Look to the Streets for Cutting-Edge Visual Art: Darlene G. Michitsch

Guest columnist Darlene G. Michitsch is an associate professor of art history at Baldwin Wallace University. Originally from Clevelander, she has an abiding interest in local artists – past, present and future.

Northeast Ohio is wonderfully awash with art institutions, from its esteemed museums to its pulsating gallery scene: the century-old Cleveland Museum of Art; the renowned artists of the Cleveland School, dating from the end of the 19th century; the city’s dominant role in the WPA’s Federal Arts Project during the Great Depression.

All include a sacred history in the visual arts.

This legacy thrives, as Greater Cleveland rightly has an active and engaged community of graffiti artists. For the best experience of the region’s visual expression today, look down the streets.

Once readily reviled as the obscure and illegal by-product of the outcasts, graffiti art gained international legitimacy in the 1980s, primarily through the work of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Emerging from the subway stations of New York, the two young artists became instantly famous by transcribing their street “writing” on studio canvases.

Well-promoted and eminently marketable, the works of Haring and especially Basquiat fetched high prices during their respective short lifespans. The value of their art has accelerated dramatically in recent years on the secondary market (at auction).

For example, an untitled 1984 oil on canvas by Basquiat sold in 2017 for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s auction house in New York. Graffiti art has definitely become a valued commodity.

In the art world, such commodification denotes ultimate approval. But it also runs the risk of blunting the artist’s advantage as commercialization replaces the message.

Graffiti art in Cleveland hasn’t acquiesced so much. For decades, street writing has marred Cleveland’s urban walls, with clusters in downtown neighborhoods. But this particular calligraphy forms the DNA of the bold murals that today turn abject areas into works of art.

Direct, poignant, sometimes whimsical, Cleveland’s graffiti art always asserts its edge, in a variety of styles, saying a myriad of things; no doubt, the best artists are local.

Bob Peck, a city kid who “cut his teeth” by “street writing” haphazardly adorning his West Cleveland neighborhood, is at the forefront of Cleveland graffiti artists who have stayed the course.

Initially intrigued, he quickly immersed himself in the so-called subculture, as a mature artist with skillful mastery of stencil and spray can.

Peck’s distinctive style, rhythmically asynchronous and intensely chromatic, has earned him commissions for murals ranging from “North Coast Auto” on East 185th Street to “Spectacular Vernacular” on Lakewood’s Madison Avenue. He is a recognized leader of the Cleveland graffiti scene.

Always the street art-loving city kid, Peck gives back. He is a strong supporter and integral part of Graffiti HeArt, a non-profit organization that facilitates artist commissions and provides scholarships to underserved aspiring artists.

Lately, Peck has teamed up with local pop graffiti artist R!ch Cihlar. Work as “Don’t Panic!” the duo created stunning murals of East 79th Street at Westlake’s Crocker Park. “Don’t Panic!” held a major exhibition in November 2021 at Baldwin Wallace University’s Fawick Gallery, which was successful in raising significant scholarship funds for Graffiti HeArt.

Transcribed from brick walls and corrugated iron containers to canvases and artifacts, this graffiti art was not merely materially commodified. Holding her edge, “Don’t Panic!” contributes to Cleveland’s ever-growing legacy in the visual arts by helping to ensure that future generations of inspired artists with something to say will “take to the streets.”

To share this legacy, keep looking in the streets.

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Briana R. Cross