Staff Picks: Tattoos, Death Grips, and Love Letters


This Week’s Reading


I’ve long admired Eddie Martinez’s wild, colorful abstractions, but until now, I’d never seen them in person. This week, I saw half of a show at two New York locations of the gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash. In Chelsea, a block from our office, is a suite of big paintings called “Love Letters.” Each of the roughly half dozen canvases are painted on oversize reproductions of personal letterhead: “Sam Moyer and Eddie Martinez” lines the top of each “page,” and their address runs along the bottom. Moyer is Martinez’s wife, so these paintings could be playful messages to her, as though doodled in a moment of affection on a handy piece of paper. Humor runs throughout Martinez’s work: the pun “fine ants” appears in one painting, and his last show at the gallery was titled “Samoneye.” (Get it? “Sam and I”? I love puns.) Drawing is also an essential part of his work. These paintings are based on Sharpie drawings (some five hundred such drawings fill a wall in Martinez’s studio) blown up in size and then rendered in layers of form and color. Floral and cartoon figures and bulbous, Guston-y shapes are camouflaged behind scribbles of brushwork and slashes of spray paint in gray-blue, vivid red, and mustard yellow. Admiring the lines and dripping fields of color almost feels like watching Martinez in action. —Nicole Rudick 


Elaine Castillo.


I’ve been carrying around Elaine Castillo’s novel America Is Not the Heart for the past month. I’ve been saying to everyone who will listen that this book is the next big thing—you heard it here first. My new favorite book, and maybe yours, too, is about a Filipino community in the Bay Area. It’s told through the eyes of a rich girl turned insurgent turned prison camp inmate turned American immigrant. When Hero arrives in California in her thirties, she is a newly minted person. Formally named Geronima and formerly known by the nickname Nimang, Hero is met by her aunt and uncle and their daughter, Roni, an excitable and self-assured seven-year-old covered in eczema. Roni is the gateway into Hero’s new life in the South Bay and kicks off a chain of introductions by which Hero meets Rosalyn, her first friend in town. For three years, we watch Hero repopulate her new self, one genuine friend at a time. Hero’s first encounter with Rosalyn—she offers to wash Hero’s hair while she waits with Roni at Rosalyn’s salon—is enough to make you melt, as is their ensuing courtship. Rosalyn’s subtle flirtations contrast against Hero’s blunt interpretations to create a refreshing depiction of private queerness. This is Castillo’s first novel, and it is masterful. It has drama and tragedy in spades, but it also has so much love of every kind spilling out of its pages that I closed it each night with a huge, warm smile. I might go home and read it again. —Eleanor Pritchett

Letters to a Young Poet.

“Go into yourself. Examine the reason that bids you to write; check whether it reaches its roots into the deepest region of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would die if it should be denied you to write. This above all: ask yourself in your night’s quietest hour: must I write?” A lovely Penguin edition of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, translated by Charlie Louth, encased in a light blue cover marked with gold detail, has been sitting on my bedside table since May. The collection consists of ten letters that Rilke sent between 1903 and 1908, “important for many people engaged in growth and change,” wrote the young poet who received them, “today and in the future.” My sister gave me the book as a graduation gift. “For the existential crisis,” she wrote as an ex libris. But something about the sunshine, and then something about the colors of the turning leaves, and then something about the holiday-lit streets distracted me from the state of my existence and pushed the crisis off—until this week. A month and a half into a new year, the trees and the state of my existence laid bare, I opened my shiny little book. Fitting: the first letter is dated February 17. As my New Year’s resolutions dissipated, Rilke put me on the quest for a deeper resolve. “Dig down into yourself for a deep answer. And if it should be affirmative, if it is given to you to respond to this serious question with a loud and simple ‘I must,’ then construct your life according to this necessity.” To what question would I answer, I must? What must I do? Write? Read? Read, for starters. This letter is only the first of ten. —Claire Benoit




Rappers love to claim responsibility for broken rewind buttons. It’s so common a boast as to be a cliche now, this assertion that one’s lyrics are dense and surprising enough to bear repeat listens. This doesn’t quite translate to the iPhone age. But if there were a way to place a heat map on my screen to indicate where my fingers had tapped the most over the past week, the lower-left quadrant of my phone would blaze with the intensity of a red giant. I’ve been obsessed with the rapper-producer JPEGMAFIA’s Veteran, which is exactly the glorious car crash of an album most rappers could only dream of making. It is so threaded with sound and texture as to be oppressive. Repeat listens are essential. JPEGMAFIA, who sometimes refers to himself with the diminutive nickname Peggy, takes the bit-crushed intensity of acts such as Death Grips and combines it with an astute understanding of 2018 rap cadences, flipping Lil Uzi Vert flows over looping, hypnotic samples and corroded bass hits ripped straight from Yeezus. Elsewhere—and I mean this in the best way possible—you get the sense you’re listening to random files off a hard drive that’s been rotting in someone’s basement for a decade. Somehow, the album feels both completely antisocial—the beats click and clank as Peggy spouts lines such as “4chan on my dick ’cause I’m edgy / Sit your pale ass down, have a Pepsi”—and at once utterly tailored for me. Everything I want is right here: that wonderfully ubiquitous Roland “ahh” sample, lyrical callouts to the stealth video game franchise Metal Gear, and a liberal use of the repeater button. I will follow this self-described “left-wing Hades” anywhere. —Brian Ransom


Still from Manhatta.


Approaching Thirty-Fourth Street, I become a danger to myself and others. I have tripped over curbs, crashed into trash cans, body slammed pedestrians, and wandered into oncoming traffic—all for the Empire State Building. I crane my neck and gawk every time it comes into view, and though I’ve lived here most of my life, it remains to me mysteriously unseen. As the tallest skyscraper among surrounding skyscrapers, the building stands in relation to everything around it simultaneously—it exists kaleidoscopically, through a thicket of buildings that shift at each angle. Thin and solitary from the Hudson, double-breasted and imposing from the north, simply tall when staring up from its base—it crowds out other adjectives. Sometimes only the spire can be seen, an antenna on the skyline. Sometimes two buildings part like curtains and garland the tapering top. Sometimes a building cuts in front of it, and it becomes a piece of mosaic. Sometimes it is hidden away—a magic trick. Always it imparts to me the strangeness of this island. We walk on the bottom of jagged canyons. Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s 1921 film, Manhatta, captures that strangeness when it was new. Of a piece with the “city symphony” films of the era, like Man with a Movie Camera and Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, it is a ten-minute day in the life of Manhattan, intercut with lines from Walt Whitman’s “Mannahatta.” The filmmakers are obsessed with the city’s verticality, its dwarfing of the human. Crowds are shot from above, at strange angles, turning the streets into flower fields of hat tops. Shots look down from tall buildings onto other buildings, revealing a landscape of rooftops, a street above the street. Steam pours from everywhere, as if the city were a single giant machine. One scene stitches together multiple shots to climb a building side, like King Kong. Sheeler and Strand saw that New York and its skyscrapers had created new, inhuman sight lines—buildings gazing at buildings with no thought of people. In an overhead shot of a crowd disembarking a ferry, they look up at the perched camera as they pass— the only faces we see in the film are those turned up to gawk. Almost a hundred years later, that impulse has not abated. —Matt Levin


Peter Carey.


Spring is still more than a month away, but the warmer temperatures here in New York have got me itching for change, a trip, a long drive, something to shake off winter’s monotony. Good thing, then, I picked up Peter Carey’s A Long Way from Home, a book I can only call, however oxymoronic, a domestic adventure novel. Irene and Titch Bobs, a young couple in 1950s Australia, sign up to race in the Redex Trial, a sort of Australian Gumball Rally, as a publicity stunt to promote their would-be Ford dealership. They’ve chosen Willie Bachhuber, their mysterious bachelor neighbor, as a navigator. The novel, narrated alternatingly by Mrs. Bobs and Bachhuber, moves quickly. Titch Bobs’s father, Dangerous Dan Bobs, terrorizes the couple—especially Irene, who sees how much Titch’s father holds him back—by entering the Redex specifically to compete against them. The Bobses are curiously happy, though, and that may be because they are consumed by the present. Irene runs herself ragged trying keep the little crew together, checking in on their children by phone and dealing with her husband’s subterfuge and ineffectual behavior. It’s Bachhuber who notices that something dark and unspoken weaves through their little adventure, or maybe it’s just his life: “We proceeded through desolation, twisting and turning through copper coloured hills. If this was our country’s heart, I never saw anything so stony, so empty, so endless, devoid of life other than predatory kites, circling, while we sat separately contained, our webs of pain and history hidden from each other.” A Long Way from Home is On the Road meets Mrs. Bridge, only funnier and livelier. It’s the perfect antidote for someone with early spring fever. —Jeffery Gleaves

The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter.

Zacharias Lichter is either a philosopher, a madman, a divine prophet, or, most likely, all of the above. The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter, originally published in 1969 in Romania and published in English this year by NYRB Classics, utilized a veil of character study and absurdism to slide under the censors of Ceaușescu’s Communist regime as a sharp critique of the modern world. Such layers now make for an absorbing and, frankly, wild read. The translator, Matei Calinescu, peppers the brief chapters of discourse (such as “On the Realm of Stupidity” and “Regarding the Devil,” among many other irresistible titles) with the dark, strange poetry of Lichter. Lichter himself is a fool and a beggar, but with his ragged assortment of outcast friends and their persistently skeptical attitude toward convention, he is perceived as a threat to power. The only threat to their own way of life is a psychiatrist, the harbinger of structure to their inner worlds. This book is philosophy with a sly sideways smile and a wink, and concisely smart without ever seeming to try too hard. —Lauren Kane


Tattoo by Matteo Nangeroni.


Days after filming several intense, violent scenes in which his recurring character on a popular series was ultimately killed off, my friend went from New York to Los Angeles. Before, he had zero tattoos, but then he got four in one day and then two a few days later. He would have gotten more, but, like a bartender, the tattoo artist cut him off. Since returning to New York, he’s added three more. It’s been a spiritual and physical metamorphosis for him. I’ve never seen him happier. But not everyone is able to pull the trigger, just like that. I still can’t decide what to eat for lunch, and few words scare me more than expensive and permanent. Luckily, you don’t need to get a tattoo to enjoy them. I’ve found a bunch of amazing tattoo artists on Instagram, many through @tattoosnob, which posts images and links to artists’ accounts. Even now that I’ve caught grayscale and look at everything on my phone in black and white, I still enjoy artists like: @losingshape @henbohenning @shouldworry @Sansbavures @seanfromtexas @winstonthewhale @Guillame_smashtattoo @davewahtattoos @vincent_denis @michellemaddison @azamp_ @Otto_dambra  @virginiaelwood @joel_soos @Daisydoestattoos @KillingJakob2 @slowerblack @rachelhauer @taticompton @mikerubendall @toothtaker @robertryan @sewp @jakconnollyart @itsjustcavan and a bunch of others. Maybe you’ll never get a tattoo, or maybe you’ll get covered from head to toe in Fleetwood Mac lyrics and not get buried in a Jewish cemetery. Who can say? In the meantime, Instagram is much less annoying when the selfies and targeted advertising are broken up with beautiful tattoos. —Brent Katz