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 the Portland 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.