When I was 15 years old, I lived in the suburbs and would often go up to Seattle to visit my older brother. It seemed like a cool place to be. I would go eat at local staples such as Beth’s Cafe, home of the bottomless hash brown’s and the 12 egg omelette, and, being a growing boy, would even go to Gorditos and house the burrito Grande, which is the size of a human thigh, all by myself.
The one place that I really identified with in the city, however, wasn’t downtown or the University District, or even the hipster ass Capitol hill areas. It was, actually, an area called Fremont, which has tagged itself, “The Center of the Universe”. It is often referred to, by those who don’t live there of course, as the bohemian or hippy area of the city. It is also very well known for a tremendous sculpture under a bridge called The Fremont Troll, which brings tourism daily and is large enough to engulf a full-sized Volkswagon Beetle under one of it’s huge stone meat-hooks. I was young, and used to believe that I would live there someday. Guess what, I was right.
I moved to Seattle as, more or less, a transient about a year and 1/2 ago. After bouncing from couch to couch, I wound up staying with my friend Grant in the Fremont district and eventually took over his lease. The apartment building is sandwiched between a rocket, which is attatched to the side of a string of boutiques, and a statue of the Socialist Dictator, Vladimer Lenin, transplanted from the former Soviet Union. In recent years, there had been a surge of promising musical venues and regular concerts from the likes of Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet and other fusion/jazz-hybrid groups. This has all changed drastically and in a relatively short time.
I first met Fawzi Benhariz, commonly known as Benny the Rock-Man, when he came over to visit my then roommate. I was still sleeping on the couch and all of my belongings were in large black trash bags in a doorless closet. We had a brief conversation, based mostly around Jalaluddin Rumi and Sufism. Benny said that he would be back to do a live sculpture for Grant’s going away party, and he was. To the “sensible” man what Benhariz created in his drunken state was unfathomable. Over time, I have come to find out that Benny lives on the streets where he builds gravity defying rock sculptures.
He is an enigma to many and has created, or has had created around him, much controversy. I, however, met him as a human and not as “The Crazy Rock Standing guy from Seattle” as he has been called by elitist dipshits that use his vision to supplement there lack of. He refers to himself as eccentric and he does rant, as most showman do, but maybe if people listened a little, they would realize that he was actually saying something, often quoting great philosophers they are unfamiliar with. If he was in the Cirque Du Soleil people would be dropping $65 a pop on porcelain benny puppets to decorate their children’s rooms.
The sculptor has been interested in the medium of rocks since he was a six year old living in Benghazi, Libya and recently told me that he has lived in the same spot where he builds his sculptures now for the last 5 yrs. He says that he has only left 3 times, Twice to Hawaii and once on a trip California, and then he immediately returned to his location. Early on, he was welcomed much more openly but over time there have been multiple attempts to remove him from the neighborhood.
On his website Rocksandsoul.com, created by a student from the University of Washington, you can see photographs of Benny and his works from over the years. There’s even a photo of him helping a child in an attempt of his own. Seattle Metropolitan Magazine did a positive write up on him, as have other publications. After the Seattle Met’s article was printed however, the negetive press started to roll in. Benny is not as clean cut as he may have once been and, over the years, has began to look more and more like a cross between a Libyan Pirate and Che Guevara (you know kids, the guy on your Rage Against The Machine T-Shirt). His harmonica skills were honed at Julliard and I’m the last guy in the world to tell you that he is not sometimes a bit abrasive, but I feel there is a larger issue here and it deals with the city, as a whole.
He has recently been building more “accessable” structures which are much more difficult for the masses to deny as “ART”. In the last month or so I have seen 3 amazing sulptures in particular. The first was a ship, complete with flag, built entirely out of rocks. Someone from the city threatened to bulldoze it and it was eventually taken down. Next, there was a pyramid. When I asked him about it, he showed me a dollar bill and the controversial Novus Ordo Seclorum pyramid design on the back. Apparently, he later lit up the top center of it to make it glow before taking it down. The most recent large sulpture that he created, was his model of the Alamo. He recently showed me a form given to him by the city with a xeroxed copy of that sculpture on it and a complaint attatched by an anonymous resident. I personally, feel that it is ridiculous.
This article isn’t supposed to be all about Benny, but it does stem from conversations that I’ve been having about particular issues and some of those conversations have been with him. Fremont is a district built on the ideals of art and their artists. There was originally huge controversy over the Lenin statue as well, but now right wing yuppy businessmen and tourists are more than happy to be out there posing in front of it and sharing the pictures with their friends at dinner parties. To use a phrase that Benny is proud to have coined, this town is becoming a town of “Condoms and Condominiums“. It has become a haven for drunken Frat Boys to piss on my porch, knock over trashcans, and get into fights. As soon as I hear the clydesdale-esque strappy shoed clomping of under-dressed girls with low self-esteem outside, I know that it’s “party time” and I await the atrocious renditions of songs like the Wham classic, Careless Whisper to woft shriekenly in through my bedroom window at one in the morning. I opened my door one night to see 2 bodies laying in the wet street, motionless after being hit with a car. I know of an instance where, during a scuffle, a man was pushed into an on-coming pickup and thrown like a rag-doll before being ran over by a second one. You’ll notice that there are no links provided for these stories and that is only because they did not recieve any news coverage. It’s all about revenue here and it’s fucked up.
The music scene here is all but beat to death and the culture here is heading the way of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury. For those of you who haven’t visited in the last 20 yrs, the Haight is basically just a strip of road providing shops commercial space to sell memorabilia for a place that used to exist. It doesn’t look like Fremont can wait that long. Condominiums are already coming in quick with the message, as Benny puts it, “…buy, or you are not welcome here“. It’s ironic though that the person of the day on the chopping block is a sculptor, when all of the landmarks and tourist attraction in the district are either sculptures and/or statues. Nobody gives a fuck about who made the Troll as long as their family can sit on it for a Kodak moment. I say, that they just need to explain to Benny that he’s genuinely and sincerely “in the way”. He’s blocking the spot where the statue in his image is scheduled to be erected.
(for even more about Benny look for the upcoming documentary; link should be provided shortly)
(UPDATE: Last night 7/11/07 the Seattle mayors office (along with the police, ect.) took all of Benny’s rocks away.)
(UPDATE #2: Benny may be recieving a large inheritance due to family land handed down, which is, apparently, spurting out oil in Lybia. This may have an great outcome with an amazing turn of events. Check back to see if the paperwork and everything comes together for him, and wish him luck)