Ghost Writers

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

Ghost Writers

Page 4 of 8

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 (facestreetart.bigcartel.com), 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.

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