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."
And that seems to be the key to posters, flyers and stickers; they have the ability to reach out to people who otherwise ignore graffiti.
"With regular graffiti, you can write words, you can write your name, and people can read into it," says GONZO247. "But with wheat-pasting, you have the power of an actual image with text. The way you put those two together -- images and text -- can be a lot more powerful."
"People know to look at squares and rectangles for images and messages that pertain to those images," says 29-year-old artist Ken Wiatrek. "They're trained to look at the images and the information, and to synthesize that information over time."
A few years ago Wiatrek created a logo consisting of a robot and the words "as an alternative to art." Soon this logo was up all over the Montrose in the form of stickers and stencils. It became so recognizable that it landed him a job doing marketing for ADV Films, a local anime distribution company.
But marketing reps aren't the only ones who have taken notice of local street art.
"The Montrose area has always been a location where we've had problems with these graffiti artists," says HPD officer Armando Tello, who is assigned to the Mayor's Anti-Gang Office. "It's a high-profile area. There are a lot of festivals and events. So it's a place where the work of the artists -- the vandalism -- is going to be seen."
And there's a lot to be seen once you start paying attention.
The works in the "failure" series are some of the most prominent, even though many of them were painted over during a massive cleanup on the morning of the Westheimer Street Festival. Slapped on a metal box at the corner of West Alabama and Dunlavy was a large print of a woman's face, her lips slightly parted, her eyes very seductive. Printed below was the word "failure." This poster had been up for months and had definitely attracted some attention. One tagger took it upon himself to write "tops!!" on it.
Further north, on Westheimer, seven rows of smaller versions are still pasted in a doorway, creating a mesmerizing checkerboard of the woman's face. Elsewhere in the area are "failure" prints of a different woman; this time we can see the whole of the model's body, including her large exposed breasts.
Working in a similar fatalistic vein is the artist behind the "give up" series. These prints vary in size and are some of the most intricate out there. In one print, a man stands in front of an arch, surrounded by light and a colony of bats. His T-shirt bears the words "give up" and an image of a razor blade. In another, a woman stares into the distance, her face surrounded by hammers. The words "give up" are written below. At the top is "Sweetness, I was only joking," a reference to the tragic sounds of the Smiths.
And the work of these two artists is just a small sampling of the stuff out there. Poems by Basho written on postal stickers compete for space with giant cutouts of killer whales. Microphones with grenades on top are pasted near simplistic drawings of cute, sharp-toothed creatures. A solitary print on Dunlavy features a woman in a flowing gown with a slingshot drawn and ready.
"It's not just something that you have thugs or political radicals doing," says CRÜZ. "It's something that you have real artists doing."
CRÜZ has been making art for as long as he can remember. He was born to upper-middle-class parents and went to a private high school in the Inner Loop. His parents covered the tab for his fine arts degree.
But he's not one to take his privilege for granted.
"The guy who cleans the restaurant that you go to," he says, "gets up at five o'clock in the morning, goes to work, does his job and then goes to a second and maybe even a third job. Then he goes home and gets up the next day and does the same thing. There are hardworking motherfuckers out there who don't really have the time, the energy or probably even the interest to go to a museum to see a painting."
So he brings his work to them.
"This is a gift from me to the people who I live with," he says.
Again, there are those who don't appreciate the gift.
"They don't have permission to be putting that on there and vandalizing those boxes," says Officer Tello of artists who paste posters on traffic-signal boxes. "They could be arrested or investigated for criminal mischief.
"The degree of offense is going to depend on what it would take the city to repair that property," he says, although he acknowledges that posters cause less damage than paint. The Mayor's Anti-Gang Office focuses much more attention on spray-paint graffiti, given the connection between tagging and gang activity.
CRÜZ has been popped twice for his work; both acts were misdemeanors.
"The only thing that would stop me would be if I had two felonies under my belt," he says, "and I don't have any."
Much like someone who has lost a dog or is having a garage sale, street artists also staple or nail their works to telephone poles. When the Houston Press originally contacted SBC to ask about how the company deals with this activity, Katie Ramsey of media relations came back with this response:
"Flyers on telephone poles do not create a problem for SBC technicians until they are required to climb a pole for maintenance. The papers, staples, pins and especially nails can damage the climbing gear and make it difficult to climb. We do not remove the signs unless they are in the way of a climber. Often, our technicians use a bucket truck to provide line maintenance, so the flyers do not get in the way."
Damn, who knew SBC was such a cool company?
Four hours later Ramsey revised her response, asking that the following information be included: "Per city ordinance, posting anything on a utility pole is against the law. SBC asks that citizens obey this ordinance, as posting of signs on a wood pole causes premature deterioration of the pole and could possibly have safety or service impacts."
The city ordinance to which she references states that it's unlawful for any person to place any advertising sign, poster, political advertisement, gummed label, bumper sticker or basically anything else on a public structure. Each offense carries a fine of $100 to $500.
"We do want the community to report any graffiti to the police," says Tello. "People are very tired of it."
"What happens when artists communicate directly with people, not necessarily people who are choosing to enter a defined art space, but people who are surprised viewers?" asks Jill Wood, former assistant director at Lawndale Art Center. She's wearing one blue T-shirt on top of another, almost perfectly matching the changing hue of her eyes. "People are uncomfortable with that lack of control, that lack of curators keeping it together to make it where it has to be read a certain way.
"People like mediation," she says. "They like the idea that there's an authoritative editor or intermediary between the work and the viewers. And that's what institutions are for."
Wood might sound like she's taking the institutional line here, praising the need for curators and mediation, and to a certain extent she is. But she also speaks of the potential for street art to reach the masses.
This summer Lawndale produced Sprawl, a 'zine of flyers donated by local artists. The works are collected and then passed out for public distribution.
"Lawndale does not condone illegal activity," says the label on the front, "but we like free distribution of ideas in a disorderly fashion."
The idea to create the 'zine came about as the result of Wood's participation in a group called Surveying the Houston Arts Landscape.
"We continued coming up with this notion that the decentralized nature of Houston would benefit from a more anarchic approach to distribution," she says. "The gallery system was only so functional in such a sprawling environment of diverse and disparate art communities."
So the solution was to create a library, or hub, to which artists could donate their work and then, well, see where the hell it ended up.
Inside the clear plastic bag housing the 'zine are instructions on how to make a comic book, how to silk-screen, how to spot infiltrators in a group, how to make wheat paste and how to screw with town-house construction.
"We aren't circulating any information that you couldn't find in a public library," says Wood.
Also included are two cards, one for voter registration and the other from the ACLU, outlining citizens' rights when dealing with the police.
And then there's the art. Colorful stickers feature fat superheroes taking ironic stances on societal ills. A comic book dissects the entire process of its creation, as well as Lawndale's call for submissions. Fake lost-and-found flyers inquire if anyone has seen a plate of weenies, among other things.
There's even a DIY flyer that's supposed to be drawn upon, enlarged on a copier and placed on the inside of an airplane window.
Lawndale has created 500 copies of the 'zine. The flyers and stickers also can be downloaded from the organization's Web site.
"It's an anti-commercial enterprise," says Wood. "A lot of the artists contributed anonymously. And those who did put their identities on their work in most cases were collectives."
One of Sprawl's biggest contributors was the Scatterbrain Collective. This group created a lot of the instructional materials for the 'zine, as well as the image of the grenade microphone that is becoming ubiquitous in the Montrose.
"There's definitely a political side to 99 percent of street art," says 26-year-old Deri Air of the collective. "It's not just what you say, it's how you say it."
Deri Air might have a flippant name, but he's serious about his work.
"I also do a lot of sculptural-type work, like installational street art," he says. "Take something that's already existing in the world, such as orange-netting street barriers -- I'll take those, build hammocks with them and put them back."
He also makes painterly works out of the small colored flags that mark underground wires and pipelines.
"I'm creating new things in the world, new orientations, new contexts."
Lawndale's Sprawl is but one example of how the local street art community is becoming more organized. During a recent festival at Project Row Houses, several artists swapped work and ideas at the "Dumpster Hub," a revamped trash bin made to look like the inside of a living room. And in Austin, Zarathustra James is running a clearinghouse through his Web site, Bomit.com.
"I have been mailing out tons of stickers and graffiti- or stencil-related packets for three years now," says the 33-year-old artist.
"It is an answer to the constantly increasing number of metal surfaces in our cities," he says. "There are too many of these that keep appearing which seem to be purposely put there by the government to look ugly. If there is a graffiti tag or sticker or stencil on that electrical box at least it makes you think."
This distribution method allows artists to have their work displayed in cities around the world. It also helps them skirt serious trouble with the law. Say an officer catches an artist in the act of putting up a poster or a sticker; the police would have major difficulties connecting that work to all the other ones around town, since the artist can say he got that particular piece from Bomit.com -- and has no idea who put up the other ones.
This is part of the reason why most street artists run in packs. Working in a group helps dilute accountability. And it never hurts to have someone watching your back.
CRÜZ is part of a collective called the Guys from California. None of its members hail from the Golden State. They are all Anglo or Hispanic men in their twenties. And yes, some of them have had their work shown in traditional galleries.
"We operate as a collective and share ideas, as well as printing costs and a truck," says CRÜZ. "It generally works better when you have some kind of crew or, as the academy likes to refer to it, collective. It's essentially like a superhero team. Everybody's got a special trait."
The works by the Guys from California are all over the map, both literally and figuratively. Stylized flyers created with graphics software, intricate two-page drawings, floating celebrity heads, simple chess pieces -- these are but a few of the works on paper presented by the collective.
The Houston Press tagged along with CRÜZ and his cohorts one night as they pasted up some flyers. It was like watching a terrorist cell of slackers:
A truck pulls up to an intersection. Out hop CRÜZ and two others, all dressed in dark clothing. The truck rolls on, circling the block. The three men trot up to a metal box and set up shop.
"All clear?" asks CRÜZ.
"One sec," says the lookout on his right.
A solitary sedan cruises past in the night.
The world can be very quiet once you start listening.
"Do it," says the lookout on the left.
As CRÜZ brushes a layer of paste on the box, some of it flips in the air and hits one of his accomplices.
"Dude!" exclaims the victim.
CRÜZ apologizes and keeps working. He sticks a flyer on the paste and brushes over it. Their work here is done.
The truck rolls up. The men are gone.
On any given Wednesday at Commerce Street Artists Warehouse, a half-dozen men and women jockey for space in front of a large canvas. They paint their own doodads, dripping colors all over one another. Sometimes these disparate ideas gel into a frenetic masterpiece full of wacky themes and cartoon characters, but a lot of times the whole thing just becomes an outright mess.
Such is the creative process of the I Love You Baby collective. Many of its members are professional artists with their own projects, but come Wednesday, everyone's just looking to have a good time. It's refreshing to paint without design. Plus there's usually a lot of beer in the studio.
"I like the thought of 10,000 different ideas trying to develop one concept," says 39-year-old Will Bentsen of ILYB.
One of the cardinal rules of the collective is that you can't get upset if someone paints over your work.
"It's hard for every one of us to let go at certain points," he says. "When someone paints over something you like, it's easy to get irritated, but we have to live by that rule."
And the ILYB rule applies to street art as well. Once an artist decides to slap his work up in public, everything's game. It's going to peel; people are going to put stuff on top it; it might be gone the next day. Street art is about letting go.
I Love You Baby recently created and distributed a bunch of madcap lost-and-found flyers, some of which were submitted to Lawndale's 'zine.
"Will [Bentsen] did all those on his computer in one night," says 33-year-old Paul Kremer. "There was a constant stream of flyer after flyer, and they kept on getting funnier."
One flyer has a picture of a garage sale sign, advertising for a house on Le Sage Drive. "Reward," says the flyer, "very important garage sale sign stolen from 5916 Le Sage. We would like it back and are willing to pay up to 75 cents."
Another has a picture of the Astrodome and asks, "Have you seen this building? Last seen near Loop 610. This building is very close [to] me and my family."
Others seek lost Sharpies, hamburgers, packs of cigarettes and even dance moves.
"When you're stopped at a stoplight and you look over, now there's something funny to read," says Bentsen, "as opposed to 'Lose weight now' or 'We make banners' or whatever."
When CRÜZ stopped by the studio one evening, I Love You Baby got the chance to take its actual paintings to the streets.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
They all collaborated on a giant painting of the inside of a refrigerator, full of butter, ham and other vittles.
Then the Guys from California took it and pasted it on a metal box at the corner of Montrose and Fairview. It lasted for several months before the city covered it up with white paint.
"Nobody tried to rip it off or put anything on top of it," says Bentsen. "It seemed like the neighborhood liked it.
"But that's just the way it goes."