It's hardly the bathroom's cutest graffiti, which would be a wonderful cartoon turtle, but it's certainly the most apt. It reads: LONG LIVE JIM PIRTLE.
Pirtle owns the building that houses Dean's and the neighboring Notsuoh (314 Main). They're two separate bars that function as one big double bar. Initially they appear equally bohemian, but a few minutes in both reveal the differences.
The Dean's side is a bit more streamlined, a bit more pulled together. Inverted umbrellas dangle from the ceiling, vintage dresses hang on a rack and various bits of art are thrown about, sure, but mostly everything feels practical.
Notsuoh ("Houston" spelled backwards) is more off-kilter. It's scatterbrained, bizarre and artistic, and smells like what it probably smells like when someone casts a spell.
Dean's is the ego, Notsuoh the id. It can all be a bit confusing, and even a little overwhelming. The building's murky history includes a dance club and coffee shop and a fire in 2002, and now a lawsuit.
The plaintiff, Nathan Fisher, claims he was served after hours one evening in 2009, and his extreme intoxication caused him to fall through a hole in the wall on one of the bar's upper floors. He is seeking damages including medical costs and lost wages from Pirtle, his partner Melissa Bosch and the limited-liability companies that control both Notsuoh and Dean's.
Pirtle will not comment on the suit, filed last summer and still pending in Harris County court. Despite his name growing in stature as Notsuoh has grown in prominence (and notoriety), and despite situating himself long ago as an artist with seismic ideas, Pirtle is mostly a hesitant personality.
He is definitely unassuming, possibly brilliant and unquestionably eccentric. One time he draped his house in fabric, and another he injured his back during a bit of performance art in which he jumped off a ladder.
Tonight, a warm summer night, Pirtle sits outside Notsuoh in a T-shirt and shorts, talking with one of the bar's regulars, Bob Warnock. Smoking a cigarette, Pirtle answers questions deliberately and thoughtfully.
He discusses the differences between the two bars easily, like a father talking about his daughters.
"Dean's is less cluttered, kind of a New York bar," explains Pirtle. "At Notsuoh, you're inundated by stimulus. You either love it or hate it. If someone can get past the first bicycle [hanging from the ceiling near the entrance], and they can meet some of the people, they can get to what is the real part of the bar: the conversations and the intellect and the interactions that take place inside."
"The regulars that come here — you've got everybody," interjects Warnock. "One guy, he directs orchestras, he's from Australia. Another guy is from NASA. There's a CEO of an energy company, schoolteachers. I've had some of the greatest conversations of my life here."
While the two men talk, a band in Dean's runs through a medley of hits, blending U2's "With or Without You" with Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" with Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." The people inside sit and talk and wander from the bar to the outside area and back.
At Notsuoh, a four-piece band wanders through some wordless musical improvisation while some hazy-eyed folks watch, two older black men play chess in front of a large picture frame, and one of the bartenders describes the band that preceded them as sounding "like Squirrel Nut Zippers, but more adventurous."
There are a thousand different knickknacks inside. Art that has hung in the Menil (1515 Sul Ross) or in New York museums hangs alongside pictures of large cartoon women in thongs.
Pirtle ultimately describes the compound as a "social sculpture," likening it to a large fountain in the middle of a European city.
"Eventually, the people that come, they're more important than the art or the structure," he says. "That's why you go."
Two things. First, last year, actor Robert Pattinson found his way to Notsuoh. He apparently had a grand time, going so far as to mention it later in an interview. He hung out, talked to some people and even played a bit of guitar during a jam session while he was sitting on a Dracula pinball machine, a story that will forever be tied to Notsuoh. Henceforth, no one will ever, for the rest of time, be able to write about arguably Houston's most ultra-indie bar without mentioning the biggest teen megastar of this generation, which seems bizarrely appropriate. Also, local rockers Satellite Brigade will be performing at ECHO Lounge (1515 Pease; formerly Jet Lounge). Go see them and scream loudly and buy at least one piece of merchandise. It is your civic duty.