I can say, in all honesty, that I had never been curious about the goings-on in Tempe, Arizona, until a news station there ran a segment on a local folk hero. It starts out as a humdrum story concerning the supposed ills of street graffiti and municipal efforts to see it cleaned up in a timely fashion. Then comes the twist that took this baby viral.
Yes, Tempe is under siege from a graffiti artist — or artists — known by the block-letter tag “PENIS MAN.” And while the cops are irritated, Penis Man’s single-minded crusade has predictably inspired tens of thousands of very mature gigglers here on the internet. Personally, the more I thought about it, the more profound the idea of Penis Man became. It’s more than a juvenile gag. It’s commentary. Graffiti had to go somewhere new, and now it has.
What else can you say: This is better than Banksy.
Look, no disrespect to the infamous-yet-anonymous street artist who captured global attention for decades with his satirical stencil work. But I think that style has lost some of its bite. The anti-capitalist message is more relevant than ever — it’s the execution that feels corny now. Real “we live in a society” vibes. Penis Man, by contrast, succeeds with elegant understatement that hits all the harder in an age of overdriven symbolism. Critically, Penis Man isn’t drawing penises; the signature is the piece. Neither is Penis Man vulgar, choosing the technical term for the male genitalia instead of something like “dick” or “cock.” As such, I’ve automatically pictured a penis with top hat on. Classy.
What statement is Penis Man making? Only that he, she or they exist. In its ubiquity, the phrase obliterates the gender and number associated with either noun to render “Penis Man” a condition of being — atmospheric and communal. The sign advising “LOOK FOR PENIS MAN” speaks not to the hunt for whoever is spray-painting the moniker on so many fixtures in Tempe, but the search for a Penis Man within. You will not discover Penis Man while roaming the city, because you must first realize that Penis Man is not attributable to any single body, let alone a specific penis. It has already slipped those bonds to thrive, Spartacus-like, in the minds of those who know and believe.
Moreover, Penis Man seems to represent the kind of unity — of both people and purpose — that politicians always promise, then fail to deliver. The love of Penis Man isn’t dependent on your wealth, race, sex or status. It doesn’t flatter one’s ideological biases, and it doesn’t punch down. Best of all, it’s a beacon of stability in the face of the precarious. The Penis Man mantra, which is just a perpetual invocation of the serene and solid name, is unwavering. God is dead, yet Penis Man survives. And if Penis Man is getting by in this cruel world (with a laugh, no less), the rest of us can, too.