March 12 2010 12:00 AM

An ubiquitous Lansing graffiti artist remains at-large


Who is man or woman behind the slender black tag “Powk” that is scrawled on benches, stop signs, utility boxes and telephone poles around Lansing?

We don’t know. And unless Powk is caught with a spray paint can in hand, or decides to reveal his or her identity, we will probably never know.

But take a walk around northwest Lansing and you’ll see Powk’s mark: At the corner of Oakland Avenue and Cedar Street Powk is on a telephone poll, the back of a stop sign at Kilborn and Walnut streets, a bench at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Willow Street, and in several spots in the vicinity of the Saginaw Highway bridge crossing the Grand River.


Powk’s identity eludes us, but exploring the etymology of the word “powk” may offer an idea about who this graffiti artist is, and how he or she chooses a spot to tag.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, “pouk,” which has a variant spelling of “powk,” means “a sty on the eyelid, or a pustule, which is much like a boil or pimple.”

Is Powk making a political statement about the decay of infrastructure?


Tess Tavormina, a professor of medieval literature at MSU, says “powk” is found most commonly in British regional dialects.

“‘Powk’ meaning a pustule is apparently related to the words pock and pox, as in chicken-pox and small-pox,” she said.

There is a similar word, “plouk,” which is an etymologically distinct word in Scottish and northern English dialects meaning a pimple or zit.

One more interpretation that Tavormina was able to discover was that “powk” is an olden spelling of “puck” or “pooka,” which are both words that mean goblin or mischievous sprite in English and Irish folklore — like the character Puck from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In Middle English, a related word is “pukel,” which J.R.R. Tolkien uses as a name for a minor race in his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.


“The spelling ‘powk’ would be an odd choice for that meaning, since both “puck” and “pooka” are relatively well-known words in modern English, at least among people who know folklore or fantasy literature, but it might be possible,” Tavormina said.

According to a Feb. 10 entry on the Web site powk is, “A placeholder word that can describe the end of an action, a surprise, a confirmation, etc.”

If you're reading this, Powk, let us know.