Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Behind the mask: What we don’t know about the Valentine’s Phantom — and why that’s a good thing

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The identity of Portland’s Valentine’s Phantom is the city’s best-kept secret, bar none. And that’s not changing here, so if that’s what you expect from this article, turn the page and see what someone else will do for love, because we won’t do that.

In a city where secrets are few and far between — the PortlandPSST blogger; how much Reynolds Wrap the Tinfoil Man uses each year; the real meaning of the “Tracing the Fore” sculpture — this one has lasted. And lasted.

Each year since 1976, someone (or some group) hangs white pieces of paper with bright red hearts on doors, windows, and walls all over town, and caps off the display with a few large banners and flags slung from prominent buildings (though not the Time and Temp Building yet — we’re waiting...). A similar phenomenon has been going strong in Montpelier, Vermont, since the early 1990s, and someone from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, posted a Craigslist note in December expressing interest in bringing the tradition there.

The most surprising thing is that people don’t actually want to know who is doing it. Even here in the office, as we tried to score an interview with one of the perpetrators, we didn’t want to know. It would have been an anonymous interview. It’s much nicer to not know, really. (One person we talked to did relay a message said to be from the Phantom, saying the Phantom doesn’t want to be contacted, and that if the Phantom wanted to surface, it would have happened long ago.)

The first report of a Valentine Phantom in Portland was in the February 14, 1976, issue of Portland’s Evening Express: a photo and a long caption describing the sudden appearance of red hearts on white paper taped all over the city on Valentine’s Day morning. (The three-year-old girl pictured with the unexplained decorations, now an adult living in Wisconsin, says she remembers it “like it was yesterday,” and has a copy of that picture in her family photo album, but disclaims any knowledge of the people behind the hearts.)

There have been other media mentions throughout the years, in local papers and TV stations, and even on CNN. But only once has anyone actually interviewed the Valentine’s Phantom (and nobody has asked him, or her, or them, whether “Phantom” is the preferred term — “Bandit” is the word as often used in conversation).

That was back in 2005, when Portland City Council candidate Carol Schiller claimed to have started the tradition in the early 1980s (see “City Council Race Hearts Up,” by Beatrice Marovich, October 21, 2005).

As we said earlier, the Valentine’s Phantom doesn’t like publicity, but he apparently likes even less the idea of someone else taking credit for his work. He promptly responded with both paper evidence and a phone call to the Phoenix offices, in which he provided, among other tidbits, a receipt from a now-defunct Forest Avenue printing shop, purportedly for making the signs for the 1977 banditry (see “She Said, He Said,” by Sam Pfeifle and Sara Donnelly, November 11, 2005). And he offered more info on the phone, including the night-time temperature on February 13, 1979 (8 degrees), and the number of people helping out that evening (six).

It’s that last tidbit — long assumed by those who spend much time thinking about it — that makes this annual tradition most interesting. The fascination goes beyond amazement at the increasingly brazen and difficult nature of some of the displays — hanging a heart on Fort Gorges (the same night a Casco Bay ferry reported just barely avoiding running over a small boat containing as many as seven people), running a flag up the Central Fire Station flagpole, hanging huge banners from the Portland Museum of Art and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. The mystery surrounding the Phantom/Bandit’s secret identities is an integral part of the tradition.

If there were just one person involved, the secret could be easily kept, even for more than 30 years. But if six people helped in 1979, how many more have participated over the years? How many of them have roommates, partners, parents, children who might have noticed a door opening and closing late on Valentine’s Eve?

There are a lot of people who claim to know someone who is involved; we’ve talked with dozens of them this week. Perhaps we have actually talked to the Phantom him- or herself, but nobody admitted anything. That’s the most fascinating part of the secret — we’re keeping it from ourselves. We really don’t want to know.

“Historically, graffiti has been about fame,” says local legal-graffiti artist Tim Clorius. (He denies being part of the Phantom group or even knowing anyone who is; we are pretty sure we believe him.) Graffiti artists seek to get their tags in as many visible public places as possible, earning props from peers for particularly difficult-to-reach or especially prominent spots. But in this effort, the tag being distributed is simply a heart, making the anonymity itself the art.

Clorius sees the hearts as a suggestion for something more. He would love to see small, simple, non-destructive works of art all over the city. There is potential, Clorius says, for “all this site-specific work” to move beyond the basic, friendly message of a red heart on Valentine’s Day and raise deep, pressing questions about our society.

The Phantom’s pioneering work in this realm has made for us a model of direct artistic action, aimed dead-on at the general public — unfiltered by the media or a gallery — and with a message whose impact is heightened by serendipity.

Which, it seems, is the precious Valentine the Phantom is really giving us. That secret, at least, is out.

Heart history
1976 The first Valentine’s Phantom strikes in Portland, and garners reports in the Evening Express and Maine Sunday Telegram newspapers.

1977 Printing the flyers cost $22 at Colonial Offset Printing on Forest Avenue; a Portland Press Herald effort to discover the Bandit’s identity fails.

1978 Hearts went up a day late, and bore a note: “It’s not only ONE day!”

1979 The weather was 8 degrees and windy, according to notes made by one of the six bandits.

1984 Massive heart banners, roughly 20 feet by 35 feet, hang from the Cumberland County Civic Center and the Portland Museum of Art.

1986 A heart banner is hung on Fort Gorges in the middle of Casco Bay.

1991 Down East magazine imagines that “the phantoms roam the city in a pack, dressed in red or white capes emblazoned with huge hearts.”

2001 A heart flag flies from the roof of Portland’s Central Fire Station; a fire lieutenant denies any knowledge.

2005 A heart banner hangs from the roof of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute on Commercial Street.

OCTOBER 2005 Portland City Council candidate Carol Schiller claims to be one of the phantoms.

NOVEMBER 2005 An anonymous phantom responds with information that his effort predated hers, and that she has never worked with them.

2006 CNN mentions Portland’s Valentine’s Phantom in a national report.

DECEMBER 2007 A would-be Portsmouth Valentine’s Bandit posts a message on Craigslist, hoping to get some pointers from Portland. No dice, apparently: “If anything does happen in Portsmouth, it won’t be any of my doing.” Sure. Like we’re supposed to believe that.

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