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Take one look at how the Texas sun bounces off this guy's reflective orange vest, and you can tell he gives two shits about the artistic value of what he's removing. He looks to be about 50 years old, but he could be younger. The sun and countless cigarettes -- like the one now dangling beneath his salt-and-pepper mustache -- have made him gruff.
"This is a pain in the ass," he says, using a pocketknife to scrape off a piece of paper glued to a metal box on Westheimer. "It's a waste of taxpayer dollars."
He works for the city, so he declines to give his name without first consulting his supervisor. He pauses, takes a puff and starts scraping again. There's a new razor blade in his pocket, but he seems to prefer the knife.
This worker doesn't know it, but his adversary is CRÜZ, another man who doesn't want to give his real name.
CRÜZ is an artist. He makes prints of bombs, among other things, and puts them up all over town with wheat paste, a sticky material not unlike that used to hang wallpaper. The image of the bomb is a reference to "bombing," a slang term for putting up graffiti. And if a cartoonlike bomb makes passersby think of other things, he doesn't have a problem with that.
At 27 years old, CRÜZ has a BFA, extensive gallery experience and plenty of connections to get his work displayed. But none of that matters when he's putting up paper in the middle of the night.
"The art world is just masturbatory at this point," he says. "It's just this circular thing that doesn't go anywhere, and it certainly doesn't ever reach out and try to impress itself upon the society at large.
"The only way that I've been able to figure out how to accomplish that has been to put stuff out on the street."
Thousands of commuters saw CRÜZ's work on Westheimer before it was picked away by a city worker's pocketknife. They'll soon see it again, when he pastes a new print in the same place. It's all part of his effort to confront the visual noise created by advertisers.
"The only difference between graffiti and advertising is money," he says.
"I can't do anything when McDonald's puts up a new billboard on the highway. I don't give these people permission to invade my space with things that try to persuade me to give them money."
So he's fighting back at Madison Avenue by attacking its mavens on their own turf. Think of it as advertising without a product.
When it comes to street art, the South Coast has always been a little behind the East and the West, especially in terms of artists promoting their work.
"I've seen some crazy-ass artwork here," says 32-year-old GONZO247, "but no one takes the time to document their work and actually submit to magazines or online stuff."
GONZO247 started doing graffiti in the '80s, making a name for himself and the Aerosol Warfare crew by painting intricate, colorful pieces on walls around town. He's seen the highs and lows of H-town graffiti, but, in his words, "There's always someone active."
Now street art is exploding on the walls of the city, and a lot of it's being done without a spray can. Many Houston artists are taking cues from their peers in other cities and moving into the realm of posters, flyers, stickers and other media. Call it the second wave, the sticky swell of wheat paste.
"Within the last year and a half, more and more people are picking up on wheat-pasting," says GONZO247. "And I would love to see it grow. I love to see wheat-pastings. I think you can communicate a lot more with wheat-pasting than you can with quote-unquote regular graffiti."
Considering how difficult it can be to paint clean lines with a spray can, wheat-pasting is relatively easy. All you have to do is slather some of the sticky stuff on a wall, slap a poster or flyer on top of it, and then slop on another layer of paste.
MEAT and VERB are the city's most prolific tag team. They've painted their names all over the place. And they too give props to street artists who put up posters, flyers and stickers. Sometimes they even write the word "nice" next to stuff they like.
"It's all-inclusive to me," says 23-year-old MEAT, who is a vegetarian. "I don't care who you are. Just get out there and do something."
"I started with posters, wheat-pasting for a while," says 25-year-old VERB. His posters bore the message "promote verbal abuse." Considering the countless times he has since spray-painted his name on private property, he must be taking his own advice.
MEAT, on the other hand, started out scrawling gang signs in El Paso, but he's elevated his work to a higher art form, even appearing in a gallery show or two. His forays into paste include a series of posters bearing a pop-art image of a telephone.
"It's just kind of my thing," he says. "It's communication. We're reaching out to you."