If you were shanghaied north of the Mason-Dixon, then dumped off unconscious on Chartres Street, chances are good that when you awoke, you’d have a hard time guessing what country you were in. With narrow streets, 300-year-old Spanish architecture, voodoo shops on every other block, café menus with words like muffalettas, jambalaya and beignets, you might first think of Madrid, Cape Town, or the French Antilles.
But in a deeper way, the French Quarter of New Orleans is the most American city in the universe. It’s a melting pot without the lid, an untempered reminder of our foreign roots. Like the folk world described by Greil Marcus in The Old Weird America, this is a place that stirs the deep, collective recesses of our minds like a tinny, scratchy old Jelly Roll Morton recording. No matter the tone of your skin, there’s some of this colorful, sometimes illicit, old weird America in your blood. (Even before you start drinking.)
Yeah, New Orleans is an American city in the way that jazz is American music. Dirty, classy, rooted, wandering, brash, comforting, loud, soft, ancient and new. And not fond of following rules. If you’re an artist, it’s bound to affect you. Perhaps, after a visit here, your creative process will be hounded by the specter of three centuries of talented but rebellious ghosts are watching over your shoulder. Disrespect them at your own peril.
I felt the ghosts. And I grew to like them.
I traveled down to New Orleans to paint a street mural and do a show with the infamous Red Truck Gallery on Royal Street, owned by one seven-foot-tall man with the curiously Cajun-sounding name of Noah Antieau. (You may have seen him at the fancy art fairs, wearing overalls and drinking whiskey. Turns out he’s from Detroit and is very friendly.) I had created many pieces earlier in the Bay Area, and shipped them ahead, but we allowed both time and wall space to create more works during my visit. I set up a studio in a second floor apartment Noah arranged for me on Dumaine Street, where I could leave the balcony doors open and hear street jazz all day and well into the nights. The ghosts seemed to keep me company around the clock, but they also made sure I put my brushes down long enough to go carousing in their old haunts.
And the ghosts are amazing hosts. They took me around to old junkyards to find shutters and bottles to paint. They showed me voodoo temples and shops. Their architecture is alive with stories. Their food is strange but awesome. Their bars are effortlessly interesting, and seemingly always open. Their music, which is everywhere, is astoundingly good. They can show you how to find the things that tourists miss, or better yet, avoid. The French Quarter is only 78 square blocks, but the ghosts make certain you’ll never run out of shit to see and do here. So consider this a starter kit of suggestions.
Like I said, it’s everywhere. There are well-known venues for sure, but I enjoyed just wandering around, stopping when my ears got happy. Sometimes it was a club, sometimes an outdoor cafe, and often just buskers playing on the street. The music leans towards roots; jazz, blues, zydeco and funk. There are tons of busy places on Bourbon Street, but I liked the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, where the crowds are more local, such as other places like the Balcony, Maison, Blue Nile and the Spotted Cat, to name a few.
The ghosts steered me away from the crowded cafes on downtown Bourbon Street to find some offbeat neighborhood gems. I liked the jambalaya and crawfish etouffee at Nola’s Po’boys, the fried catfish at Turtle Bay, and the crawfish po’boys at Coop’s Place. The French Market does a spicy crawfish boil, well advertised by the big kettle that steams out the window to the sidewalk. The tiny Verti Marte Deli has big, tasty sandwiches, and lots to choose from. I’m not sure how they do it—there are more items on the chalkboard than there are square feet in the place. And the classic original muffaletta sandwich can still be found at the Central Market.
There are tons. I lean towards comfortable dive bars, and the ghosts showed me many. You can carry your drink down the street, and the bars stay open late. Although a bit touristy, I like the Old Absinthe House (built 1806), and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop (built 1722). And in the Marigny, I liked Buffa’s and the Dragon’s Den—where I did my mural. The Den is an old brick building that is rumored to have been a jail in a previous century.
When it was all over, it was hard to leave. I said goodbye to new friends and staffers at Red Truck—Gabe, Rachel, Bryan and Ryan—but I didn’t say goodbye to the ghosts. It turns out they traveled back home with me. I feel them looking over my shoulder right now. I think they’re wondering when I’ll get back to painting.
All right, ghosts, let’s get back to it.
Originally published in the March, 2016 issue of Juxtapoz Magazine, available here.