By Matthew Wallenstein
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
I first met Tom Halamoutis when I was in a band and was told the day before we left for a three-week tour that he was our new bass player. In the couple of years we played music together I knew him to be an absolute wild man, but also kind-hearted and loyal. Shortly after the band broke up he moved into his Grandmother’s house to keep an eye on her. This was in Haverhill, Massachusetts where he was from.
After she died, Tom moved to New York. Some of his cousins moved into his grandmother’s place but they had serious substance abuse problems and Tom had his concerns about the house and his things he had left there. He ended up moving back and living there again.
Tom was working at a pizza shop and doing sign painting as a side gig. He taught himself and was pretty adept at it. He also did expressive non-commercial paintings and drawings. Much of it was abstract, a lot of the rest of it was inspired by the underground comics of the ’70s.
He rented a space in an industrial area to use as a studio. It was right down the street from the spot where this shoddy punk venue used to be. I went there all the time when I was a teenager. He cleaned the trash out of the room he rented, swept, painted, made it look halfway decent. When Tom was a kid his father had rented a room in the same building. He installed and fixed large refrigerators. When Tom’s mom kicked his dad out of the house he lived in that office for a while.
Boxford borders Haverhill. It is more rural, smaller, not as densely populated. Tom went running out there almost every day. Down one of its windy back roads he found an abandoned house. Just stumbled on it by luck. It was tucked away, not visible from the road because of the thickly overgrown trees. He explored it. It was pretty run down, the floor was close to collapsing, there was no insolation, there weren’t windows. It was a gutted thing, its innards taken by scrappers, its walls had scribbled dicks on it, had SO AND SO IS A PUSSY graffiti, SO AND SO IS GAY graffiti.
Tom kept passing it on his runs and he got to thinking. All those paintings he had piling up at his grandmother’s and taking up space at his studio, he could hang them out there in that abandoned house. And that is just what he did. He threw some art in his van and drove over. He unloaded it in the middle of the day without interference or issue.
Tom loved looking at art, getting to see it displayed, getting to see it arranged. But he hated the art market for its pretentiousness and stupidity both as an artist and a viewer of art. It nibbled away at the honesty of the thing. He wanted to show art without money or status involved.
He cleaned up the place a little but there wasn’t much to clean. It was in rough enough shape that most people left it alone. He hung the paintings up as one would for a solo gallery show. He took care to make it look just as he wanted it to. Then he left.
It was his hope that some kids would duck in there to smoke weed or explore and would find it, or a jogger, or kids out there riding BMX would come across it, as he had. Maybe it would startle them, maybe a brave one would take a painting home with them.
After that Tom didn’t give it much thought. He still passed the house when he went running but it wasn’t much more than a brief idea.
A few months ago Tom was on his shift at the pizza shop and his phone started ringing. It wasn’t a number he recognized so he didn’t answer. The same number kept calling and Tom went on making pizzas and not picking up.
He forgot about it until a little while later when there was yet another call from them.
Tom gave in and said, “Hello?”
“Is this Tom?”
“Yes, this is him.”
“Did you recently have a large amount of your art stolen?”
Tom was thinking this was probably the beginning of some sort of phone scam.
“No,’” he said.
“Did you move your art into an abandoned house?”
Tom said, “I’m busy, man.” He hung up on the guy. He figured he owned the place and was pissed at him.
Then it was text after text from him. He ignored them. Tom liked the idea that maybe this man was a little disturbed by his paintings being there. After a little while he became curious and read the text messages.
The owner of the house was just asking Tom if he would like the paintings moved somewhere safe. Tom said no, said he made them and that was enough. He said that honestly he just hoped people would find them and have the guts to steal one or two or all of them. He apologized for trespassing. The man said it was alright.
He told Tom his paintings looked almost identical to the paintings of Nik Spatari— a member of his family. He was an artist of some note and the creator of the Parco-Museo Santa Barbara, a museum in the south of Italy. Spatari had died very recently, in August. The homeowner wanted to meet Tom. Tom was hesitant though. He thanked him for being understanding.
After looking up the work of Nik Spatari Tom did think it was very similar in style to a lot of his own work. The colors and execution, the shapes of the abstraction, the overall look is close enough that without being told who made what, most people would not be able to guess with much confidence.
Tom never found out how the guy got his number. He doesn’t sign most of his work, but there is a chance his name was on the back of one and he was tracked down from there.
He has gone on making more paintings, sometimes nailing them to trees in the woods or leaving them to be found in other places. If you ask him he will tell you he doesn’t give a shit what happens to them. He is driven to make, to produce.
He recently wrapped up two sign painting jobs for a restaurant and a food truck and has plans to paint the hull of a friend’s boat.