The media may tell you that American economic hardship is something new, but some towns suffered long before the U.S. mortgage crisis. Willimantic, CT, is a classic example of how corporate flight and collapse negatively impacts communities. Once a thriving mill town, Willimantic is now known for its growing heroin problem. Foreclosure and bankruptcy left a wave of architectural skeletons it their wakes. Boarded up barbershops, empty car stereo stores, and shopping carts brimming with trash litter Willimantic's streets. In the dead of winter, the landscape is bleak.
In these uncertain times, Willimantic's art scene takes a back seat to the city's drug and economic issues. However, the residents of Windham Artspace and other members of the creative community should not be ignored. In particular, what's happening on the streets is definitely worth a look.
The Figurehead Experiment is one such artist. Tagging mostly in New England, the Figurehead's trademark icon spread like an epidemic to every continent. "We have the sticker templates available so others can help with the experiment," he explains. Harnessing the power of the public, the Figurehead's image can be modified, twisted, and morphed to create new identities. He confesses, "I'm not sure if the Figurehead Experiment actually qualifies as art. I'm just trying to see how far we can take an icon that doesn't represent anything. A lot of real artists from around the world infuse their own style into the Figurehead image. That's where it becomes art, I guess."For the past year, the Figurehead Experiment has covered Willimantic and other locations with his trademark visage. Inspired by the Church of Subgenius, the Figurehead's casual interest in street art quickly became an obsession. "It's very rare that we go out specifically to tag," he says. "Wherever we go, we just always have stickers with us. That's why you find them randomly on gas pumps, at the laundromat, car wash, and convenience stores, in small towns, or on city street signs." The Figurehead even appears on the Airline Trail, a converted rail trail stretching 50 miles from East Hampton to Willimantic. The best part about tagging, the Figurehead explains, is connecting with others. "I don't know the artists that influence me," he says, "But they share the same street signs with us. One of the greatest things about tagging is the odd form of communication we have with total strangers who are tagging the same spot. That inspires us."While the Figurehead denies having any initial fears, he's experienced some dangerous adventures while tagging. "I almost got hit by a car in Willimantic," he recalls. "It came so close that I was able to tag the trunk as it passed. Normally, I would never tag someone's personal property, but this situation warranted otherwise." Understandable. Hopefully, that sticker serves as a reminder to share the road with pedestrians.Wherever you go, the Figurehead is always watching. Sprayed onto a bridge, a giant icon monitors the river's water levels. On the front of an ATM, the icon and his posse of familiar street art faces safeguard the broken machine from scam artists. From high above the Massachusetts forest, the icon keeps tabs on hikers with the help of some giant binoculars. In a loading alley, the icon enforces the manager's request to 'not overload.' Out in the grocery store parking lot, the icon encourages shoppers to...buckle their children into the cart? Put their carts away? Regardless of the location, the icon's gaze follows pedestrians everywhere and keeps a constant eye on local activity.
The elusive identity of the Figurehead Experiment adds to the thrill of the hunt. Out on Main Street in Willimantic, I spent Wednesday afternoon photographing what's happening. As I looked around, I wondered if the Figurehead was watching. Was he the guy waiting for a bus on the corner? The friendly man checking his voicemail in the barbershop? The construction worker directing traffic around a site? The icon is a constant reminder of the Figurehead's presence, but I doubt I'll find out who he truly is. To the Figurehead and other Willi artists, I salute you and definitely support your projects.
All images courtesy of the Figurehead Experiment. To view more photos, catch up with the crew on Myspace (keywords The Figurehead Experiment).
That's all for now, folks. We have an amazing lineup coming at you next week with posts from all over the place. Rep your city and country by sending your words and images to illicitexhibitions.blogspot.com. Come on, Iran! India! Brazil! China! I know you guys are out there. Show some love for your fellow street artists and share their work with others. Have a great weekend and I'll catch you on Monday.