Published on November 11th, 2013 | by Brian Hagenbuch13
Axel J. Moeller’s Mythic Landscapes
When I first met Axel J. Moeller — mural painter, musician, and medium — he hypnotized me in an alley behind a computer repair store.
I’m not certain the hypnosis was entirely effective, but it was close enough for me. And in Axel’s defense, the conditions weren’t great: the sun was going down and I was underdressed, chilly, and also a bit preoccupied because I was at risk of running late for work. It probably didn’t help that we were standing next to a couple of garbage cans, and, maybe most importantly, I have never been especially open to this sort of thing.
But there’s something about Axel that’s so disarming it makes you want to believe in hypnosis and time travel and fairies and telepathy and aliens.
Axel comes hard and careens wildly, his anecdotes and stories quick and disperse like buckshot. He jumps from tales of his kids (he has eight of his own and a ninth that was “a gift” from his ex-wife’s previous affair) to his past lives, to all the jobs he’s worked (from hospitals to bowling alleys and farms), to the aliens he spoke with in Pocatello, Idaho (Pylon was clearly his favorite), to murals he’s painted and friends he’s had — all this and more in a matter of minutes.
But back to the hypnotism: Axel and I stood in the alley and it was cold and I was underdressed and had to get to work soon. Just when I began to think he may never let me leave, he said: “Don’t worry. I’ll let you go in two minutes.”
And then he did something strange. He launched into an unexpected monologue I later realized was meant to hypnotize me.
He began to describe a bucolic scene in which I am a Native American sitting on a hillside overlooking a green valley where animals graze below.Axel painted a mural on my brain – his inexact details became exact in my mind. When he said “there are animals in the valley,” I knew those animals were bison, and he knew I knew.
At one point, possibly because he noticed I was not fully immersed, Axel made a dramatic and thrilling shift in scene from this pre-Columbian pasture to a medieval castle. And it was there, as I walked through narrow stone halls shielding a candle flame from the drafts, that Axel came very close to making me check out.
I don’t really know what you’re supposed to feel when you get hypnotized. I wasn’t completely gone, but I’d certainly forgotten about my immediate surroundings and that I had spent most of my life scorning the idea of hypnotism.
Later, Axel will tell me, while standing over a five-gallon paint bucket, that he can “open up my computer” and introduce me to my past 100 lives. He will point to the paint bucket, scribing the circular rim with his finger, and say: “I’ll line them up in a circle and you’ll be able to shake hands with all of them. You won’t believe it.”
I will be tempted to take him up on it.
Over the next few days, I visited Axel a handful of times in the alley just off Sixth Ave, between Cedar and Alder. He’s painting a mural on a long concrete wall wrapping around the side and back of Last Stop Computers.
One job has clearly led to another for Axel in this part of Sixth Ave’s business district. Along a few blocks in the alley between Sixth and Seventh, he’s painted hundreds of square feet of his signature nature scenes. He also has murals at the entrances of businesses on Sixth Ave; like the ones on the front and side of the Tacoma Food Co-op, or the one on the Mexican restaurant behind the Co-op, or the one on a shed in an overgrown backyard behind the Mexican restaurant. The more you look the more you see.
Axel’s murals are something like a mythological representation of the Cascades and the mountains around Pocatello, Idaho, or neither. They are real landscapes that don’t exist. They are towering blue peaks over sweeping green valleys, waterfalls frothing white between black rocks, pink and yellow trees dotting verdant plains, lots of water, a jagged royal blue range far off on the distant horizon, a black-grey storm brewing above it.
A couple blocks up the alley from the computer shop, Axel has large murals behind a lawyer’s office. One Axel said he painted in his ‘f and s style, fast and sloppy’, and he’s not especially excited to have us take pictures of it.
The lawyer, he explains, recently made an unsuccessful attempt to get Axel a settlement when a car busted through the window of a shop he was painting, resulting in a cut to his leg that went to his bone. Axel rubs his skinny left thigh through his jeans and grimaces as he tells this story.
His body is ravaged. He tells me that a couple years ago the sheath around the muscles on his right arm came loose, and it was difficult for him to move his arm. He says it’s better now, but it still hurts him. His back hurts. He ambles with a limp. On his left temple is a growth the size of a quarter, sticking out a quarter inch. It’s always caked with dried blood. He paints with both hands even though he’s missing most of his thumb on his left hand.
My photographer points out his missing thumb: “Not sure if you noticed, but you’re missing part of your thumb.”
“It’s funny. I looked the other day and noticed that,” he responds.
Axel tells a story of an accident he had as a nine-year-old boy in Wisconsin, one involving a flagpole and an oak tree that ended with his thumb being ripped off by a thick branch.
Then there’s the issue of his vision. He wears thick glasses that magnify his animated eyes and bushy grey eyebrows. He’s constantly taking his glasses off and on, and says no one can get the prescription right. We go to meet some of his friends in the neighborhood and he asks me for help crossing the street, saying his depth perception is off and it feels like he’s ‘walking on stilts’. When I ask him if he drives he says he does, but is horrified “and other people should be too,” he adds.
Despite all this, over the past three years Axel has transformed these blocks into his own highlands fantasy. He works. He doesn’t seem to stop working. I ask him if he takes a break on the weekends. “Weekends? I have strong ends, but not weekends.”
On my second visit, I’m not sure what to expect from Axel. After having some time to think about our first encounter, it’s a little hard to separate the myth from the fact.
I approach Axel as he’s painting a green prairie underneath a towering blue mountain and he recognizes me and immediately launches into a rather incoherent story about an old friend. He realizes I’m not following him, and moves on to more solid conversational terrain, explaining that he worked late last night on the mural, filling in the round holes in the concrete: “I filled 55 round holes on this part. No matter how hard you try, paint won’t stick to a hole.” This is Axel’s systematic, mathematical brain at work, keeping him grounded on earth. He says at one point he could remember sequences of over 600 numbers. He says he can play 17 instruments.
This is the way Axel’s brain works: “If you can squish a cardboard box with your foot, you can paint. Squish a cardboard box with your foot and you get a bunch of isosceles triangles. They are a bit off. That’s all painting is.”
Past lives and aliens are very real things to Axel, and he knows people think he’s crazy. But his mind is a steel trap.
He starts to explain to me that an alien taught him the Atlantic alphabet, and that it has 28 letters.”’But I already told you about that,” he says, and he had.
At one point he tells me about beating a high level chess player (it took him 11 tries), and I ask him if he still plays.
“Oh no,” he says, “my mind, it’s not what it was. I’m just clinging to it, just clinging to sanity.” He puts his hands out in front of him like claws driven into an imaginary wall, digging in and hanging on.
It hasn’t been any easy road for Axel. There’s a cynicism and honesty to him that is surprising. He’s not looking for pity, but he wants me to know that he knows the score and doesn’t appreciate being mistreated. Axel’s murals are good. There’s no doubt about that, and they are surprisingly cheap. His prices make you wonder if it’s even enough to pay for paint, but he has the numbers worked out.
“I make myself just enough for gas and maybe some groceries. I eat out of the Dollar Store, and it’s the most delicious gourmet cuisine ever,” he says.
Axel enjoys his freedom, but it doesn’t come without a price. He lives in a trailer park in Puyallup without hot water, and doesn’t hide the fact that winter is difficult for him.
“Every once in a while I just jump in [to the trailer] and knock the big pieces off.”
Most of Axel’s life is on a different plane. Linear time is just this thing we’re living out in this little existence on earth, and the rest of it, he says with amazement, is a tangle in the cosmos, where space and gravity and time are far different, where we live an endless multitude of fascinating lives.
“This life is like a rug you roll out,” Axel says, making a motion like he’s throwing a rug out in front of him. You can see where it stops, and you can see Axel sees it to. He shows no signs of slowing down, but he’s 87, and very aware of the far end of his rug.
“There are a few things we can’t learn in heaven,” Axel says, “so we have stop by here to learn them.”
All photos by Matt Small