You may not recognize Jacob Christiano, but if you spend any time in downtown St. Petersburg, you've probably seen his work.
His lines of poetry, seemingly typed out on the sidewalk by some antique Technicolor typewriter, appear randomly on Central, First and Second avenues. An afternoon rain erases them, and then a day or two later, there they are again: half-block-long messages of love, loss and inspiration. And, perhaps, a short line about the Stanley Cup.
But those really in the know head to the Wachovia Bank sidewalk opposite Baywalk on Second Street and Second Avenue. Every Friday evening, the itinerant 34-year-old works diligently with a bucket of water and several pieces of sidewalk chalk. This Friday evening is no different: Christiano sits on the sidewalk carefully hand-printing "Star Boulevard," a heavy-hearted poem about a chance encounter with a prostitute at a downtown street corner. When the 34-line poem is finished, it will run 10 yards to the corner of Second Avenue.
This poem is similar to Christiano's other work, combining the grit of Charles Bukowski with the melancholy of Leonard Cohen (his favorite poets).
Since he began writing on the street three years ago, Christiano has built quite a following.
"Keep doing what you're doing," a woman leaving BayWalk calls out to him.
A teenage boy skating past yells out a "Hi, Jacob."
"You're the man?" inquires a bearded, bespectacled professor-type strolling past. "Outstanding work! Everybody at my condo knows about these things and looks for them."
"I guess I'm a little famous around St. Pete," Christiano says. "There's really nowhere else I can have the same presence as here."
He finishes another few lines; dipping his chalk in water so it adheres to the concrete better, he carefully forms each word in serifed lettering. When he moves to a new line, he changes chalk color.
"You write that poem on a street corner and walk away and it lives on," he muses. "Some drunk couple is going to come stumbling by and read this and maybe for one moment they will feel that spirit."
Jacob Christiano was born Hans George Honschar on Feb. 28, 1973 in Nova Scotia, Canada (he adopted the moniker Jacob Christiano when he began sharing his poetry). When he was still a toddler, his mother and father moved to Carrollwood. Christiano says home life with his father soured after his mother died of breast cancer when he was 13. At 17, he ran away to Canada to discover his birthplace and his mother's hometown. He needed to escape.
"Some advice," Christiano offers. "Don't run away if you want to become a lawyer."
For the next 13 years, he drifted through Canada from Nova Scotia to British Columbia and in and out of love, leading him eventually to write poetry. In 1994, while in Montreal, he began reciting his poems on street corners. When he returned to Tampa in 2003, he decided to print his poems on the street.
"It was a way for the material to breathe," he explains. "I knew my words had strength, but you have to communicate that to other people."
He completed his first piece on the sidewalk in front of the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City.
But Christiano's life remained as ephemeral as a poem chalked onto pavement. He bounced between rooming houses and the street, devoting his time to writing poetry. He avoids regular employment — less time to write, he says — and sleeps under an "undisclosed" awning in downtown St. Pete. What's more poetic than being broke, homeless and alone?
"You have to live a poem before you can write it," he says.
Christiano has almost finished the second stanza when two teenage girls in tank tops and shorts pass by and Christiano engages them, asking if they want a sheet of poetry. One of the girls recognizes him from a previous week.
"He doesn't give it away for free," she tells her blonde friend, and they walk away.
"I do ask a dollar on the poetry, because otherwise they'll throw it away," he explains.
Christiano estimates he makes $200 a week on the streets of St. Pete. On a busy First Friday, he can make as much as $150 in a single night. Not bad for an unpublished poet.
"It's meager," he admits, "but I'm very happy."
At one point in the night, six people surround the poem outlined in bright yellow, pale green, dark blue and orange.
"Poets used to be rock stars," Christiano says. "I would like to be the sidewalk poet laureate of America."
The challenges facing a sidewalk poet are numerous: raindrops, obnoxious drunks stepping on his words, security guards and police. The last two used to be a constant problem for Christiano.
"Policeman as editor doesn't work," he deadpans.
Although St. Pete's graffiti ordinance exempts "chalk and other water-soluble markings," Christiano claims officers used to harass him and call his poems "graffiti."
"I'm not defending gang territory here," he says.
But that's in the past. Now, Christiano spends most of his time on Wachovia Bank's walkway, where he says the bank's security guards allow him to work outside of business hours.
But on a weekend afternoon in Tampa, where he plans to write his love poem "Euphoria" on the plaza outside the Tampa Museum of Art, Christiano remains very alert. He's already heard a woman on a loudspeaker kick some skateboarding teens off museum property. He finds a small spot behind a wall.
"In Tampa, it's a guerrilla situation," he says. "I really haven't found a place here I'm comfortable with."
But he takes out his iPod and a small speaker system anyway and plays a Bob Dylan CD. He begins the first line in yellow — the color catches the eye, he says. Almost immediately, people wander up.
First, a Cuban family asking for the nearest restaurant. Christiano directs them to Ybor City in perfect Spanish. Then, a tall woman in a tight red dress saunters by. "It's very beautiful," she says. Christiano flirts a little: "I'm single and famous," he says, making her laugh and blush.
He spends an hour and a half on the piece (the average poem takes two hours), and as he signs his name, a security guard making rounds sees him.
But, just in time, Christiano's done and he walks away, leaving the guard to wrestle with his poem.