Akron Public Art | Jay Croft, Back in Akron

by Claude Christensen



If you’ve licked an ice cream cone over at Chill Ice Cream on Maiden Lane, you’ve seen them. The colorful figures having fun on the exterior of Chill.

More than a few are skateboarding, some are playing football, two are saying “I scream you scream for Ice Cream,” and a tiny one is taking a death-plunge into an ice cream cone. These figures, somewhat silly and always playful, transform the once dark end of Maiden Lane into a bright and exciting addition to Akron’s art scene.  

This mural is the work of Ohio artist Jay Croft and the Akron Art Bomb Brigade. They had a blast making it.

The Chill mural was Jay’s first cooperative art project, the first time he directed others in making his work. He really enjoyed the experience of directing a group of artists. He’s glad to get exposure in his hometown and such a positive response to his work from people he knows.

“I’m just a kid from Ohio,” says Jay, who grew up in Norton. But that’s not entirely true.

An avid skater (i.e., skateboarder), an artist, and a world traveler, Jay also produces “Street Canoe,” a website and recurring zine devoted to all things skateboarding. He’s made five zines so far, each packed with interviews from well-known skaters, quotes and poems, and, of course, Jay’s distinct art.

Jay’s work was also on display as part of the recent “Please Touch” exhibit at the Akron Art Museum, which invited museum goers to interact with the artwork. For the exhibit, Jay crafted life-size reproductions of his iconic skating figures, and made numerous magnetic pieces of clothing, gear, and decorations that could be added to a figure or a piece. It was a take on the iconic paper doll, albeit skateboarding-themed and with life-sized figures. 

Jay grew up in a family that encouraged creativity and a can-do attitude. It was his grandfather who got Jay to start drawing, calling each day to make sure Jay had done something new. “‘What’d you draw today?’” he’d ask.

Jay’s father was also a huge influence.

“My dad was the kind of guy who said when I started skateboarding all those years ago, ‘Well, we’ll just make skateboards!’” says Jay.

It’s been a long time since Jay’s dad offered to help him build skateboards, but that mindset has stuck with Jay throughout his life, giving him the confidence he needed to pursue his passions.

“I was twelve years old when I started skating, just like everybody else my age. It was because of ‘Back to the Future.’”

But he didn’t drop his board after “Back to the Future” left the movie theaters and became a cult classic. Jay, now 43, believes in the power of skating.

“It always motivated me to do what I wanted to do,” Jay says. This follows another of his credos: “Whatever you do in life, own it. Take pride in it. It’ll pay off.”

Still, Jay never knew that his passion for skating and drawing would bring him to where he is today.

“If you had told me when I was a little kid that this is the kind of life I would lead, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he says.

A fierce individualist, Jay describes his life choices in a way reminiscent of the Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

“I was always the one who, when others went one way, I went the other,” he says.

For Jay, this meant pursuing his skating passion after high school. He traveled the country, and the world at large, with skating friends. Skating gave Jay a kind of universal passport, a way to connect locally wherever he went, whether in California, North Carolina, New York, or Chicago.

“If you know enough about skating, you can go anywhere and find a friend,” he says.

Wherever Jay went, the skater community was there, welcoming and supportive.

It was in the late ‘90s that Jay began to think of his drawings as art, resulting in a couple of gallery shows and sales to skateboard companies for his graphic designs.

Jay’s first graphics commission was for the Giant Distribution skateboarding company. He was working for the company in another capacity when a friend told the owners about Jay’s artwork. So they asked him to draw graphics for their new board series, “Manimals.” Jay went home, drew seven different board ideas for the seven different company pro-skateboarders, and the owners snapped them up.

That was 18 years ago, and he hasn’t stopped since.

“I’ve been fortunate enough that all my friends in the skateboard industry have been looking out for me, getting me projects, like designing the insoles of shoes, or t-shirts, or the graphics on boards,” he says.

He currently works for Vans, the shoe company, as a visual merchandiser.

“I’m in skateboard shops everyday of my life, all across the Midwest,” he says.

Jay’s creative process, whether it’s making public art or skateboard graphics, always begins with a few sketches. He draws his ideas from real life: a man with a mustache on a bicycle waiting to cross a busy intersection, people he sees in a crowd, one of the many skaters he hangs out with.

He used to work with only a couple of Sharpies and a blank sheet of paper. This process gave his pieces a rough but active quality. Where art critics might laud the mark of the brush in a painting, Jay’s perfected a style that gives evidence of the line of his marker. He still works with the same aesthetic, but a few years ago he got a Microsoft Surface Pro, which has allowed him to do a lot more while retaining the same mark that makes his works so unique.

Lately, Jay has been drawing in bed at night before going to sleep.

“Sometimes, If I’m drawing something,” he says, “I’ll turn to Jules [his wife Julia] and ask ‘Hey Jules, what do you think?’ She’ll turn over with one eye open, and she’ll say ‘Yeah, that’s cool,’ and then go right back to sleep.”

Now living in Silver Lake with Julia and their two kids, Jay’s glad to be back, though this isn’t the first time he’s returned to the Akron area. He lived in Highland Square in the early 2000s.

He liked Akron, “but there needed to be a renaissance here, there needed to be a revolution. And now it’s happening.”

For more information about Jay Croft and his work, visit his site streetcanoe.com, or follow him on Instagram @streetcanoe.

(Photos of Jay courtesy of Brad Westcott)

Claude Christensen got his biggest stage role in college, playing a potted plant that shook its fronds during a lesbian sex scene.