I went to Lucky Monkey tattoo parlor the other day to watch a friend get tattooed, while munching on the hippie hash (an ungodly-hour snack consisting of hash browns, random assorted veggies and feta cheese) I’d bought from the Fleetwood Diner next door. The two establishments seem to be a perfect match — the Fleetwood with its aluminum siding and sticker-graffiti on all the surfaces and Lucky Monkey with its inked-up patrons and photos of traditional tattoo art framed on the wall. I’ve never stepped into Lucky Monkey with the intent of getting a tattoo, but I’ve stepped into the greasy diner to order onion rings and a coffee at 3 a.m., sketchbook and pencil in hand.

I suppose, in a Jack Kerouac sense, these two establishments contain the essence of traditional American art, where you’ve got greasy authentic diner food in one hand and nautical tattoos inked in the other. Toss in a few cigarettes and pots of coffee, and you have the American experience.

While we’ve borrowed the idea of “high” art from Europe with its pristine, classical feel, I find it ironic that the most interesting parts of American culture are what we’ve deemed “low” art — comic books, hamburger stand food, skull tattoos and rock’n’roll, for example. But if you’ve ever been to the Fleetwood, I think it’s undisputable there’s an art to putting together the perfect reuben, buttering the perfect late-night toast and being just the right kind of diner waitress: apron filled with single-serving creamer packets, taking orders with perfect poise and a consistently hard-hitting grumpy demeanor, tattoos snaking around the small of her back.

It’s easy to look down on diner culture as something dirty, gritty and inconsequential, but without these elements of American life, there would be no storybook setting for Kerouac, no “America!” for Allen Ginsberg to scream about. While it’s easy to write off tattoos and comfort food as being on the fringe of this idea of “art,” if we think about what’s accessible and what makes up our culture, more often than not, 24-hour restaurants, never-ending coffee pots and pickup trucks come to mind (opera houses, Dom Pérignon and sports cars — not so much). While we might not think of cigarettes and coffee as lying at the core of American art, these things are definitely significant and influential to many artists, from poet Frank O’Hara and his taxicab in New York to Bob Dylan and his riffs about Maggie’s farm.

The cultural symbols created by the things around us have an impact on what we write and what we create, which makes the mundane elements of diner culture all the more important. We can see this in author and lecturer Gertrude Stein’s book “Tender Buttons,” a piece that consisted of nonsensical prose but was brought together by the overarching theme of common objects like celery, sugar, roast beef and breakfast, displaying these everyday themes in ways that go beyond their cultural meaning. Stein described eggs as “kind height, kind in the right stomach with a little sudden mill,” and milk as “climb up in sight climb in the whole utter needles and a guess a whole guess is hanging.” She presents the idea of taking the immediate world around her and making it into art by seeing it through a new lens.

Poet Frank O’Hara wrote about the same power of recognizable objects in his poem “Today,” which begins with a rag-tag list of objects: “Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas! / You really are beautiful! Pearls, / harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins!” The poetic list creates vivid images of childhood, and walking along the pavement to visit the corner stores that sell such 99-cent objects. O’Hara is aware of the power of conjuring these powerful cultural images when he writes, “These things are with us every day / even on beachheads and biers. They / do have meaning. They’re strong as rocks.” We may perceive the inaccessible, the expensive and the superfluous as “artsy” or culturally important. But for Frank O’Hara, everything we deem ordinary or mundane, everything that is recognizable to us, boring or seen-before is significant.

Maybe we’ve gotten this all wrong. It’s not the haute couture that should be catching our attention, not the desirability of catwalk bodices glittering in a way that only millionaires could afford. What we should be looking for are the ketchup-stained aprons of diner waitresses, the arm tattoos of the Fleetwood chef frying up hash browns for hungry, hung-over customers at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning.

A lot of the celebrated contemporary art around us has substantial roots in Americana and all the word entails, including grimy kitchens and chain-smoking diner patrons. The idea of “low” art should be reconsidered. There’s nothing “low” about Stein, O’Hara, Ginsberg or Dylan, and, if this is true, there’s nothing “low” about apple pie, skull tattoos, deep-dish pizzas and licorice — the images these artists likely grew up with and lived with. In order to create art, we take from what is around us, what is accessible to us — nicotine and caffeine included.

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