Story by Becky Raspe | Photography by Amanda Koehn

While traveling extensively in 2009, Stamy Paul found herself drawn to the street art she saw around the world. She even posted a Facebook photo album, “Graffiti Around the World.”

Not long after, inspiration struck to bring that art inside, and she decided to add a graffiti mural in her Tremont neighborhood home. But, Paul didn’t know where to start to find an artist. 

On a flight out of LaGuardia Airport in New York that same year, Paul had an idea, and Graffiti HeArt – at least in name and concept – was born. Its mission was realized over time, trending toward its most current iteration: supporting graffiti artists by commissioning projects where artists get paid, and raising funds for outreach and educational opportunities within the community.

“I’ve got this love and passion of the urban culture, and I love street art and art form that is raw, unassuming, unapproved,” Paul says. “Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy experiencing many forms of more established art and spending time at art museums. But there is something to be said about having a public, non-permission gallery of this very different type of art form that never really got recognized, let alone accepted in the mainstream – including Cleveland.”

Stamy Paul in the new Graffiti HeArt space on Cleveland’s East Side, in front of a mural by Los Angeles street artist RISK.

Paul says once the idea was fully realized, things moved quickly. In 2013, the name Graffiti HeArt was incorporated and a board was formed. The first board meeting was held in 2014, and the organization’s first project followed as a piece for the International Gay Games 9, a multi-sport event and cultural gathering for LGBTQ+ athletes held in Cleveland in 2014. The website was established soon after. In 2015, its first public mural “Greetings from Cleveland” by artist Victor Ving was unveiled in the Ohio City neighborhood of Cleveland.

Paul says the organization aims to function as a “virtual arm” for graffiti artists. And now, after opening its first brick-and-mortar space on Cleveland’s East Side in October, that mission is closer to being accomplished.

“The hope is that through this new home for Graffiti HeArt, we can develop and provide programs where more experienced artists can work with the youth and the art form, especially regarding safety, both in personal protective equipment and technique, and learning about the different forms of aerosol and medium,” Paul says during an October interview in the new space at 4829 Superior Ave. “Most people don’t grow up and say they want to become a graffiti artist, but why not? Why not have a child say they want to become a professional graffiti writer, aerosol artist or street artist?”

Bringing graffiti inside

As an underground art community, many consider unsolicited graffiti on buildings, or tagging, vandalism – which legally, it is. Whether or not the street art is associated with gangs or considered tagging, Paul says part of her mission is to shed light on the talented and misjudged community behind it. 

“Yes, unapproved public display of art can be considered illegal, but we all know we see the trains going by, and you’re mesmerized by the pieces on (the train cars),” says Paul, whose day job is vice president of human resources at Airgas in Independence. “Once you get more familiar with the culture, you may see names and works of artists that you know of. Though there is some truism to the negative connotation, that isn’t all there is.”

A mural in Graffiti HeArt’s stairwell created by Canton-area artist ‘Monster Steve,’ or Steve Ehret.

Stereotypes crept into even the naming of Graffiti HeArt, as Paul says she was intentional in using the word “graffiti” in it, even though others didn’t understand why. Moreover, she wants to provide opportunities for the style of art to be commissioned and valued. 

“They would go right to the negative,” she says of how others reacted when she told them of her initial concept. “That’s why ‘graffiti’ is in the name … to be provocative. … That is the point of the organization – taking this art form and putting it on legal canvases. … As it becomes a cool thing, that negative connotation may let up.”

Though she doesn’t necessarily see it as her fight, Paul says familiarizing the public with the graffiti community will raise understanding and appreciation. Although graffiti artists often operate at night or in the background, face to face exposure and opportunities to take in the art in a prime space can bring new understanding and interest. 

“When you bring these artists face-to-face with a client or community, it offers a new perspective on artwork that is often done anonymously from the shadows,” says Bob Peck, a Cleveland artist who has been a
longtime local leader creating street art. “When people get to watch the process and speak with artists on a personal level, it removes many of the stereotypes of the culture.”

Stepping into Graffiti HeArt’s new gallery and educational space does just that. With an open floor plan and minimalistic design, artists have ample room to get motivated. Along with murals on the walls and art around every turn, Graffiti HeArt removes some of those boundaries, both physical and metaphorical, associated with graffiti art to inspire artists – both established and up-and-coming.

Artist Bob Peck with his 2015 mural at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The next gen component

Peck was initially contacted by Paul to become involved with Graffiti HeArt near the organization’s inception, but he had some hesitation.

“At first I was a bit stand offish because I had my own projects going, but once I saw a few of the students receiving scholarships and how excited they were, I decided to come aboard,” Peck says. “I’m glad I did.”

A key point in combating the stereotypes surrounding graffiti lies in educating upcoming artists. By targeting this age group, Paul says younger artists can learn the code of graffiti and become better in the future.

Another large piece of Graffiti HeArt’s mission is exactly that – using the new space for educational and mentoring opportunities. 

According to Graffiti HeArt’s website, the organization has sponsored 30 scholarships to high school-age students, contributing nearly $70,000 in funding since 2015.

“You have these established graffiti artists that paid their dues, (and) are experienced and confident in their craft,” Paul says. “They respect the code of graffiti and had their hard knocks. With the younger artists, they’re eager and learning and exploring. When I think about the younger aspiring artists, it’s fun to see them interact with the more experienced ones because there is truly this kind of big brother/sister, almost mentor interaction.”

Stamy Paul walks through the street art-covered alley of Graffiti HeArt.

With almost 20 years of experience, Peck says he’s seen how having a project to focus on – and getting paid for it – can change an artist’s life. 

“It’s the idea of being able to create art that in turn assists those that need it,” he says. “Having grown up in a low-income family myself, I know how hard it is to have extra money to pay for schooling and supplies outside of making ends meet.”

Along with scholarships and providing opportunities to learn about street art, Paul believes graffiti art should be taught, or at least discussed, in the classroom. Doing so may dispel stereotypes and speak to a cultural phenomenon the students are likely familiar with anyways. She says she’s in talks with a few teachers to bring them to Graffiti HeArt for hands-on experiences. 

“It’s important to teach about it, especially in the inner city and urban areas where students may have graffiti artists in their family or the family’s network,” she says. “If it’s not taught, they’re going to miss out having an open mind to the world that they live in. So, when they see it, they can be a student but also be a little wise about what all art can do, not just certain forms of art. We don’t want people to be brainwashed into thinking only specific art is ‘good’.’”

A changing view

Residing in a building painted top to bottom in a large rainbow color scheme by Los Angeles-based artist RISK, Graffiti HeArt works to add to the landscape of the neighborhood it resides in. But, in this quest to inform the public about street art, Graffiti HeArt also brings commissioned projects into the greater community with pieces at locations like CLE Urban Winery in Cleveland Heights and the Tremont Athletic Club in Cleveland, and neighborhood murals at Tyler Village and Gordon Square in Cleveland.

The exterior of Graffiti HeArt, designed by RISK.

With these artistic additions to the streets of the city, Cleveland is already becoming more welcoming to street artists, Paul says.

“Now we know that the presence of public murals has increased in the recent years in Northeast Ohio, we’re seeing more and more artist collaborations occurring, where talent is diverse and vibrant,” she says. “We encourage artists, and others, to express their opinions. We welcome everyone and expect this to be a safe and inclusive space. We’re here, and if you want to be part of it, we’re happy to have you.”

As popular culture welcomes international graffiti icons like Banksy and with movies like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which has a subplot centered around graffiti art, the Cleveland community is also following suit – even if slowly.

“But, if you say street murals, everyone accepts it,” she says. “It’s all in the words you choose. It’s the negative connotation that comes along with the word graffiti. It creates that discourse. But, approval has been on a sort of upswing in concert with the economic development of Northeast Ohio. There is a correlation between these communities developing, and there is more interest in using art as part of the whole community fabric.”

The first floor of Graffiti HeArt contains an open space for creating, overlooked by a mural by Ish Muhammad, a Chicago-area artist.

Moreover, Graffiti HeArt can help artists gain work. And for younger artists, that may mean pursuing a career in the arts.

“One of the biggest things is that they help graffiti and street artists who are looking to transcend into commercial and public art, by presenting them with opportunities that they may not normally have access to or knowledge of,” Peck says. 

And, learning more about the art form can help bring about new talent.

“It’s an untapped skill that is in our community,” Paul says. “In a world where there is so much negative that we hear about, we need more platforms for the positives that exist. The art form has been around for many decades, and it’s important to nurture and promote it. RISK, the Los Angeles artist that painted the exterior of our Graffiti HeArt graffiti gallery, said it well, that ‘graffiti is the last hand to medium to surface art form.’ That says it all.”