Ghost Writers

Cleveland’s graffiti artists are plenty daring, but are they any good?

Ghost Writers

Some of the best-known painters in Cleveland don't use their real names. They find their fame not in our gallery halls but on our neighborhood walls. Call them taggers, writers, or self-appointed decorators of a city in need of some cheerful color. Their invented names go on and on, like the black book of an underground art-crime syndicate.Of course, they are also vandals — scofflaws breaking the law with each stylized letter they paint. But love it or hate it, graffiti art over the last decade has become an ever-increasing part of our local landscape. And Cleveland offers no shortage of canvas, from our commuter rail system that runs through a concrete trench to our streets, crisscrossed by countless railroad and highway bridge abutments. Few other cities feature our acres of abandonment — ruined buildings that no one but graffiti writers seem to have any use for.

Given the locations of some of their work, their sense of daring seems endless too. They seek out the highest peaks and the walls where freight trains rumble perilously near. They strategize like an army of the night, dressed in dark clothes and plotting their attack. They scale fences and slip through gaps, climb fire escapes and rickety ladders to enter abandoned buildings — all the while racing to avoid the law.

But do they make good art? Do they have anything to say to the rest of us? Do they deliver any new ideas, or is theirs just a collage of fake names scrawled out in fat letters, ego trips that mean nothing except to the writers and their crews? Join us, if you will, for an aerosol travelogue profiling some of Cleveland's most prominent or otherwise interesting graffiti on view across town today.

They Got Skills

Many of Cleveland's graffiti writers show plenty of technical skill. Most know how to keep lines flowing, how to make sure paint doesn't drip unless they want it to. They invent personal fonts that become hallmarks of their work. They start with drawings in sketchbooks, then translate them freehand to mural size.

The fine example above brings this process to fruition. It can be found on the railroad bridge abutment on Chester Ave., near East 55th St. The guys at the car wash there say the city routinely trots out court-ordered work crews on community service projects to buff the graffiti with gray paint. Mostly that's all that remains there now. But a new piece by Hoer and Jiminy Cricket has popped up lately, fresh as a field of spring grass.

It's not intense in color: The lettering is rendered in a diffuse, creamy shade, with forest green outlines and shadows and white accents. But the piece works in a number of ways. Its lines flow consistently, like a Buick from the mid-'70s, and they don't look cramped anywhere. The shadowing is effective, and the green lines here and there across the face of the letters give it the look of something carved out of stone. The words "Car Wash" above offer a polite nod to its surroundings. And at right, Jiminy Cricket himself can be seen chirping the name of the BAK collective, one of Cleveland's most active graffiti crews. (The acronym, which features an angelic halo over the "A," stands not so angelically for "Blunts and Krylons.") Sure it's illegal, but it also brightens up a gloomy drive through the mostly blighted near East Side.

Embracing Danger

Rumor has it that the painter responsible for one of the city's most visible and intriguing pieces of graffiti hails not from Cleveland, but from Brooklyn, New York. The slogan READ MORE BOOKS! and related phrases began to appear around town earlier this year, with the most prominent example rendered high atop the decrepit Clothcraft Building — the former home of a men's clothing manufacturer, at West 53rd and Walworth (see left). Though the building was already in shambles, the artist's daring installation involved breaking and entering, climbing a dark stairwell five flights to the roof, then leaning over the ancient parapet with a paint roller. If you've ever painted your dining room, you know this involved a precarious and protracted bit of teetering on the brink of tragedy, with the ground 50 feet below forever in sight.

The prolific writer has put up similar messages in several locations around town, including simply "READ" on the concrete wall between Carter Rd. and the Cuyahoga River, visible from Columbus Rd. in the Flats (see top left). You can also find his work in San Francisco, New York, and New Orleans.

The letters themselves are exceedingly dull — a whole lot of paint in an unimaginative font, noteworthy only for their size and daredevil location. Not so much a work of style, this one is all about the context and the message. A similarly massive installation by Alot, Milk, and Tems (three of Cleveland's most enterprising taggers) at the top of an abandoned building on Carnegie Ave. shows plenty of ego and danger (see above). But it's very light in the way of artistic skill and offers no message but the fake names of the writers.

In the case of READ MORE BOOKS!, substance wins out over style. By encouraging literacy through vandalism — and at some risk of physical harm — this one gets our attention and makes us think in complicated, perhaps even uncomfortable ways.

Words, Signifying Nothing

A kid in New York once told famed writer Norman Mailer that artists' fake names are "the faith of graffiti," and that became the title of Mailer's 1973 book, now considered a classic on the subject. Its countless photos showed copious tags and vividly colored pieces — invented names in fat letters. Ten years later, Charlie Ahearn's movie Wild Style brought fat lettering to the masses. Nearly thirty years after that, street artists in Cleveland are still doing the same thing. Alas, originality is not one of our strong suits.

The overwhelming majority of Cleveland graffiti artists still risk life and limb to top abandoned buildings, dodge trains and police, and then ... paint their names in big fat letters. It's the street-art equivalent of bubble letters scrawled in high-school bathroom stalls.

The so-called "Fun Wall" at West 27th and Swift is one of those places where people have been painting fat letters with impunity for so long, the layers of Krylon and RustOleum can be peeled off in thick slabs. The example above represents more of the same, but it does feature some distinctive qualities, beginning with the gold chrome paint, contrasted against black with the kind of drama typically reserved for football uniforms and Halloween costumes.

Two distinct styles in this picture indicate that two writers were sharing the gold can. The letters on the left — whatever they may be — are of the kind made by writers playing the fame game: The artist wants you to remember who he is. But if you can't make out the letters — even if their flowing convolutions show balance and symmetry — you can't very well tell someone what you saw.

Meanwhile, the letters on the right, SENR, are as clear as Helvetica type, and just about as interesting. We appreciate the figure drawing, but there's nothing to be gleaned from this clean, well-executed character — unless the implication is that aliens have landed in the desolate landscape of the southwest side.

Graffiti's Cousin

It's not a surprise that stencil and wheatpaste artists get lumped together with graffiti, even though their medium is very different. Stencil artists use sharp knives to cut images in cardboard, then hold the stencil up to a wall or other canvas and spray-paint over it to create their image. Wheatpasting involves making your posters at home — be they cheap photocopies or carefully painted originals — and sticking them on walls using flour and water paste. Both forms are almost unheard of in Cleveland, so it was a pleasant surprise when wheatpasted, stencil-style faces began to appear around town in the last year or so.

The large black-and-white visage of 1960s soap-opera vampire Barnabas Collins (see page 18) first appeared on a bridge on the East Bank of the Flats in July. It wasn't hard to track down the culprit — a graphic designer who refers to his work as "The Face Project" (the word "Face" can be seen in the corner of each piece). He launched the effort in April 2009, he says, choosing faces that have had some impact on culture and the way we think. He seems to have a thing for vampires: besides Barnabas Collins, his faces include the original Dracula, Bela Lugosi. Go to his website (, and he'll gladly sell you his stickers. "Billboards and advertisements are everywhere, but there's barely any public art," the entrepreneur writes. And in a kind of artist's statement, he says his faces "advertise nothing but themselves." No points for originality there: Promoting their creations is the sole mission of just about any graffiti artist.

Again, what we've got here is a failure to innovate. Most of the Face Project's installations are mostly not originals, but large photocopies or silkscreens of digital images. They also happen to be very much like one of the most ubiquitous street art-campaigns ever: Shepard Fairey's Andre the Giant OBEY stickers and posters, which Fairey and friends distributed by the tens of thousands as an "exercise in phenomenology" starting in 1989. His idea was that simply by proliferating, the meaningless image could become important. (If nothing else, Fairey himself became important: His image of presidential candidate Barack Obama painted above the letters "HOPE" spoke for millions who found themselves disillusioned by post-9/11 America.)

Still, Face gets props for doing something nobody else in town is doing — and for picking quirky relics of pop culture such as Barnabas. But if that's all it is — and Lord knows there's no other obvious reason to exalt the fictional star of Dark Shadows in such a way — then it falls far short of its culture-jamming potential, an area in which Cleveland artists are also conspicuously light. Witty dialogue among faces? Faces of local politicians? Faces that relate in some way to their locations? And what about Jimmy Dimora? This is a medium — and a project — with all kinds of unexplored potential. Even little kids know that their stick-figure pictures of the teacher are more interesting when they have something to say.

Reason to Smile

Cleveland street art is not without its innovators. Take the Sign Guy. He used to paint an invented name in fat letters, but after getting busted in a local railroad yard about five years ago, he switched to painting birds and google-eyed, triangle-toothed monsters on recycled signs, scraps of wood, and banners. His placards appeared on phone poles and sign posts all over Tremont, attached by means of the screw gun he kept in his trunk. His cheery bird banners proclaimed "Go Tribe!" and "Jesus Saves" from the chain-link fences on highway overpasses.

Sometimes his cartoon menagerie even appeared on concrete walls — as it does on the so-called "Salt Mine Wall," a stretch lining the Cuyahoga River's west bank in the Flats, a communal canvas for generations (pictured above and above right). Over the years, just about every significant street artist in Cleveland has splashed his mark there. (It also happens to be one of Cleveland's most visible, physically safe, and ultimately harmless places to mark — in terms of property damage, if you obsess over such things.)

The Sign Guy once bought a piece of art from a ten-year-old. The kid had seen his monster creations and engaged in the sincerest form of flattery by producing a dead-on replica of one in chalk on a scrap of cardboard. The replica and sale bring to mind that oft-repeated, shoot-from-the-hip criticism typically reserved for modern artists of the squiggly line variety: "My ten-year-old could do that!"

But the child-like naïveté of The Sign Guy's monsters and birds are a big part of these works' appeal. Their bright palette and cartoony charm are accentuated by the contrast against such gritty surroundings. It's hard not to smile when one of these creatures peeks out from the decay.

Urban Wallpaper

Perhaps the best way to look at the pileup of fat letters on Cleveland's most notorious graffiti shrines — namely the Fun Wall, the Carter Rd. "Salt Mine Wall," and along the RTA tracks — is to take them collectively, as what one Cleveland graffiti guru calls a "palimpsesto." The Spanish word refers to a document or canvas that's been written over; it also describes the accumulation of layers over time.

Taken individually, very few graffiti "installations" distinguish themselves from the overwhelming sameness of made-up names spelled out in fat letters, whether or not they're embellished with a vocabulary of shadows, halos, diamonds, and other details.

But considered as a whole, we can be proud of the palimpsesto that is the RTA Red Line — undoubtedly it's the largest public art installation in the state, an unedited grassroots outpouring maintained by volunteers. The crush of one vividly colored piece against another makes something like an urban wallpaper pattern that never repeats, 19 miles visited by more than five million people in a given year, according to RTA ridership figures. That dwarfs the 302,384 who visited the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2009.

A Surviving Relic

You won't find much by Shrug these days, but he and a partner were once among the most visible graffiti artists in town, known collectively as the Optic Boom crew. Two decades ago, they were among the first to make their mark on the Salt Mine Wall, writing Optic Boom Vs. Godzilla in huge, rolled-on letters. But fat letters were never the focus of their work; instead they favored pictures that commented on life in a city where the money was running out. Shrug would paint sad faces, goofy airplanes and helicopters, bicycles, and puppy dogs, and pencils sharpened down till all that remained were little stubs. It was as if the sad faces reflected the mood of the city, as the Browns and the Tribe lost again, and factories closed one after another.

But it's not all gloom and doom. Shrug would also paint pictures that seemed to indicate that culture would help us survive — like it was the life force in a beaten-down town. We found the above piece by him in simple black and white along the railroad tracks on Train Ave. Just two arms reaching up from the ground, holding old-school boomboxes high above. The body seems to be underground, being eaten by the worms you can see painted at the base of the wall. But the spirit remains strong enough to hold the music up to the sky. And that's how it is in the rock & roll capital. As long as we've got something to believe in, we will endure.

Gentlemen: Please Cut Loose!

Note to aspiring graffiti writers: You can rock the world — or at least our corner of it — by breaking the boundaries of your art. Inspiration isn't hard to find. Take the internationally famous work of artists like Blu Blu, whose stop-action, graffiti animation Muto was created frame by frame by painting a surreal story on walls.

Or consider Os Gemeos, the Brazilian twin brothers whose bright murals cheer the walls of Sao Paulo with sociopolitical satire and folkloric imagery.

Or look at the U.K. stencil artist Banksy, painter of trompe l'oeil holes in the barrier wall in Palestine, and the image of a little girl floating over it, her hand clutching a bouquet of helium balloons.

The best street art in the world means something to an audience the size of a city or region. It relates to its location, or to local or world events. It might be built upon humor, or frustration, or anger, or anything else — but it has something more to say than a painter's invented name.

Any self-respecting graffiti artist has already checked out these and many more sources of documented greatness. But just in case: Make a point to check out Banksy's recent street art documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which reveals a world of innovative street artists — and very few invented names in fat letters. It's not that these guys are so much more skilled than graffiti writers in Cleveland. But when they take their risks, the result isn't merely what thousands of others have done for decades. On the web, don't miss for spectacular street-art innovation from around the world and for more pictures of fat letters in an unending stream of styles.

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