Eric White comes clean about his two-year-plus graffiti spree
By Chris Busby
Eric White certainly isn’t the most dangerous criminal in Portland, but his crimes are among the most visible blights on this city.
The scraggly 22-year-old from Newport, Maine, started writing the nonsense word “fnord” on buildings, signs and sidewalks around town in early 2003. He estimates there are now upwards of 1,000 such tags spray-painted and written in marker throughout Portland, and countless more in other parts of the United States, Canada and Mexico.
According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the word fnord originally appeared in the Principia Discordia, a cult treatise written in 1965. The term was popularized in the Illuminatus! trilogy by sci-fi writers Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. In Shea and Wilson’s work, the word is said to appear in newspaper and magazine articles about current events, and to cause a vague sense of unease in readers who’ve been programmed not to consciously notice it.
White’s done some of the tagging himself, but since he moved to town a few years ago, four or five others have taken up the tag, as well. One of them, 24-year-old Harry Bishop, is with White in the Cumberland County Jail. The pair were arrested on the night of Oct. 17, after a drunken fnord-scrawling spree on buildings and cars along Marginal Way.
Last June, White was arrested, jailed for three days, and fined $150 for spray-painting the word on the Cumberland County Civic Center.
After this latest arrest, White was originally charged with a felony — aggravated criminal mischief — because the damage from the tags was estimated to cost over $2,000. That charge has since been changed to four separate counts of criminal mischief, a misdemeanor. He is being held in lieu of $5,000 cash bail, but during a recent interview, White said he expects that will be lowered to as little as $500 at the end of this month – a sum he can pay with some of the $6,000 he said he has saved in a bank account.
In person, White is an easy-going, soft-spoken young man – a demeanor one might not expect from someone with the words “sick” and “fuck” crudely tattooed between his knuckes and finger joints. The Bollard interviewed him in jail on Oct. 21. An edited version of that interview follows.
The Bollard: Why would you do something like this? Why write ‘fnord’ on a building?
White: I’ve read one of the books, and it just struck me as a really fascinating book.
According to the books, ‘fnord’ is a word that people can’t consciously see. Do you think people can’t see it?
Originally I didn’t even think anybody would get the connection, besides, like, maybe one or two in a hundred people that might’ve read this book. Then thePortland Press Herald started publishing what it was.
But yeah, it is supposed to be a subliminal message. It’s supposed to cause anger, confusion, and all kinds of different stuff. And it seems to be working, ’cause it does piss a lot of people off. A lot of people around town hate me.
Is this a form of ‘culture jamming’ [activities meant to force people to consider the negative effects of mass advertising]?
Yeah, like [culture jamming], like Ad Busters…. That’s what I would hope to get across, but I don’t think it would ever work…. I think maybe a few people may be inspired to go out and do something, but I really don’t think it’s going to affect many people at all. I don’t think society’s ready to change yet, which kind of sucks.
What angers you about society?
When I look in the newspaper and see 217 new laws passed this session in Congress. We don’t need that. The law originally started out as common law. It was basically a judge that decided whether you encroached on someone or their property. Like, ‘Did you hurt this man or did you hurt his property somehow?’
Just the way things are run, people – I’m at a loss of words right now.
Do you have any other tags?
How long have you been doing this?
When did the Iraq war start?
The invasion began in the spring of 2003.
I came to town the same day the Monument Square protests started, like the official start of the Iraq war. I’ve been doing it ever since then.
What brought you to Portland?
I was originally going to head down to Boston for a little bit because there was nothing to watch on TV. I got tired of playing games on my computer and tried turning on the TV, but there was nothing on TV, so I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll go to Boston.’ I gave up on my plans to run for [Palmyra] City Council. [A town near Newport, west of Bangor]
How many tags do you have up?
Probably close to a thousand, and it’s not just me. There’s a bunch of people that do it. There has been a bunch of people, but it’s down to about five different people actively writing it now. There’s people in Bangor doing it. It’s in Canada, it’s in Mexico, it’s from California to Maine. Every stop on the Greyhound from California to Maine has it.
So this is an international thing?
No, the Canada thing was me, probably like five or six years ago when I was up there, before I even started doing it in Portland. Mexico would be another friend of mine. An ex-girlfriend got people started because she lives in Bangor.
Where have you been living here in town? Do you have an apartment?
I was living with my ex-girlfriend at the time. Kind of. On and off. When I came in [to jail], I was actually working on getting an apartment. I’ve got like $6,000 in the bank and I get close to $600 a month, so I figured I could go in with a friend, but then the friend I went in with wrote a statement [to the police]. I don’t really blame her that much. She’s kind of slow in the head.
How do you choose where to write ‘fnord’?
It depends on how drunk I am. That’s the only time I’ve been caught for it. This is my third time being caught.
What happened the first time?
I faked a seizure and went to the hospital. They treated me for an overdose that I didn’t have. I just started pretending to foam at the mouth, shaking all over the back of the cop car. I dropped some vitamins on his floor.
I went to the hospital. They gave me a ticket. I went to court. I got like a $90 or $150 fine or something.
The second time I got, I think, a $250 fine [it was $150]. But now they’re not offering me restitution or anything. I tried getting the lawyer to talk to the D.A. and say, ‘Hey, [White] can pay restitution.’ I can do whatever – clean up the tags. A lot of people are going around the city for community service cleaning up tags. They’re refusing to let me either do community service or pay fines. They just want me to do straight jail time.
I’m sure that’s what the victims would want – either me out doing community service or paying for their stuff to get cleaned up.
Have you been working here in town?
I’m on disability right now, for lack of a want to work.
So what’s your disability?
Ergo phobia, fear of work. A bunch of mental stuff, basically.
Are you getting treatment?
I don’t really need treatment. It’s just not wanting to work. I have no problem with working if I’m working for myself. I’ve been considering running an ad in the newspaper for computer repair. I’d probably be less motivated to be walking around drinking five liters of wine everyday and writing on things.
Did you graduate from high school up north?
Yeah, I got a G.E.D. and I’m gonna be starting college, hopefully the next semester or the one after.
SMCC [Southern Maine Community College] or wherever.
What do you want to study?
Chemistry and philosophy.
I think most of the public thinks the people who write graffiti tags are just idiots, but you’re not stupid, you’re preparing for college. Is the public’s perception true?
Depending on the people. It’s just like anything else. I’ve met really stupid people that do it and I’ve met some other people that do it. But a couple people are pretty smart and some of them do have, like, a message. Like there’s somebody named Learn.
Yeah, I’ve seen that around. Learn’s still around, huh?
He did part of the legal wall behind the Asylum.
Have you ever hooked up with those kind of graffiti artists?
Nah, I really don’t have much skill. I don’t even really call it tagging.
What do you call it?
Are you sorry for this latest spree?
Yeah. Like I said, I normally don’t tag private businesses, unless I’ve got a reason to, like I don’t like something they’re doing, or whatever.
Whatever the result of these latest charges, will you stop doing this when you’re free again?
I’ll just leave my markers at home when I’m drinking. Cause this time and the last time I got caught I was drinking, and I’m pretty sure the one before it, too.
After you got caught the last time, did you just go right back at it?
Is there anything the city can do to stop this?
To stop me, money would probably be the best thing to take away from me. I don’t have much of it. But they are smartening up some to stop graffiti. All the articles in the Portland Press Herald get read a lot, and people start complaining about it.
They’re also, after they clean off a tag on heavily tagged things – those traffic-control boxes get tagged a lot – they spray this stuff over it that makes it easier to clean off with water and soap or whatever.
Hopefully taggers will just get more creative. Like, when I was arrested, they caught me with a bottle of hydrochloric acid. If you dump that on cement, it bubbles up green and smokes a little bit, but as soon as it rains, that one spot where you dumped it will be bleached white.
Or hydrofluoric acid will etch into glass.
I saw a tag like that on the new bus shelter on Congress and Center streets.
I think they used glass cutters, ’cause I’ve seen a bunch of those around. Starbucks [the one on the corner of Middle and Exchange streets] is covered with ’em. I heard those are like $900 windows.
Was there a chase before this latest arrest?
Me and my friends were going into Arby’s to get something to eat, and as soon as we turned the corner around Arby’s there was a cop there, and then two other ones pulled up.
Do you think the cops are getting any better at catching people like you?
No. They’re not that smart. [Reading from the police report]: ‘In most cases the males used the tag “fnord.” In one place, they wrote: “fuck yo cat.”‘ I don’t think either one of us wrote [that].
You didn’t write that?
I know down in Boston, it’s a felony if you get caught. Somebody was arrested for it down there, got out on bail; a couple days later, just left the state. I believe he’s actually in here right now. I’m not sure if he’s been sent to rehab yet or somethin’. An ex-friend of mine.
Have you seen any tags here, in the jail?
Normally, yeah, there is usually one in whatever cell I go in.
Have you ever put yourself in life-threatening situations, climbing high building and such to do this?
I’ve climbed up ladders before, scaffolding.
Last winter, someone stray-painted ‘fnord’ in big letters, with white paint, on the bricks in front of Longfellow’s statue. Did you do that?
Allegedly that was me.
Last year, someone wrote ‘fnord’ on a stop sign on Lewis Street, right by where I live, so it said ‘Stop Fnord.’ Do you remember that one?
No, but for a while I was making stickers that said ‘stop writing,’ in tiny letters, then ‘fnord,’ in big letters. Occasionally I’ve written ‘ford.’ I’m guessing people either get the joke or think I’m an idiot.
I saw one on a candidate’s sign recently.
I was pulling those up for a little bit and bringing them up to my girlfriend’s; turning the signs around, the paper ones, and writing weird things like, ‘Vote Jesus for Savior.’ I really don’t think I can get into trouble for that, unless they’ve got some sort of permit to put those there. It’s basically the equivalent of littering.
Do you think having these arrests on your record will hurt your ability to find work in the future?
I don’t really want to work. I just want to go to college to learn. I’m not really looking for a career… I might be self-employed.
Do you want to be an artist, or a writer?
Art. I’m not really good at writing. Art, computers, chemistry, that’s my only interests.
You mentioned philosophy. What sort of philosophers are you into?
Nietzsche, random stuff.
Do you have any other charges on your record?
I got probably 20 charges, but they’re all really nothing. I got a disorderly conduct at the Monument Square protests, and I got a couple of thefts, drinking in public, carrying a concealed weapon – even though I don’t really think a flare gun’s a weapon.
A flare gun?
Me and my friends walked around town shooting off flare guns, probably about a year ago – just shooting them up into the air.
The police report says ‘fnord’ is like your religion.
Fnord isn’t a religion, but it comes from the Principia Discordia, which is a religion based around discord. It’s pretty interesting.
It’s mainly a stupid religion. It’s not really something you take seriously-seriously, but it’s fun to take it semi-seriously. There’s only five rules: every Discordian must eat a hot dog, sans bun, on a Friday. That comes from like a variety of different religions… The last rule is a Discordian is prohibited from believing what he reads. You just get done reading these five rules that are supposed to be the things you run your life by, and you’re like, huh?
When will you stop doing this? Will you be 30, 40, 60 years old and still at it?
I don’t know. I haven’t grown up much in my life. Probably someday it’ll stop. I’ll probably be 30 years old, still getting picked up for disorderly conduct, criminal mischief or something.
Are you worried about that?
Just as long as I keep my charges like nothing serious. I’m a pacifist actually. Never even had a violent crime.