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.