckles, fist bumps, and Jägermeister!

But wait a second: let’s not make an ass out of you and mee-oh.  Everyone deserves a fair shake, so take our arrogant punk and flip him 180 degrees.  Up on the platform: dutiful Leo, husband and father-to-be.  Night shift wrapping up.  Ten hours straight of misty monotony.  Vast deficits of sleep, caffeine, and core body temperature.  Desperate yearnings to do something – anything – creative.  Oh, poor, valiant Leo!  Give him five minutes of cathartic self-expression, stat!

Sensing confusion, the dark-horse scenario trots in, braying that we’ve got it all wrong: that our tagger was no Leo at all!  The letters could be an homage to Low Earth Orbit!  The scribblings of an unbalanced August-born astrologer!  A tribute from DiCaprio’s Number One Fan!  The truncated autograph of a Leon with poor planning skills!

As with any great mystery, we’ll never know for sure.  However, the Deities Of Comeuppant Comedy assure me that the Leon Theory is incontrovertibly correct.  Myself, I haven’t decided.

What is certain is that I’ll soon be OCR-ing my entire photography archive, in search of more of these twinkly little gems!

(Hat tip to The Lonely Island for the Lee-oh-Mee-oh rhyme.)

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