ITHACA, N.Y.—John Gavin Mahoney, the man behind a graffiti tag that has become symbolic of Ithaca for those who have lived in the area long enough, died last week at the age of 55.
Mahoney had come to Ithaca decades ago after spending his childhood in Apalachin, N.Y. and attending Vestal High School. He was an avid kayaker who worked at Paddledockers in Ithaca, and loved to cook as well, working at the State Diner and the ABC Cafe throughout his life.
Mahoney leaves behind many friends and family who knew him outside of his spraypainting alter-ego. But as word spread online of his death, the tributes poured in from people who were learning the “Lost Cat” creator’s identity only at his passing.
Though the connection between Mahoney and “Lost Cat” was sometimes hidden, it would be difficult to walk too far down a street in Ithaca without seeing the mark he left. The Lost Cat tags are simple, usually consisting of a stick figure-esque cat with eyes, ears, legs, tail and the occasional anus along with the label “Lost Cat” (and, if he was in a certain mood, an uncensored “eat sh*t”).
An interactive map was established online for people to document where they had seen a “Lost Cat” tag. A friend of Mahoney’s, Tony Sidle, estimated that there are probably between 5,000 and 10,000 tags throughout the city and nearby area—Mahoney’s Instagram account shows 240 posts of “Lost Cat” tags of varying size and intricacy.
Mahoney would occasionally tell people he was behind the iconic tag, though he was somewhat guarded about the information since graffiti is, technically, illegal and he’s likely the most prolific offender in Ithaca’s history. Sometimes to a humorous fault.
“We were walking down the street one day and he had to stop at every single parking meter. I was in a hurry, so I said ‘Gavin, do you gotta tag every single meter?’” said Sidle. The two lived together on West Seneca Street when Mahoney first came to Ithaca in the mid-1990s. “He goes ‘It’s personal, between me and the parking meters. And I don’t want you getting into it, stay out of it.’”
Sidle said Mahoney was a very smart and very sensitive person, two traits that contributed to his choice to live homeless for long periods of his life. Though Mahoney consistently had a job, he often lived in “the Jungle,” the homeless encampment in Ithaca, where he was more likely to be left alone. Even there, though, Mahoney showed an uncommon sensitivity to his surroundings—he constructed small gravestones in the shape of a cross to commemorate the deaths of people he knew, either from “the Jungle,” the wider homeless community or otherwise.
Once the number of crosses climbed to about 30 last year, Sidle said Mahoney destroyed the crosses out of pain and frustration. Richard Rivera, the Outreach and Reentry Coordinator for Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources, a local organization that deals with the homeless population regularly, said Mahoney’s death signals the end of an era in “the Jungle.” He was a respected figure among the homeless population who cleaned up needles and trash and set norms of behavior for those who lived around him, Rivera said.
“He was more than just a graffiti artist in town, he was a person who was an integral part of the homeless community as it existed prior to all these deaths,” Rivera said, referring to the aforementioned deaths for which Mahoney made memorials. Rivera found Mahoney’s role so interesting that he became a central figure in a research paper Rivera is writing about the culture of the Jungle.
As time went on, Mahoney became more intentional about his art. Rivera said he began to make small tags of “Lost Cat” with nuanced indicators, like the legs or tail pointing in a certain direction, which would lead somewhere safe for someone who was struggling with homelessness and perhaps new to the area.
“Parking meters will have signs, walls will have signs, newspaper boxes have signs,” Rivera said. “Those pieces serve as a language. […] Follow the cats, and they’ll take you to places where the homeless hang out. Imagine a winter night, and you’re trying to find a place, and you start seeing ‘Lost Cats.’ It’s like a map.”
The origins of the tag are a bit murky. Sidle said while he doesn’t know how he settled on the exact art for “Lost Cat,” Mahoney began drawing it in 2007, starting by just scrawling it onto paper plates and hanging them on telephone poles and signs.
“He was calling himself the Lost Cat,” Sidle said. “It’s more like the jazz term. ‘That dude’s a real lost cat.’ I feel like the reason that people from Ithaca liked it so much is that so many people from Ithaca are individuals, and then there’s the influx of transient people for school or other reasons. They’re not home so they’re a little lost. So everybody here can identify with being a lost cat.”
Rivera concurred, saying that “Lost Cat was supposed to be each and every one of us.” Sidle and Rivera noted the connection to jazz music, which Mahoney loved—when Rivera first happened upon Mahoney’s encampment in the Jungle, there was a large “Lost Cat” mural featuring musical notes coming from the figure’s rear end along with the words “Mood Indigo,” a reference to the frequently-covered song originally by Duke Ellington.
It reflected a bit of Mahoney himself, as well. Sidle joked that Mahoney was “a bit of a cat” in that he would wander around alone at all hours, often tagging new “Lost Cat” designs.
“He liked to prowl around at night, and he always seemed to show up at my house at dinnertime,” Sidle said, laughing. Mahoney was, as Sidle said, a deeply loving person, yet “could hold a grudge, but couldn’t hold his tongue.” Sidle said Mahoney would frequently leave small trinkets with “Lost Cat” designs on his doorstep at night. In his memory, Sidle revealed plans to find a place around town to install a six-foot-tall statue of “Lost Cat,” a memorial figure featuring the cat’s head and spelling out “Lost Cat” vertically to make the body and base.
Meghan Mahoney, Gavin’s younger sister, recognizes some of her brother’s artistic whimsy Sidle describes, though she stopped coming home for holidays once their father died so it had been over a decade since she saw Gavin. She remembers that he used to make flip books out of notepads when they were kids, and that he would hitchhike and never wore shoes in high school. Despite that oddball behavior that might lend itself to some sophomoric bullying, Meghan said her brother was always well-liked by those around him, even if he didn’t always reciprocate.
“He didn’t like standard society stuff, he wanted to do his own thing, not just what was expected,” she said. “He did his own thing, but then he also helped others, he was always watching out for other people.”
While Mahoney is interested in collecting some of her brother’s art, she revealed that not even she knew of her brother’s public art escapades, and especially not that one of his figures had achieved a cult hero-like status.
“I didn’t, but it doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s so him,” she said, laughing. “I can see him in the drawings. It’s just so him. Especially to do it anonymously, I can picture the smirk on his face when somebody might bring it up and he knew it was him and they didn’t. It would just amuse him to no end.”
But his local cache and reputation, even if anonymous, has become very obvious from the reaction since his death, she said.
“I wish he knew how much people cared, I don’t know that he did,” Mahoney said. “I don’t know that any of us do. We should all have this kind of thing in our lifetime instead of after. People should know how much people care about them.”
Services for Mahoney were held April 27.