Illustrated Maps, Illuminated Places


I've been thinking about illustrated maps and how they are still wonderful and necessary, despite the omnipresence of Google, Bing, and Apple Maps. First of all, they are so much fun to "read," especially as they age.

While the maps in my iphone are up-to-the-minute and authoritative, they can't capture the personality of a place and time, or give me a clue about what's special about a neighborhood. That kind of big data is not generated or captured, but interpreted and expressed by an illustrator. 


How does someone illustrate the experience of a place? It's a painstaking process to inventory the landscape, puzzle out the connections, and then hand render it with style. I think of an illustrator creating these carefully detailed tableaus of the Atlanta airport area and it seems so tedious, it has to be a labor of love. Like those illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, drawing a map is a solitary, meditative discipline meant to preserve something sacred. The reader gets a taste of that too–a sense that this place is beloved.


When someone asks me why I live in East Point, or refers to the airport area as a "no man's land," I want to show them the illustrated maps at Boyd Tire Pros. This is an old school tire shop on the northern edge of the airport that's been there since 1967. The wood-paneled halls of their office and "customer waiting lounge" look like they haven't changed much since the '70s, and they include a fine collection of gold-framed promotional maps of the airport area. I imagine the chamber of commerce commissioned an illustrator to produce these pieces, with sponsorships from local businesses like Boyd Tire.


I know these aren't exactly illuminated manuscripts, but nothing better captures the spirit of a once-thriving southside like these maps. This one by Alex Black feels like an early sketch for the Plane Crazy piece I found last year. Badly faded and totally obsolete, these maps are remnants of a lost world.


Since my visit to Boyd Tire, I have noticed that art of illuminating places through handmade maps is very much alive. I picked up a recent promotional map of Hapeville at Beer Girl by local tattoo artist and Hapeville native, Dee Claborn. It's full of inside jokes and hidden spots that even I didn't know about, like the Airport View Restaurant, a lunch cafeteria overlooking the north cargo area off Loop Road.



Then the Bitter Southerner posted a gorgeous Atlanta map by artist YoYo Ferro. It depicts a quirky and personal experience of the city, including obscure sites like the Bankhead Bridge. I love that it doesn't attempt to be all things to all Atlantans, just one person's loving tribute to ATL, circa 2015.


Finally, for my birthday last week, I received a stylized Atlanta map by Archie's Press. It's actually quite helpful for understanding how Atlanta's neighborhoods are connected, but I was slightly annoyed that  certain hoods are emphasized over others (Buckhead vs. East Point, even though E.P. is much bigger geographically). Archie's methodology is unique and his resulting "Map of the Mind," is subjective. It's a reminder that the process of interpreting city data is the tricky part–the human part–of the practice of urban design, because it involves selection and judgement. But how else are we supposed to get at the unique psycho-geography of a place, especially unloveable places like Bankhead or Hartsfield-Jackson?

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The upshot of my little fixation on illustrated maps is that I am now regularly using Etsy in my research as an urban designer. This week I learned about Rustbelt pride and Great Lakes identity by searching the handmade works of artists in Toledo, Ohio. Their hand drawn and hand letterpressed prints are as valuable to my understanding of place as  time spent in wandering the spooky corridors of Google Street View. And they're a lot more fun and inspiring to look at.


Pictures of nothing


Does it seem like I’m always posting photos of urban blight? I guess it’s because I'm a sucker for vintage design and forgotten, unloveable, semi-tragic old junk. But I’m a lousy photographer. My friend Kelso captures the kind of pictures I only wish I could. He lets me steal photos to use on this blog and he’s responsible for the portraits on Skeledog. His documentary images strike me as perfectly “southern,” but like Eggleston, he could be in Japan or Sweden and still get this spooky, wonder-filled richness out of ordinary scenes. Check out his more of his photos here.


Retro Doughnuts

(photo pilfered from RW)

The Krispy Kreme doughnut “factory” on Ponce de Leon Ave has been there since the '60s. When the neon sign out front is switched to “HOT,” you can look through the plate glass windows to watch the doughnuts being born. A conveyor belt slowly moves the soft little doughballs from the proofing racks to the deep fryer, where they are flipped and fried by mechanical tongs. Then, golden and greasy, the naked pastries nose through a cascading sheet of liquid icing. As they bump along the snaking metal track, the wet icing congeals to a waxy shell. Some lucky employee, yawning, latex-gloved, corrals them into dozens, deftly flicking them into a flat white box using an special doughnut-flicking stick. This place has always been a magical fixture on a notoriously rough stretch of Ponce.

A few years ago, the Krispy Kreme on Ponce got a major facelift. Inside and out, the old doughnut shop is shiny and new. It’s now a place where suburban parents and kids, after a show at the Fox Theatre perhaps, can be seen late at night comfortably enjoying their coffee, licking the kreme from their fingers while cracked out hookers still dart along the edges of the parking lot.

They did a nice job with the renovation. It’s all retro chrome and seafoam green and those signature tiny polka dots. And you can still watch the doughnuts being fried and enrobed in sugar. But the wallpaper really bothered me. It’s a stylish collage of black and white photos from the chain’s history. I stood there for a while thinking, Where am I?

Right now, I’m miles away from Atlanta and it’s probably been over a year since I visited Krispy Kreme. But that wallpaper is still so puzzling to me. When I think about my hometown, that’s the kind of thing that fills me with dread. This always seems to be happening in Atlanta¬– they take a real place and tear it down. Or, even worse, they take a real place and make it into a non-place. A movie set version of a place. A parody. I don’t know. There is no there there.

Atlanta is full of non-places. I think Krispy Kreme was just responding to the trend of designing restaurants like a Vegas casinos– safe, phony versions of real places. In the Atlanta suburbs you can visit dynastic China (PF Chang) next to faux Sonoma (California Dreaming) next to Margaritaville (Bahama Breeze, Joe’s Crab Shack) next to Irish pub (O’Charleys). Around the corner from the Krispy Kreme is a condo complex called The Savannah. Why couldn’t it be called The Atlanta? What would that look like?

(Even when I was a kid, Bennigan’s kind of bothered me. All those fake antiques hanging on the walls… where did they come from? And what were they doing there in Stumptown, overlooking my baked potato bites?)

Why not just find some authentic period wallpaper? Rather than just restoring the ‘50s-era coolness of original Krispy Kreme, they made the place into a safer, franchisable version of itself. It could be anywhere. It’s like they’re cannibalizing their own brand. The doughnut eats itself. Twenty-five years from now, what are they going to use for decor?

Why its hard to get into Poetry around here.


I’m taking baby steps into the magical world of Poetry, right? Trying to convince myself that its relevant and substantial and not just for angsty teens or the overeducated NPR crowd (I qualify for both categories). I don’t have these issues with music and visual art, I guess because I know what I like. But poetry is such a struggle. I just haven’t found a literary scene around here that appeals to me on all aesthetic levels.

So I’m trying to fit more poetry into my days. And that means reading more poet’s blogs. Attending readings. Supporting local writers. Not immediately cussing and changing the channel when some poet starts over-annunciating on the radio.

To this lofty end, I was excited to stumble upon Poetry Atlanta and the Atlanta Review today. And then mystified by the utter disregard for design. The above "pond" is what greets you on the homepage. Despite this design philosophy, this is no amateur organization. They have grants from city, county, state and national arts foundations. These people are published, highly educated and acclaimed poets. And they’ve compiled loads of valuable information here.

But I couldn’t get past those spirograph-looking things. I couldn’t even bring myself to read the guidelines. And the red sperm? Is this a joke? I feel that I risk invoking some seriously bad Poetry karma for airing my grievances this way. But this is why the thought of sitting through an open mic night at Java Monkey just fills me with dread.

There is no excuse for bad design. Any design student would do this job for FREE just to have a major arts publication in their portfolio. Do poets think that design is irrelevant or unsubstantial? Something for the corporate world or visually obsessed? Sometimes good design makes words and writing unnecessary, but never, ever vice versa.

Secret Design


It’s the classic graphic design dilemma. You have only moments to grab the attention of passing cars, so what do you say? And what if you can’t say too much? How do you advertise prostitution in the bible belt marketplace? It's a challenge. This should be an assignment for marketing and design students.

Driving into Atlanta last weekend, I fell in love all over again with roadside advertising. My favorite “litter on a stick” ads are for the SPAs. They are bold, bright, indicators of something urgent, something big, I’m not sure what. What are these SPAs? What’s going on inside? It’s a mystery. The colors, images and letterforms reveal nothing. The towering signs are so generic that they actually become tantalizing.

Design that communicates only halfway is often part of a series or a “teaser” campaign. We are accustomed to this kind of advertising...suspense with a purpose. First the question or provocative image and eventually there will be a payoff.

The SPA aesthetic messes with these advertising and design concepts. SPA ads are scaled to grab attention but to communicate nothing.  In saying nothing, they imply everything. My imagination runs wild. These SPAs must be dens of prostitution, happy ending massage parlors. Every once in a while there’s a subtle “oriental” flair to the design. The message I get from the typeface used in “Garden Spa” is: sex slaves that will be deported back to Korea once this place is busted.