Removing the Keystones (Benny “The Rock Man”)

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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.

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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.

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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)

-Dead C

(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)

Dead C

Located in Seattle, Dead C is the founder/editor, as well as the principal writer and photographer, of Monster Fresh. Creating the site in 2007, he did so with a specific dream in mind. Unfortunately, being a muscle relaxer-fueled fever dream, it's hard to recall all of the details. "I remember that my mom was there, but it wasn't actually her in the dream, it was actually 70s heart throb, Jan Michael Vincent. And everything took place here, in this room... but it wasn't actually here... it was different. The colors were washed out and, for some reason, there was a raccoon kicking it with us and it was wearing a holographic monocle."

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  • iPear

    White power.

  • aanis

    im from benghazi. seattle used 2 be where real artists escaped to. now it looks like the grove, or the renewed sterile pomo look they’ve given nyc’s 21st century antipersonality office cubicle for todays american psycho. ps:the white man is almost extinct

  • suzy strychine

    Benny does nothing but trip out, bother people, and piss all over the buildings, I used to work in fremont and hes nothing but a scam. The rocks are cool but he uses his “art” to buy crack rocks. I dont feel bad for him.

  • I honestly don’t doubt that you did work in Fremont, most likely at a shop with pretentious hipsters selling $400 jeans, but an important thing to keep in mind is that you were a visitor. I actually live here, as does Benny, regardless of if he has rent money or not, and the issues of this district are priority and ethics.

    To accuse him of being a “scam” is unfounded and ridiculous. If you’ve ever sat and actually spoken to him, you would know that he can tell you the history of his art and is very well educated. He told me that he is much more proud of keeping the art alive than if he were actually the one that invented it, because it is almost extinct and he has much pride in referring to this and other arts. He believes in it, and any implication otherwise is complete bullshit. You would also know that he gives money away to other shelterless people in the area that don’t attract as much attention. Almost every single time I am with him, I see him collect money for others and give it away.

    As for your claim that all he does is “piss on buildings” he’s homeless, unlike the frat boys who are encouraged to come spend their money here and actually do piss on my windows, door, and plants on a regular basis.

    He wasn’t asked to leave the area, instead he had his rocks taken away, and, if you think that he is a waste of space, I have a question for you, “Why would they remove from him the one thing that allows him to be make viable contributions to the area?”

    I have an answer too, “Because he appears unsavory and effects the revenue.”

    The question isn’t about if you like him, it’s about rights and it’s also about why they did it, and I seriously don’t believe that they did it for any other reason than control and money.

  • your mom

    iPear (08:27:54) :

    White power.

    insightful as always mr. pear =p

    ..anyways

    Fremont as a counter culture haven is over, the hippies and yuppies fought it out and the yuppies have won…move on.

  • Where have a heard that before……?
    Oh , yeah
    “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost. My advice is to do what your parents did; get a job, sir.”

    That doesn’t address the fact that this is becoming a violent and destructive area where harrassment is justified and encouraged.
    The plan might be to yuppify the area and to make money but they are still trying to do so by marketing it for the counterculture.

  • chris

    i feel for the man and i i also feel for you as to how your town has become a Shit hole of business and i am sorry to say the american way.. take what you want from some one else..

    my only advice see if its possible to buy said artist a lot or a space or something were he can continue to delve into his art and not be in the way.. as to your town become yuppy vile ~sigh~ no matter what any one says a sledge hammer is still the worlds gratest motivater..
    oh and the troll that lives in your town. i will not be bosing on it nor will there be a photo of it or me on it in my librarys i dont do trends.. but one of john lennen yes because i like lennon he got done what needed doing.. maby your fellow artist should consider that and fight back against the yuppys.. :)
    just my thoughts.

  • blasticcio

    I don’t believe there was ever a fight for Fremont. It was never really contested. As it is all over this nation, the landowners have all the power. The so-called hippies simply didn’t have the buying power to hang with the so-called yuppies when those who claim to own the land turned the place into condoville and installed shops where trust fund kids can find the weekly fashion styles. Benny has the right idea, and it’s too bad other artists aren’t out there on the street keeping it real with him.
    Anyway, the hippies were of a different generation alltogether. It’s a label that doesn’t fit anymore.

  • I just have to say that Benny and Fremont go hand in hand. Its been several years that I have been hanging out down in that part of town and its just not the same when Benny isnt creating.

  • Hi – nice article. As the developer and sponsor behind Benny’s website – I wanted to notify you that I have turned it off. I have been paying the hosting and registration fees for over 2 years now after leaving Seattle. I have not had contact with Benny for quite some time so if somebody has and / or would like to continue the site, let me know (and get his permission) and I will hand over the sources. Allthough I have doubts, I really hope he is sitting at a pool somewhere and is enjoying his “inheritance”.

  • 4wrd

    I live in fremont and walk by benny every day. Somedays he is friendly, sometimes he is growling at people. I dont see why people bother him so much or make such a big deal over him hanging out, he sits in the same nook he always does, he actually does sweep and keep it clean and there is nothing around the specific area where he sits and makes his sculptures. He has NEVER asked me for money nor have i seen him asking for change.

    on a good day, If you ask him nice he will let you try and balance a rock. believe me he makes it look very easy.

    sad to say that yes the condos are here, but look around. its not just fremont.

  • To add to Ian’s comment above about Benny’s website… with the support of some of the local businesses and with Ian’s cooperation, Benny’s website is slowly coming back to life again at http://www.rocksandsoul.com/ — various Fremont photographers are contributing some time and effort to put together a gallery of Benny’s work, and to put together posters, stamps and so on with Benny’s work on it, which he can sell (and which some of the local shops will sell for him) rather than asking for donations.

    The man’s had some tough times, and he’ll be up front that his behavior hasn’t always won him supporters (especially when he’s at his worst). But he’s working pretty hard at trying to turn his act legit, and do organized rock-shows. And he’s getting support from the community this time on trying to do that. :)