Most days, artist Bwana Spoons spends his time in his studio using inks and paints to create fantastic creatures such as alligators in raincoats...
PORTLAND, Ore. — Most days, artist Bwana Spoons spends his time in his studio using inks and paints to create fantastic creatures such as alligators in raincoats or ax-wielding walruses.
But on a Friday night last month at Grass Hut, a Portland boutique, Spoons grabbed a black marker and drew 24 lines down a piece of brown construction paper. The lines were for the tournament bracket of the first Pacific Northwest Pencil Fighting Championship.
Beside him, fellow artist Aaron Piland opened a box of yellow Papermate pencils, pulled one out and slid it under his nose like a fine cigar. Piland took an exaggerated whiff and said, “I told my wife about this and she said, ‘What a waste of pencils.’ “
Nevertheless, minutes later, Piland’s wife, Ayuki, and 23 other competitors faced off in a head-to-head elimination contest to see who could break whose pencil first. In a city that spawned “Fight Club” and long has been a training ground for ultimate fighters, a pencil-fighting revival had begun.
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“I hadn’t heard mention of it in 20-plus years,” said Geoff Unger, 36, of Portland. “Somebody said they were going to have a pencil fight, and I said, ‘I gotta see this.’ “
Pencil fighting was a common activity in elementary and middle schools across the nation in the second half of the 20th century. In a pencil fight, one player flicks his or her wooden pencil in a way that resembles a mousetrap snapping or catapult releasing. The target is the opponent’s pencil, which is held horizontally. The pencil that stays in one piece is the winner.
Spoons conceived the Pacific Northwest championship as a way to celebrate the release of “Pencil Fight No. 3.” The book is a yearly showcase of emerging and established contemporary artists in fields such as comics, painting, music, architecture and design.
Bob Imbs, a historian with the Dixon Ticonderoga Co. in Heathrow, Fla., remembers pencil fights as a child in Wisconsin in the 1950s.
The Dixon Ticonderoga yellow No. 2 is the world’s best-selling pencil as well as an implement of choice for many pencil fighters. Recently, when Imbs looked up pencil fighting on the Internet, he noticed that his company’s products were part of the action. “I don’t know whether that’s good or bad,” he said.
Imbs did, however, wonder what an emerging pencil-fighting culture might do for the company’s bottom line. In 2004, the most recent year for which data are available, domestic pencil sales totaled $851 million, according to the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association.
“The new sudoku craze is creating a spike in pencil business,” Imbs said. “Maybe we’ll have to create a pencil-fighting pencil.”
Spoons chose the Papermate American Classic as the standard weapon for his event. That adults were using American Classics for pugilistic purposes surprised Susan Wassel, a spokesperson for Sanford Brands, in Oak Brook, Ill., which owns the Papermate line.
“We do not promote pencil fighting; as a matter of fact, at this moment, we are not even aware of pencil fighting. We think it works really well for writing on paper, but we’re not sure how effective it is for winning pencil wars.”
The winner of the first Pacific Northwest Pencil Fighting Championship was one of the few competitors who had never tried it before. Janet Foxman of Cambridge, Mass., said she had been walking in the area earlier in the day and admired the event’s promotional poster.
Foxman, who grew up in Portland, shunned the standard pencil-fighting attack in favor of an arm-swinging chop, which was within the rules on this night. “I just hit as hard as possible,” Foxman said. “I think the men in the competition were very timid with the flicking.”
Unger, Foxman’s final-round opponent, accepted his defeat but did question the winning technique. “That was never seen in the hallways,” he said. “But it’s like, whatever, we’re having fun here.”