Visual Arts » Public

The Comeback Kid

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For years, Robert Bentley used to spray paint his name on buildings, signs or any other "canvas" he deemed worthy of his signature.

But it wasn't always his real name that he was tagging throughout the city.

"I've had a few aliases over the years," says the 26-year-old spray paint artist, muralist and printmaker. "Sometimes you would change your name, because you'd get sick of writing the same thing."

Bentley created this mural on the back wall of Pierre's Barber Shop after attending a Public Enemy concert where Flava Flav made several hand singles and said, "Only through peace and unity can we achieve real power." - COURTESY OF ROBERT BENTLEY
  • Courtesy of Robert Bentley
  • Bentley created this mural on the back wall of Pierre's Barber Shop after attending a Public Enemy concert where Flava Flav made several hand singles and said, "Only through peace and unity can we achieve real power."

Other times it was to avoid having police figure out his identity. Graffiti , which is often linked to gangs, criminal activity or blight, is illegal in Indiana and can range from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class D felony.

However, those days of artistically painting his name under the cover of night are a distant part of Bentley's youthful past.

Since 2012 he has been spray painting images and messages of hope, abstract pieces and works featuring big block lettering in bold colors on everything from business walls to traffic signal boxes to private garages throughout the city.

These days Bentley's work is all legal, commissioned art.

Although his method technically can be classified as "graffiti," Bentley no longer uses that term to describe his work as an artist.

"Unless it's illegal, it's not graffiti," says Bentley. "That's why I can't really designate myself as a graffiti artist anymore, because by definition most graffiti artists will say that the illegal part kind of makes it."

As an artist, with a fine arts degree from Herron School of Art and Design, Bentley both needed and wanted himself and his work to be taken seriously. He received that break three years ago.

It was his mural on the side of Henry's Coffee Bistro near Mass Ave. -- the one of the young woman surrounded by orange rays against a black and white backdrop -- that legitimized his work and opened the door to Robert Bentley Art and Design.

He created the mural, with the permission of the building's owner, on the outside north-facing wall, while still a student at Herron. Since then, he has been commissioned to create works through Keep Indianapolis Beautiful's Great Indy Cleanup program and the Arts Council of Indianapolis' public art program.

Indiana Fever guard Shavonte Zellous commissioned Bentley to create a three-wall mural in a room inside of her house. Part of the mural includes her jersey number and the team name. - COURTESY OF ROBERT BENTLEY
  • Courtesy of Robert Bentley
  • Indiana Fever guard Shavonte Zellous commissioned Bentley to create a three-wall mural in a room inside of her house. Part of the mural includes her jersey number and the team name.

His work has even caught the attention of local celebrities, including Indiana Fever guard Shavonte Zellous, who hired Bentley to create a three-wall mural that includes a life-sized image of her.

He's currently working on a series of pieces that will show his range as an artist.

The new ones will be on canvas to be unveiled July 3 during the First Friday Gallery Walk at the Madame Walker Theatre Centre.

"It's not really graffiti art. It's kind of something that I've developed over time," says Bentley about the pieces in his upcoming show. "It's a lot of up-close portraits of the face that are not realistically painted."

To be able to make a living as an artist is something Bentley doesn't take lightly. He started dabbling in art when he was 3 or 4 years old with his maternal grandmother, who also was an artist.

Still, he admits walking away from graffiti wasn't easy.

"Graffiti is like an addiction to a drug, where if you haven't done it for a while ... it's kind of like withdrawal, but it's all mental," he says. "You get this itch to go out and do it and you pull out your sketch book and do 100 drawings and even that won't relieve that itch, that satisfaction of going out and doing it."

The commissioned murals and other works he's tapped to do throughout the city scratches his itch.

"It's always been more about the skill than the action for me," says Bentley. "So after awhile I just started doing a lot of legal work and stretching my artistic legs. It helps a lot when you can actually bring your work outside of the box of graffiti."

Spray paint artist and muralist Robert Bentley created this larger-than-life piece on the side of Henry's Coffee Bistro, 627 East St., in 2012 for a class project while a student at Herron School of Art and Design. - COURTESY OF ROBERT BENTLEY
  • Courtesy of Robert Bentley
  • Spray paint artist and muralist Robert Bentley created this larger-than-life piece on the side of Henry's Coffee Bistro, 627 East St., in 2012 for a class project while a student at Herron School of Art and Design.

One of Bentley's most gratifying pieces is probably the first job he received through Keep Indianapolis Beautiful (KIB), painting traffic signal boxes along the West Washington Street corridor.

It was a job that almost didn't happen because of his past as a graffiti artist.

"When I was explaining my artwork to them, I said I was a graffiti artist and that set off the people in the Mayor's office," said Bentley. "They made me reassure them that I would not be doing that any more."

The street-art style designs, featuring vivid colors in blue, yellow and orange, are located on four traffic signal boxes.

Ashlee Fujawa, public relations director for KIB, says using Bentley as an artist for that project had a two-fold outcome.

"He had actually tagged in that neighborhood and having him do the light boxes helped to legitimize his artwork and his style," says Fujawa. "The neighborhood also feels that the designs he created represents them."

Another mural Bentley is especially proud of is one he created for Pierre's Barber Shop at College Avenue and 34th Street.

The unassuming building, which sits near the corner, doesn't look like much from the front. It's the back wall that draws the most attention.

"I went to see a Public Enemy show and Flava Flav did the peace sign, the crossed fingers and the black power fist and he said, 'Only through peace and unity can we achieve real power," says Bentley. "So I put those three hand symbols and that quote on the wall in spray paint."

The green, black and yellow color scheme Bentley used makes the mural - another KIB project - pop against the shop's white backdrop.

No matter the size or type of project he's working on, spray paint is always included and often the predominate material.

"Spray paintis my preferred material," says Bentley, who uses disposable masks with respirators when working with the aerosol cans. "Learning how to control spray paint over the last 10 or 11 years ... I'm not going to let that go to waste. Plus, it's a much faster process for applying mural work, and it feels so much more comfortable to me."

Bentley adds detail to one of the many works of art he has created throughout the city. Bentley graduated from Herron School of Art and Design with a degree in fine art, but his preferred material of choice is spray paint.  - COURTESY OF ROBERT BENTLEY
  • Courtesy of Robert Bentley
  • Bentley adds detail to one of the many works of art he has created throughout the city. Bentley graduated from Herron School of Art and Design with a degree in fine art, but his preferred material of choice is spray paint.

The only limitation is when he's creating smaller pieces.

"With smaller art I don't use all spray paint because trying to get the smaller detail with spray paint on a canvas is kind of hard."

Much of what Bentley creates is obtained through commissions from Craig's List, where he often advertises, his artist Facebook page and word of mouth from friends and past or current clients.

Each work begins with a sketch ("most clients want to see what it looks like before you do it and before they commit") and can take anywhere from a few days to a month to create - depending on the project. After that, it's all freehand work.

Regardless of where the job comes from, Bentley is just happy to be a working artist in Indianapolis. He's also proud to be part of the city's public art movement.

"Being a professional artist in Indianapolis is pretty hard and (the momentum of public art) opens up a lot of opportunities to for me to get work, which is great," he says. "Public art does a lot for some of the darkest, ugliest places. You can take the crappiest looking city and paint murals everywhere and it would look so much nicer, much more inviting. Public art makes Indianapolis a brighter place to be."

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