The Bangor Daily News has interviewed Pigeon and agreed to keep the artist’s identity a secret so as not to spoil the mystery.
The pigeons first appeared in mid-July — but not those ubiquitous urban birds with the gray bodies and iridescent purple wings. These were small-scale, two-dimensional, black-and-white pigeons, drawn by someone who clearly had skill, and cut out from standard copy paper. The artist pasted the drawings with wheat paste (made from flour and water) on the empty doorway of the former Vault Cafe on Hammond Street in downtown Bangor.
During his routine late-night walks around town, Bangor resident William Young noticed the pigeons. He also saw two pairs of paper gulls pasted to otherwise image-free walls on Hammond and Central streets and an image of a knocked-over shopping cart on the brick wall in the parking lot of the former Hammond Street YMCA. Intrigued, he began searching out and photographing the mysterious images as they appeared.
“That led to me noticing a few more of them around town: the yarmulke-wearing one in front of Bagel Central, the sombrero-wearing one in front of Coco Loco,” said Young, who later uploaded his pictures to Facebook. “This seemed like a pretty good hint that it wasn’t a commissioned work, since the owners of many of those establishments seemed to be surprised and pleased with them being there.”
Four months later, there have been more than 60 examples of pigeon art in downtown Bangor. A pigeon drinking a Budweiser pasted to Leadbetter’s Mini Stop on Ohio Street. A pigeon crying a river of tears pasted to a wall inside the Kenduskeag Stream canals. Picasso-themed pigeons on the side of Domino’s Pizza on Clinton Street and on the doorway of the Main Tavern on Main Street. A connect-the-dots pigeon at the corner of Hammond and Columbia streets.
Business- and city-owned surfaces have been pigeoned. So far, few have complained. Bangor police report thus far they haven’t received any grievances.
“As far as I know, we haven’t received any complaints,” said Officer Paul Edwards of the Bangor Police Department. “In theory, I guess it could be seen as a form of criminal mischief, but again, no one has come forward to complain. It seems like kind of a soft crime.”
In fact, most of the businesses affected seemed to appreciate their new, uncommissioned artwork.
“Oh, I just think it’s really cute. It made us feel like we were part of the neighborhood,” said Ruby Cruze, co-owner and chef at Coco Loco, the Mexican restaurant on Central Street that was pigeoned in August. “I was really happy to see it out front. I don’t think it’s graffiti. I think it’s nice. I was sad when somebody took ours down. I want it back.”
“It made me feel like Bangor was just a little bit hipper,” said Zeth Lundy, co-owner of Central Street Farmhouse, who can see those early gulls from his window. “It’s not just using spray paint. It’s well thought out and nondestructive. I had just seen ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ [the Oscar-nominated documentary by street artist Banksy] when they started appearing, so I had an even greater appreciation for it because of that.”
Young’s posting of the pictures to Facebook meant more people began to take notice. By August, the Rock & Art Shop on Central Street began selling T-shirts screen-printed with a pigeon wearing its own “I <3 Bangor” T-shirt.
“We’re all about community building, and this is one of the things I think is most exciting about downtown right now,” said Amanda Sohns, co-owner of the shop. “It makes people talk. We’ve sold out of two batches of them already.”
Pigeon is everywhere. But the question remains: Who is the Pigeon? Who is sneaking around town and putting up little pieces of avian-themed art? There’s an element of mystery to it, which seems to lend it some underground charm. The artist behind it seems to want to remain anonymous.
So here’s what we can tell you about the Pigeon. The Pigeon is a he. He lives in Bangor. He was born in Europe and has lived in America for 20 years. He has had other, non-Pigeon artwork displayed in galleries across the state. And he doesn’t consider his work graffiti — rather, as temporary, nondestructive street art.
“The important thing to me is that it is temporary,” said Pigeon, who agreed to speak with the Bangor Daily News if his true identity remained hidden. “Spray paint is about aggressively taking a space for yourself. This being temporary is part of the appeal for me. I’m not interested in property damage.”
Pigeon had the idea to try a wheat-pasting street art project in the spring after being inspired by street artist Swoon, who also works with wheat paste, and by the film “Favela Rising” about a community organization in Brazil that uses music and art to combat drugs and violence. Wheat pasting, or fly pasting, is a medium widely used for more than a century, by everyone from Shepard Fairey, famed for his iconic Barack Obama “Hope” image, to post-impressionist painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who put up many posters in 1890s Paris with a version of wheat paste.
Pigeon draws his images with a Sanford Uniball pen on regular copy paper. When he goes out to put up new images, he wears nondescript clothing and doesn’t head out too late or too early. He wants to blend in. He spreads the paste on a wall, affixes the image to it, and then spreads more paste over it, leaving it to dry overnight. They’re easily removable with soap and a brush, though after prolonged exposure to the elements they will come off on their own.
He initially thought about using sea gulls, but eventually turned to pigeons — an easier bird to mass-produce with its own kind of symbolism. The word “pigeon” is the same in French as it is in English. A pidgin language is a localized dialect that combines two languages, making it easier for two different cultures to communicate. And pigeons are commonplace — the same species inhabits sidewalks in Paris, New York and Bangor.
It’s the beauty of the commonplace and the stories that hide behind seemingly banal objects and places that Pigeon hopes to illuminate.
“Art is about struggling to make sense of life, and of the place you live in,” Pigeon said. “A community needs narrative. It needs stories. It needs things to connect to. I think a lot of people feel like Bangor has no story, no identity, is a ‘no’ place. But it does, and I want to try to tell that story.”
Pigeon places his drawings at just below or above eye level and on surfaces that generally go unnoticed with the express aim of drawing attention to the things the average person in downtown Bangor never actually sees in daily life.
“I want it to be at a level that anyone can see. It’s for people who don’t go into galleries. It’s for anyone who happens to be walking down the street,” he said. “It’s about trying to get people to look around them and see what’s really here. It’s like an accent in a room. Suddenly you realize that the room is actually pale pink, instead of white.”
Kat Johnson, a Bangor artist who’s finishing up her intermedia Master of Fine Arts at the University of Maine, noticed Pigeon early on. She was drawn to it at first because she’s a fan of the wheat paste medium — but later grew to appreciate the message the drawing appeared to reveal.
“I’ve always been intrigued by that medium, because it seems very democratic in nature,” said Johnson. “But what you’re saying with your art, whatever it is, is obviously very important. I think what Pigeon does is it takes an icon of an urban environment — this really down-and-dirty animal — and elevates it. It becomes a symbol of the culture that’s starting to blossom in downtown Bangor.”
In October, the Pigeon began posting more political messages aligned with the Occupy movement that has swept the country. In the days before the Oct. 29 Occupy Bangor rally, pigeons holding signs advertising the rally — as well as pigeons with former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan’s head — began appearing. Some Pigeon fans have been a bit turned off by the bird’s political turn as well as by a pigeon that showed up on the Hannibal Hamlin statue in Norumbega Parkway.
Sonya Eldridge, who owns Bagel Central, liked her yarmulke pigeon — but she doesn’t love the Occupy pigeons.
“I think the pigeons are harmless and kind of fun. However, that goes away when they become political, as they have been lately,” said Eldridge. “I’d rather it wasn’t on statues and things like that … I prefer the carefree pigeons with no political views. They were more fun.”
For Pigeon, the more sociopolitical images went up partially because of a request made by Occupy Bangor organizers — and partially because of his generalized concern for poor people in Bangor, which comes out through his art. A series of pigeons who appear to be doing bath salts have appeared in recent weeks, highlighting the localized epidemic of the dangerous street drug.
“I see a lot of contempt for poor people and for the mentally ill. There’s a lot of poverty and drug abuse here, and I think sometimes people just want to pretend it doesn’t exist,” he said. “But I also see a lot of younger people, like the KahBang people and people in bands and who have local businesses, who are working very hard to make something cool happen here. I don’t know how things will end up turning out for either.”
Regardless of one’s feelings on the content of some of the images, it’s clear that Pigeon has succeeded at one of his main goals: to get people talking. Already some non-Pigeon wheat pastings have appeared around town, including hummingbirds and squirrels.
“When I hear about people coming down from the university to look for pigeons, or see people around town wearing the shirts, or putting their own stuff up, then I feel like it’s starting to do something beyond what I’m doing myself,” he said. “It’s become a collaboration between me and the community of Bangor. It creates its own narrative. It takes on a life of its own.”