Peat Wollaeger won't be the first to spray paint the gutted Powell Square building downtown. But he's the first to get permission.
Wollaeger plans to paint a gigantic 16-foot-by-16-foot mural on the warehouse Sunday. His message: I ♥ St. Louis. Only instead of the letter I, Wollaeger will stencil his trademark eye.
"I'm tired of the haters who say they can't wait to leave St. Louis," Wollaeger said. "Yeah, there are a lot of racist people in this town. There are a lot of people who are so closed-minded and people who only will come downtown for Cardinals games. But there are also people who put a lot of heart and soul in this town to make it a better place."
Located near Interstate 55 and the Poplar Street Bridge, the Powell Square building is a playground for vandals, a shelter for the homeless and a blemish scarring the St. Louis skyline. Chavvis Development hopes to open an arts center on the site, though director Gelinda Connell concedes the project is stalled.
"Everyone knows this building has been a magnet for vandalism and graffiti, so to replace the signatures of taggers with something really positive seemed like a great idea," said Connell, who secured owner Steven C. Murphy's permission for Wollaeger. "Peat couldn't be a better cheerleader for St. Louis, and he really commands a lot of respect among street artists."
Still, Wollaeger needed to pick his spot wisely. Graffiti artists may not obey the law, but they abide by a strict code of etiquette. Paint over the wrong tagger's work, and you could set off a Krylon cat fight.
"Powell Square is a real battleground for these guys," Wollaeger said."I don't even want to get into that. I did my research. Nobody from St. Louis is on the wall I'm doing."
Wollaeger, 35, doesn't like the term graffiti artist. He is, more precisely, a stencil artist. Using an X-Acto knife, Wollaeger cuts his images into a thin piece of oil board. He then spray paints the stencil in layers, which lends his subjects depth. The designing and cutting process can take 90 hours per piece while painting lasts 90 minutes or
less. Past subjects include Mexican wrestlers, Wollaeger idol Keith Haring, and "Dead Fat Comedians" John Candy, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Curly Howard and Oliver Hardy. He is working on 3-D pieces, trading his knife for a router.
"Graffiti paints a certain picture in people's minds, as opposed to street art or murals," Wollaeger said. "When you say something is a mural, you think it's art. When you say graffiti, you think vandalism."
Vandals don't command $1,000 for their work. They don't exhibit in galleries across the globe. This year, it's New York; next year it's Paris. Vandals don't get commissions from Green Day, and they don't create limited edition bottles for Mountain Dew.
And they don't typically enjoy a blissful suburban life. Wollaeger lives in Kirkwood with his wife, Kris, a stay-at-home mom who cares for sons Sam, 9, James, 6, and Leo, 3.
"I'm definitely not the angry or solitary artist type," said Wollaeger, who works full time as a Web designer and rents a studio on Cherokee Street. "I try to be positive, and so is my art."
So does Wollaeger always get permission before he paints? He's taking the Fifth.
"I'm not admitting to anything, but I've always believed that what I left was better than what was originally there," Wollaeger said. "I've always been very respectful. I would never paint on raw brick or someone's business."
These days, much of Wollaeger's work is commissioned. In 2003, he was hired for his first commission: a Kingshighway utility box near Children's Hospital. He painted a wailing baby modeled on his son Sam.
The South Grand Business District recently hired Wollaeger to stencil "parking pots" on South Grand Boulevard, and his grizzled hippy hangs out on a South Broadway garage door.
Wollaeger often films himself painting and frequently dresses like the character he is creating.
"He's half actor, half artist," said New York artist Logan Hicks, one of the world's hottest names in stencil art. "He takes such a comprehensive approach. It's not just about the physical piece. It's about the story behind it, the documentation and his marketing savvy. It's not like St. Louis is the mecca for urban art, but he has set himself apart, which is a feat.
"And he's so good-natured. He embraces a lot of the aesthetics Keith Haring embraced. Keith was about having fun and not trying to scrutinize things to the point where it was oppressive, and that's Peat. I get a kick out of watching the guy go."
Yet, while some neighborhoods are soliciting his work; others are whitewashing it. Both, in the case of Maplewood.
Wollaeger was asked to paint during the neighborhood's "Let Them Eat Art" festival. He asked real estate developer Peter Rothschild if he could paint a whimsical mural of a horse wearing in-line skates on the boarded facade of a Manchester Avenue property. Wearing a horse mask, Wollaeger attracted hundreds of onlookers.
"When he first came to me, I was wary," Rothschild said. "I thought this guy wanted to doodle on my window, but he has so much enthusiasm for what he does that you get enthusiastic. I loved what he did. It was the type of thing that sets a neighborhood apart as a place that's creative, unusual and open.
"Unfortunately, Maplewood didn't see it that way, since they made us paint over it. Strange, strange decision."
Rachelle L'Ecuyer, Maplewood's community development director, is a fan of Wollaeger's art but said she made it clear to the artist that the work would stay up temporarily. She said Maplewood's sign ordinance restricts permanent wall paintings.
Wollaeger was disappointed but concedes that street art is among the most ephemeral of art forms.
"But the great thing about stenciling is you can always make a copy for yourself," he said.