The stretch of sidewalk along Elmwood Avenue between Allen and North streets, about as unremarkable a city block as any in Buffalo, is home to a few liquor stores, salons and art galleries. Pedestrians shuffle quickly past the storefronts on their way to the bus stop or to the bars on Allen Street, rarely taking notice of what surrounds them.
But slow down for a minute, cast your eyes downward, and you'll start to see the evidence of another, slower urban world. In the late afternoon sun, for instance, you'll see a parking meter near North Street that seems to be casting two shadows. One is real, the other painted onto the sidewalk in fading black paint to give off a barely noticeable illusion.
In that same neighborhood, on bike racks and building walls, if you look closely, you'll see the miniaturized tags of the city's graffiti artists on ad-hoc sign-in sheets – the better to decipher their work on larger structures around the city. You'll see peculiar spray-painted stencils of armored buffaloes, strange stickers, lampposts papered with crude crayon drawings of some unknown origin and tiles chiseled into the pavement at crosswalks spelling out cryptic messages.
This is the sometimes-secret language of the city, a system made up of symbols, sanctioned murals and bits of illicit personal expression that together make up Buffalo's quiet and slowly growing street art scene. In larger cities, street art has become an assertive, unavoidable part of urban life. But in Buffalo, where authorities have tended to treat artistic expression anywhere other than gallery walls with suspicion if not outright hostility, it's just beginning to assume a more recognizable role.
For Matthew Grote, the street artist who goes by the name of OGRE and who collaborated with fellow artists Max Collins and Chuck Tingley to produce downtown's most visible piece of recent street art on the side of 515 Main St., there's plenty of art to be found here. You just have to hunt for it.
“For some people, and I guess I'm one of those people, it's a method of communication. It's like a secret language or a secret society almost,” Grote said. “Most people don't even look at the stickers, but I do. I see that person is communicating directly to me in that moment, and because I'm paying attention, I get to experience that, whereas most people just blindly walk past it.”
Evidence of Grote's artistic alter ego can be found all around the city, in places prominent and hidden, sanctioned and unsanctioned. The same goes for a small but growing group of artists whose work aspires to more than the artfully written tags of the city's handful of experienced graffiti writers.
Their art takes strange and often unexpected forms, from wheat-pasted illustrations form-fitted onto concrete pylons to tiles meticulously inserted into the blacktop under cover of night.
Many of these works are temporary: A beautiful tile piece on Porter Avenue near Kleinhans Music Hall that contained an excerpt from a short story by Ray Bradbury, for instance, was recently scratched out by the City of Buffalo. Asked about street art, the Buffalo Department of Public Works emailed that “unauthorized placement of art is subject to removal by the city.”
But some seem to linger for years. Seeking them out makes us see the city from a different angle. Buffalo's bits and pieces of street art – good and bad, grand and minuscule – are lenses through which to view the city anew. They help us see the streetscape not merely as a space to inhabit or pass through, but as a canvas waiting to be filled. Being more attuned to this evolving world, in some small way, helps us appreciate where we are as a city, and what kind of city we might become.
With Grote as a tour guide – with a few self-guided detours – I surveyed a few of the city's more intriguing pieces of street art, legal and, well, less so. Here's a look at a small sliver of them, with exact locations omitted when the art is off the beaten path or may be targeted for removal:
1. The shadow meter
On the east side of Elmwood Avenue just south of North Street, one of a row of parking meters is not like the others. Extending from its base is a strip of black paint running across the sidewalk, blooming out into a skewed “shadow” of the part where you drop your quarters. It's devoid of the ego of graffiti, barely calling attention to itself and rewarding the rare viewer who actually notices it.
“One thing that does kind of separate graffiti from street art is that street art seems to be meant to engage the community,” Grote said. “Somebody doing that,” he continued, pointing at the painted shadow, “they're not building a name for themselves. But once you see that, you may not ever look at a parking meter the same way again.”
2. Toynbee tiles
For years, a series of tiles meticulously chiseled into a crosswalk spanning Delaware Avenue where it intersects with Allen Street advertised a person or outfit known only as “House of Hades.” But that tile was recently removed, leaving behind only scratched pavement. Same goes for a particularly good example of the peculiar form – called “Toynbee tiles,” a fixture in many Rust Belt cities – on Porter Avenue that contained a Ray Bradbury quote that seemed to capture the spirit of Buffalo's cultural resurgence: “Oh, future's bright and beauteous spires, arise!”
Fortunately for those seeking out tiles, a series of them can be found at the intersection of Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway that look at first glance like a ream of paper haphazardly scattered across the road. Also on Elmwood, a series of smaller, abstract pavement interventions are there to be discovered. And many more tiles are sure to appear.
3. Chow Monstro
It's tough to miss the work of Chow Monstro, one of Buffalo's more recognizable street artists. His trademark symbol – a skull with Mickey Mouse ears, often dripping black paint – has been popping up on buildings downtown and in Allentown for the past several years. Monstro's wheat-pastes and stickers can be found on gritty stretches of Allen Street, as well as on a wall that's slowly becoming a target for street artists on Exchange Street. One particularly striking example is on the south side of the former Club Diablo at 517 Washington St.
4. “Before I Die …” mural
5. 515 Main St. mural
The mural, which has grown since its original painting to back of the building facing Washington Street, was meant as a tribute to the neighborhood and has proved to be a consistent draw for the growing arts and business district on the block.
6. 'True Colors' mural
7. Ad-hoc graffiti sign-in sheet
Though not necessarily a bona fide piece of street art, this series of miniaturized tags could serve as a kind of Rosetta Stone for Buffalo's much-maligned graffiti community. But you can look at graffiti without endorsing it, and this sign-in sheet of sorts will help you decode what you see, to separate the talented taggers from the total hacks, and to understand which of them deserves your ire and which your respect.
This mural on the side of Jim's Steakout in the Elmwood Village is the work of well-known local artists Bruce Adams and Augustina Droze, and it's about as above-board as Buffalo's street art world gets. It depicts scenes of neighborhood life, from skateboarding to the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmer's Market and some brash product placement of a Jim's sub, complete with banana peppers, in the middle of it all. Like the 515 Main St. mural, it may be the signal that edgier and more vibrant legal murals are coming to Buffalo's streets.
9. Gandhi's head
One man's piece of street art is another man's canvas. That was the case with a strange, looming white head someone painted on a stretch of gray wall along Exchange Street on the way to Larkinville last summer. Since then, the face has been modified, presumably by a different artist with a different style, to resemble Mahatma Gandhi. That artist, or maybe a third one, then spray-painted part of Gandhi's famous quote to go along with the modification: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
The wall also contains work by Chow Monstro and stencils and tags from other street artists. The work there, which is constantly changing and being painted over and repainted, is an example of the collaborative ties beginning to develop in the street art community and the rising social consciousness of some street artists.
10. Spain Rodriguez mural
Because of its relative inaccessibility, it's tough to count this masterful tribute to the late comics artist Spain Rodriguez as a piece of viewable street art. But its importance in the gradual shift of Buffalo's street art scene from pure graffiti to socially and culturally conscious work is undeniable.