Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Solve: A Creative Legacy in Stickers and Ink


Take a walk with me…Do not hesitate in conversation with me out of fear of reminding me of Brendan or that he died - I would rather you say something that could sound insensitive and have it in front of us than see your pause and the flicker of worry behind your eyes. I need no reminder; my brother, and his absence, are always present. Better you share in it with me than keep yourself at arms length from my honesty - it is much warmer here walking here closer to me.

An excerpt from Caitlin Scanlon's All This Useless Beauty blog

Brendan 'Solve' Scanlon was a promising, energetic and well loved young street artist from Madison Wisconsin. On June 14, 2008, he was killed near his apartment in Chicago.
Dealing with a devastating loss like this, and moving forward through life is a challenge that his close knit family and friends never dreamed that they would have to face. To lose a son, a brother, a close friend and mentor, these things are difficult enough. When that person is 24 years old with a whole lifetime of possibilities ahead, dreams of the future must be grieved for as well. The complicated and painful emotions brought on by the violent nature of Brendan's death make this situation even more difficult.
Though deeply tragic, this story doesn't follow the usual plot lines of sadness, justice and closure. Life is just not that simple, and closure is not attainable or even desirable. Closure would mean an end to a cherished relationship and a creative legacy. Although anger and sadness will understandably always be there, a remarkable story of creative healing is there as well.

new ritual death memorial
North Side Chicago Polka dot Solve Signal Box


His handle is a verb, not a noun. SOLVE uses his street art to "foster a more positive, productive society." His work tends to be among the most confrontational in the Chicago street art scene — and that's precisely his aim. Although he primarily works in larger format paste-ups, SOLVE brings his inventive and colorful style to other aspects of the North Side, especially signal boxes. SOLVE wants you to know that he is not in a gang. And neither are most street artists.

Text and photo via Gapers Block May 2007

Following Brendan's death, a remarkable memorial service was held. The service was a wonderful blend of personalization and ritual; family and friends shared thoughts and memories, special music was performed, and a sensitive and moving sermon was delivered by a pastor who was a close family friend. Following the service, a lively reception was held until late in the evening at a neighborhood center. To read the text from this remarkable service, please visit So Fine The face of Heaven.

More remarkable still, is the work carried on by Brendan's friends and family thought the Solve Lives sticker project, a world wide effort to continue to get Solve's work 'UP'. Everyone who visits the Solve Stickers site can request free stickers. The stickers are mailed out and in turn, photos of the stickers in their new homes all over the world are sent in and posted on the site. Many memorial tattoos based on Solve's designs help to keep his art alive as well. The cost of printing and mailing stickers adds up and participants are encouraged to donate funds to cover these costs.

We will cut him out in little stars,
And he will make so fine the face of heaven
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

-excerpt from service

Solve Across the World from Cyber Pyro on Vimeo.

graffiti art furneral
Another Polka Dot Signal Box...

In the past, this journal has explored some of the motivations and results of Memorial Graffiti and Memorial Tattoos. While some people find these efforts to be desecrations of the body, or the property of others, it cannot be denied that they are expressions of a very basic human need to acknowledge the importance of a life lived and of a loved one lost.
I am very pleased to be able to share a conversation with Brendan's sister Caitlin (as well as excerpts from her blog,) and his friends Billy and Rachel who are active in the Solve Sticker project. All three have tattoos memorializing Solve, and have graciously agreed to share their thoughts and experiences with The Daily Undertaker.

Pat: My impression of the name ‘Solve’ is that Brendan felt that there were a lot of social and political issues that needed work. Did he ever discuss the origins or meanings of his tag name?

Caitlin: He did, and can be heard and sort of seen discussing it in this little documentary on him.

He talked about wanting to start with the letter S, and how we all have something to solve...

Billy: He was definitely aware of the social and political issues that bog down our culture, and others. The 'origins' of his name, I'm not entirely certain of, however. I know that aesthetically, he really liked the look and feel of those five letters, and as a graphic designer this was very important to him. He was obsessed with fonts and typefaces and all that. But the meaning of the word "Solve" was also very important to him. For example, he used to do a paste-up of Kalik Sheik Mohammad (not sure on the spelling, but he was the 'mastermind' behind the 9-11 attacks). No one knew who the image was, but they liked how it looked, myself included. So you like this image, and see it around town. Then one day you find out who it is, and suddenly it has a deeper meaning. I think his name itself was the same approach. It looks good and you see it around town, but at some point you start to feel its other meanings.

graffiti tattoo solve memorial
...and the tattoo to match

Pat: As a person with memorial tattoos, I imagine that you are continually reminded of Brendan. What experiences have you had that youo might not have had without the tattoo?

Rachel: I really did not expect to have so many unique experiences as a result of getting a tattoo of Brendan’s art. It would’ve been special to me regardless, since it was my first and is still the only thing that I’ve considered meaningful enough to have engraved into my body. But this particular piece of art and the circumstances surrounding it have facilitated levels of connection and closure for me that I don’t know if I would’ve achieved without it.

Right after getting the piece done – a stencil image of a young girl in combat boots holding her hands behind her back, with the signature SOLVE script underneath – I would get comments from strangers practically everywhere I went. They would ask me if the tattoo was real, if the girl was supposed to be me, what “SOLVE” meant, etc. It had a vibrant quality about it and seemed to take on a life of its own. Granted, it occupies the whole length of my bicep, but it really has piqued people’s interest over the years. I pick and choose how much detail to give about its background and enjoy turning the question back onto the other person – “What do YOU think it means?” I know that Brendan would’ve encouraged of that kind of response.

Even more mind-boggling is how many times the tattoo has connected me with strangers who had also known Brendan, or had been fans of his art without ever having met him, or had otherwise heard about SOLVE some way or another. From a week after he’d died – when a street artist came up to me on the train and started talking to me about his link to SOLVE; to a couple days ago – when a cashier at a grocery store told me she was a fan of his work. It really is surreal to me sometimes. I had never been so aware of Brendan’s scope of influence while he was alive. It’s comforting that his death did not cheat him of that and has instead amplified it so much.

And of course my tattoo has brought me closer to Brendan’s family and our mutual friends, many of whom also wear his art in ink. It’s a reminder of what we all share, despite the differences in our individual experiences of our loss. We are permanently affected by Brendan’s passing, but we help each other transform it into a positive creative force.

I’m glad that my tattoo can help expose Brendan’s art to people who otherwise might not see or appreciate it. I’ve learned a lot about Brendan, and about art, because of it.

tattoo memorial graffiti living with grief
Caitlin: I think just talking about him, or at least him as a street artist more. I don’t always mention the fact that I got it after he died, more often than not these days when people ask about it I simply explain that it’s my brothers tag. If they ask more I share, but most don’t.

Billy: I am constantly reminded of Brendan, with or without my tattoos. But having the tattoos brings him up in new ways, and with new people. They will ask about them, and then I can tell the story if I feel comfortable doing so. And to have a tattoo, people understand that it was something/someone that was serious and important. In Chicago, there is also one additional level, because my tattoos are of Solve's artwork, so sometimes people will see them and go "Oh, I've seen that image before! What is that?"

solve sticker memorial
Memorial Sticker

Pat: It seems that Brendan was larger than life both figuratively and literally. He made a strong and positive impression wherever he went. What do you hope will be his most lasting impression on this world?

Billy: There are many things that will be left in the world because of Solve. For me, it's the idea that you gotta be yourself and do what you believe. Follow your dreams, not the masses. You have to find what makes you happy, and go for it. And all the bullshit that we are told, by our government or by the media, you just gotta fight through that. Find your own truths.

graffiti urban
Solve Pigeon

Pat: I see that Solve stickers have been put up all over the world. What countries need representation the most? Are there any plans to send stickers along on Antarctic missions or satellites?

Billy: Eventually Solve's name and story will be a world-wide phenomenon. Everyone will know. Just as the Obey campaign has reached international/mainstream status, so will Solve. Every country needs to be represented. Currently, we'd love to get more into South America and Africa. The US and Europe are pretty well repped. And yes, we've sent some to Antarctica, but have not yet gotten pictures back.

Caitlin: I think what countries need more representation could be answered most accurately by looking at the map.Solve Across The World Map

It seems to me Russia, Africa, and South America need the most representation. I don’t know of any Antarctic or space missions that will be bringing along Solve, but I know I’d certainly love to see him in both of those places. (Solve in Outer Space! What a wonder that would be!)

tattoo design memorial art
Tattoo based on Solve Pigeon

Pat: Reading over the program from Solve’s memorial service really made me wish I had been there. It’s like a wonderful recipe for a meaningful service. There is a great deal of thoughtful participation, music, memories, and a welcoming sense of community inclusion and support.

What went into the planning of this service?

Caitlin: A lot of tears, a sense of urgency, a lot of direction, complete and utter heartbreak, a lot of family, a lot of friends, a lot of laughter, more tears, a few meetings, a massive amount of love, a massive amount of devastation, a lot of food, a lot of drink, countless tissues, countless hugs, many phone calls and emails... I could go on. I think we tried to use Brendan’s energy as our guide; we knew we had to do it and we did it with infinite love, but every thread of it hurt.

As a side bit - I gave one of the speeches at the service, and what I ended up saying, I basically wrote on an airplane from California to Chicago some hours after I learned of his death. I can’t explain how or why, but it was probably the most honest raw thing I’ve ever written. I guess that’s what happens when someones worst nightmare becomes reality - there’s no energy for bullshit, and the only thing that can come out is truth.

Billy: I did not participate in the planning, but I attended service. It was one of the best services I've ever been to, I think because we focused on making it more of a celebration of his life, than a mourning of his death.

ghost girl graffiti
Ghost Solve Girl Photo via Becca Fischer

Pat: One of the most difficult things to deal with and come to terms with after the death of a young person is the sense that you’ve lost the future- the realization that all of our dreams for what they might do, accomplish and give will not come true.

Does carrying on some of Brendan’s work help you all to deal with this aspect of grief a little easier?

Caitlin: For this and any other question I can claim to answer for only myself. They are entirely personal and individual and while I can imagine the answers from my parents or sister might be similar, I cannot speak for them.

The thought that has brought me even a small measure of comfort since losing Brendan is that he will not be forgotten, and in that sense, the Solve Across The World Project has been a good thing.

Billy: It's just amazing how much he did in 24 years, and how much he could have done with 24 more. But he was here, and made his mark. Life is short, and we never know how short. We have to hurry up and make our impressions, today. May not be a tomorrow. I'm grateful for all I learned from him in the time he was here.

Rachel Tattoo new funeral tradition
Rachel's Memorial Tattoo

Pat: Art and death are intertwined in so many fascinating ways. Here we have examples of memorial projects, events and tattoos. What do you think art contributes to the grieving process?

Rachel: Art offers a conveniently cathartic outlet for channeling grief. It gives you the chance to exercise a certain level of control over your emotions – to reflect on them internally, manipulate them, and express them in a deliberate way. The chaotic mess of feelings going on inside of you can be molded into something that is meaningful and specific to you and your experience alone. When confronted with the end product, an understanding or realization might emerge that you had not been aware of before. And you might feel accomplished by having created something tangible, or empowered by knowing that you are actively taking part in your own healing.

So in those terms, sometimes I think the fact that Brendan was an artist may have facilitated the grieving process for some of us (Brendan’s friends and family). We already had a template to work off of – Brendan’s own work, his street art name and images, and our knowledge of the methods that he used (silk screening, wheat pasting, etc). We could pick up where he left off, in a sense, and I think the SOLVE sticker project is a perfect example of that.

Are there any new Solve projects on the horizon?

Caitlin: Continuing the Solve stickers project is ongoing, and I believe there are more art shows tentatively planned. We as a family have set up an ongoing scholarship in Brendan’s name through our high school, but that is not directly Solve related.

Billy: There is always something. An art show coming up in Chicago that will feature a lot of his work. And stickers, all the time, everywhere.

new funeral memorial service idea
My stickers arrive in the mail

Pat: What goes through your mind when you see a Solve sticker in a new place- either in your own travels or when a participant sends in a photo?

Caitlin: I’ll refer to what I wrote you in an earlier email:

It is always a comfort, in a strange and very Brendan-unique way, to see and hear of people using their Solve stickers.

His friends have told a story on several occasions of B having this fantasy of having a team of minions involved in sticker-production, etc... Almost every time I see a new sticker or think of people making them I can hear him laughing.

Pat: Certainly not everyone has a team of dedicated friends and family to help share the burdens of loss and the excitement involved in a project like this, but we all deserve a great memorial. What would your advice be to someone planning a memorial?

Caitlin: If you’re referring to a memorial service or funeral, in general, I would say listen to the advice of the professionals involved (funeral director, pastor, etc.) and don’t be afraid to ask for help, but to rely on what your gut instinct too. Ultimately a memorial will probably be a mix of what the person who died would have wanted, and what those who were left to plan it wanted. I think it’s entirely specific on who died and what their relationship is with their family.

living with grief

Pat: Art and death are intertwined in so many fascinating ways. Here we have examples of memorial projects, events and tattoos. What do you think art contributes to the grieving process?

Caitlin: I think it totally depends on who, what, when, etc... In our case I think it’s been a core part of many of our grieving processes, but in general I think many people express much pain through art. I imagine that since Brendan was an artist, in more that one arena, carrying on through art has always felt natural and appropriate especially for fellow artists.

Pat: Caitlin, what was your experience working with the funeral home staff? Were they a good resource for your planning and dealing with the death? In what ways do you think funeral homes can serve families like yours better?

Caitlin: I was very impressed with the woman that was our funeral director. In the days after B died everything was such a blur, and she seemed to sense that while we were utterly devastated and horrified and in shock, we would still laugh at what probably seemed like odd times. I can’t imagine going through that process with someone who wasn’t as in tune with our family quirks. She was wonderful and thoughtful.

I would guess, in general, funeral homes tend to lean to the religious and elderly...? I imagine that’s appropriate since, thankfully, most of their customers are old people (or, the families of old people). The funeral home and director we worked with was totally open to us replacing all the [bad, stuffy] art on the wall with Brendan’s, and that was key.

I guess just be as flexible as possible would be the only possible advice I can give. (Of course, none of us were in a whole state of mind when we were going through this process, so please keep that in mind.)

Pat: Thank you all so much for sharing your thoughts and very personal experiences with my readers. I think that we can all learn a lot about the experience of loss and ways to move through it because of your willingness to share Solve's story. You have carried on the spirit and work of your brother and friend, and it is a joyous and beautiful thing to behold.

panda hat
Brendan 'Solve' February 2008 Photo via Rachel

I'd like to close this post with another excerpt from Caitlin's blog:


…The sadness and anger hits me harder now, and more suddenly. I feel like the best way to describe my state is functionally devastated. More than a year has passed since Brendan died so if there was one, the official period of mourning would be over. I talk to his friends less and less, we've passed all the holidays and birthdays at least once, and it's just not new anymore for most people...

To us, it's Always new.

I wish I could describe it more accurately but I don't know how.

The pain, while duller, is just as painful. The absence is just as large if not larger. The things that remind us how much we miss him are more numerous the more days that pass. As I accept how much I want my own children one day I grow equally angry they won't get to know their Uncle, and that he won't get to know my children. It is devastatingly unfair that he won't get to have children and that I won't get to know my nieces or nephews.

So while my brother is always on my mind, I'm not thinking moment to moment about what I'm missing. These days rather than a steady absence, I will remember suddenly, at the deepest part of a deep breath, that Brendan's not coming back; rather than a constant numbness it's short and brutal.

I am exhausted.

from All This Useless Beauty

For more information about Solve, please visit these sites:


For related posts about interesting memorials, tattoos and graffiti, please visit:

Solve from middle mind project on Vimeo.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

These lines are from "Romeo & Juliet" by Shakespeare

We will cut him out in little stars,
And he will make so fine the face of heaven
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

-excerpt from service

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization. dailyundertaker@gmail.com