“You’re putting art in places where people would never even think of stepping into a gallery,” says Peat “Eyez” Wollaeger, discussing his craft as one of St. Louis’ prolific street artists. From brick walls to abandoned buildings, glass, and enormous commissioned murals, the city is his canvas. Over time, he has seen it transform. “The St. Louis I grew up in was a totally different place … Cherokee was like a ‘Thriller’ video. I mean, there were zombies,” he says. “Washington Avenue was the hood. They filmed Escape From New York on Washington Avenue because it looked like New York … after the apocalypse.” But Wollaeger has witnessed an internal, tectonic shift in the city from those days.
Good luck attempting to tear your gaze away, if you do come across one of his pieces. There’s nothing stiff, rigid, or pretentious about his massive, overwhelming spray paint creations, marked by his signature eye symbol. When you find one, you can get up close, lean in, and take pictures next to it with a blindingly bright flash, things that would give a museum curator a brain aneurysm.
Wollaeger initially began stenciling as a way to transfer images, and stumbled on the technique by way of one of his sons. He had drawn a portrait of him for his wife, Kris, and envisioned the portrait on a piece of glass rather than paper or canvas. He cut a stencil and used it to transfer the image, and then in his words, “I seriously like, lost … lost it, I mean, I loved it. I was like, ‘Stencils, stencils! Spray paint!’ And then, you know, there’s a dumpster out back … maybe I’ll try putting that stencil on there.”
Wollaeger is entirely self-taught, save for one summer program at the Pratt Institute. From his perspective, kids are told, “‘Oh you’re tone deaf, you can’t sing, or you know, you suck [if] you draw stick people.’ I know an artist by the name of Stick Man. This guy right here,” says Wollaeger, gesturing at one of the smattering of paintings behind his desk. “Very successful multi-national artist … does stick men. Everybody knows Stick Man. So I believe, truly, if you’re willing to take the time to develop whatever your dream is, I think anyone has that potential. I really do.”
Wollaeger attended The College School, which embodied a similar educational philosophy. “If we wanted to learn about caves, they used to take us down to caves … that was a big part of my education. If I wanted to learn how to do something, I would just do it.” As a seventh grader, he got a job working at The Fudgery downtown at Union Station, where in his words, “I was the only white boy, singing there, making fudge. They taught you that in real life, you gotta work.”
Though he eventually made it back to his hometown, after high school, “I wanted to get the hell out … I’ll be honest with you.” Wollaeger made good on his promise, and headed straight for New York City. He eventually settled in Chicago as a graphic artist for a marketing firm, where he worked 80-hour weeks, smoked cigarettes at his desk, and used Photoshop version 1.5, which didn’t even have color at the time. But when he and his wife had their first child, Wollaeger knew he wanted something different. They met when he was 20, and she was 17. Now, they have three sons together. “I’ve got a great woman. I couldn’t do all this without her. For real, she holds it down … I really believe there’s a plan in life, and she’s a part of my plan. Or our plan together.”
Wollaeger, with his animated, explosive energy, would surely catch on fire with his sheer spontaneity and penchant for unpredictable, nonlinear tangents alone without any help from the cloud of flammable spray he leaves in his wake. But when he talks about his wife, his children, and his idols, a tender sensitivity surfaces. “So, back to the stenciling …”
Along with commercial work, Wollaeger’s career is peppered with tribute murals: some are hopeful, some are optimistic, some are completely bizarre, some are meaningful in starkly different ways to different viewers, and some will break your heart. His process, strange and brilliant, often involves a kind of performance piece-esque style of working in which he goes to great lengths to become the subject in his portraits, or somehow surround himself with their presence.
During Art Basel 2008 in Miami’s Wynnwood Walls neighborhood, Wollaeger did a large portrait of his idol, Keith Haring, a prominent street artist in the 80’s. Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, and in his remaining years he established the Keith Haring Foundation, with the goal of providing funding for AIDS organizations and awareness programs. He died of the autoimmune disorder two years after his diagnosis, at the age of 31.
As a kind of performance piece, Wollaeger cut and curled his long, wavy hair into the exact same style as Haring’s, wore thick black-rimmed glasses and a shirt featuring a print of Haring’s radiant baby signature image. With a few studio assistants, Wollaeger began work on the piece and captured the entire process in a time lapse video, looking almost identical to Haring, as though he hadn’t left the world at all.
The background is a layered, stenciled collage of what looks like a thousand radiant babies that fall behind a portrait of Haring. An enormous mural, it is overwhelmingly wrought with yearning and admiration for a person who will never see it. But Wollaeger’s video piece chronicling the entire experience is both hilarious and mesmerizing, and includes a shot of him with a mass of curlers in his hair. The end result is a triumphant celebration of Haring’s life.
“When I did that piece, Keith was speaking through me. I feel like that’s what he wanted me to paint.” Wollaeger sees “a lot of nepotism” in the art world, and “people who come to spend a million dollars on their twine dipped in wax, or whatever.” Haring was the antithesis to all of that. To him, and to Wollaeger, art is for everyone, whether you can afford to spend 2,000 dollars on a painting or 30 dollars on a screen printed t-shirt.
Wynnwood Walls was originally a dilapidated, abandoned sect of Miami, and has exploded into a haven revitalized by street art, not dissimilar to how St. Louis’ own Cherokee Street has evolved. “Art has always sparked change,” he says. When a distressed area is restored to its true beauty, with paintings and bright colors, “people aren’t as afraid.”
Wollaeger also does a tribute piece annually in Savannah, Georgia, where he has participated in an arts and music festival called the A-Town Get Down for three years in a row. The festival was established in 2010 as a memorial to Alex Townsend, a St. Louis native and Savannah College of Art and Design student who was killed in a single-car traffic accident in early 2010. He was 21 years old. The festival was organized by Alex’s parents, Jeanne and Tom Townsend, and his brother Nate, now 21, his sister Laura, now 18, and a whole community of loving friends. Every year, Wollaeger does a different live art tribute to Alex.
For a piece like this, his process shifted. Instead of attempting to physically embody Alex, he relied on the energy of the people who loved him, channeling it into the portrait so that it looked like him, felt like him, and could help his family feel connected to him again. “The hardest thing for me to do is to make sure that I capture their soul. With Alex Townsend, I want to make darn sure this is their child.” Wollaeger also put up a portrait of Alex in St. Louis, on the Cherokee Street mural. “It’s their Alex in St. Louis,” he says. They visit it often to look at him, or reach out and touch his face, if they want to.
Alex attended a boarding school in New Hampshire called The Oliverian School. On the school’s testimonials page, his mother Jeanne, writes, “He was a very bright, creative, introspective child who often confounded both his teachers and his peers. In Kindergarten, instead of playing soccer with the other boys at recess, he sat alone in the sandbox and built giant, intricate villages of sticks and sand. He drew complicated mazes that most adults couldn’t solve. He spent the majority of his time in t-ball looking for ladybugs and chasing butterflies.” Both artists and creatives, Wollaeger and Alex are eerily kindred spirits. To Wollaeger, what they’re doing to memorialize their son is “the most amazing, beautiful thing.” Their mentality is, “Let’s change the world in my son’s name,’” he says.
One of Wollaeger’s largest pieces depicts his own son, James, on the side of a corrugated steel building in Carondelet. The eyes appear to open and close when passing by it. While the idea seems bizarre in theory, in practice, it is a monumentally reverent, beautiful piece. Wollaeger captured the entire process with a slow-motion video, which includes a close-up shot of James at the end standing next to the finished wall. He has long dark brown hair that spills out of a crocheted cap, as though unsure of what to make of the enormity of his father’s homage to him. It took Wollaeger a month to cut the stencil and a week to prep and paint the building.
His face, and his eyes, are young, hopeful, curious about the world, and what the future will bring. His father is hell bent on keeping him that way, and providing him and his brothers with opportunities. In addition to his regular routine of murals and citywide beautification, Wollaeger has also started a new clothing line, called Eyez Brand Clothing, which he hopes will eventually make enough money to send his kids to college. “Money, in this world does get in the way, and it is the root of a lot of evil … but money helps dreams happen, unfortunately.” The collection features his signature trademark eye on American Apparel t-shirts, tank tops, and soft, body-hugging dresses, as well as sleeping masks, tape measures, earrings, belt buckles, and carabiners. These trinkets, small as they are, emblazoned with his signature eye, are what he hopes will help secure a future for his sons.
While fidgeting with one of the tape measures, wearing a newsboy cap and a dice earring, he consistently breaks from spontaneous to vulnerable and meditative. “I don’t know, I think artists definitely see this world a little bit differently. I think in their heart they feel younger. Maybe it’s not true for everyone, but I know it is for me.”
His work itself is a direct case study for how art can change the perception of a place, of what art can and can’t be, and how to make a life out of a passion doing what most people would consider a hobby, manically done by an adolescent vagabond with insufficient parental supervision.
For Wollaeger, art has far surpassed even the slightest resemblance to a hobby. It is his life, it is his calling, it is his soul, and his paintings, while massive, are extremely detailed and technically sophisticated. They aren’t packaged in a wooden frame on a layer of canvas or sealed in an airtight, temperature controlled vessel. They interact directly with the city he loves. His tools aren’t meticulously cataloged. Rather, his office is a patchwork explosion of disorganization: paintings, drawings, prints, sketches, notebooks, cardboard, books, cans upon cans of spray paint, photographs of his family, and even an unprecedented bottle of cleaning spray all take up residence in his studio space. You can walk around in it without feeling like you’re going to mess something up.
He’s foul-mouthed, warm, messy, funny, unrefined, meditative, unmasked, bare, and refreshingly human, sometimes all in the same moment, sometimes all in the same gust of breath. His skin is covered in a thin layer of dried pigment, solvents, and epoxy, particularly his hands, perhaps his most powerful tools, which house what he sees as the most powerful life force of all, that undefinable piece of every human. “I don’t know exactly how to define the word ‘soul,’ but I know that we all have one. Even if we don’t know we have one.”