Beers: The man behind the tag

In September 2019, we published a profile of a graffiti artist who uses the moniker “Beers.” We later learned through multiple sources that he had been convicted of and sentenced for intimate partner violence, which we confirmed through public records, police reports and court documents. Acting under the advice of our legal counsel, we are unable to share more information about the facts and circumstances surrounding the situation.  

Neither the writer nor our editor-in-chief were aware of the artist’s actions prior to publication. If we had been, we would have dropped the story. We recognize that featuring someone on our cover represents an endorsement of their work, which is why we are disclosing this new information now. We want to be transparent to keep the trust you’ve put in The Devil Strip.

Prior to this story, we have used anonymous sources sparingly, primarily to shield the identity of vulnerable people, like whistleblowers in the course of investigative reporting. In this situation, we made an exception. That won’t happen again. We’re taking a hard look at how we do our work to prevent situations like this in the future.  

We offered the artist an opportunity to comment. He wrote that his life is “an open book” and he was “never hiding anything” but added, “…the story isn’t about me it’s about an anonymous artist.” The rest of his response threatens legal action and a request for $100,000 as compensation, he says, for the time he spent being interviewed. (The Devil Strip does not pay sources for interviews.) 

We know our readers trust us to highlight people and organizations who are improving Akron with their art, music and culture. We are sorry to have let you down by elevating this person’s profile.  

Thank you for your trust. We strive to earn it every day.

The story remains below, for transparency’s sake. It was written by Derek Kreider.

“What is this, casual Thursday?” the man on the porch shouted at me. I had just stepped out of my car, dressed in shorts, a denim vest adorned with a dusting of studs and patches and a ratty T-shirt. The last time we’d seen each other I’d had on jeans and a red and black checkered shirt. I’d been the very picture of “business casual” so his gripe was a reasonable one. Reasonable enough coming from a guy with paint all over his clothes, anyway..

“You never know who you’re going to run into,” I replied, laughing. 

“I get it,” he said. “Gotta be professional.”

Beers (not his real name) and I had met only once before, but we already had an easy repartee. To anyone who didn’t know better it would seem as though we’d known each other for months. Enough time to form a casual friendship or, at least, a steady acquaintanceship.

There’s graffiti everywhere in Akron. So much so that there are times when I never notice it. Even after having spent a significant amount of time hanging around drinking beer under highway overpasses, the paint blends into the concrete and becomes another part of the urban landscape. The names jump out at you from the walls or from the sidewalk, but you never think about the face behind the name. You don’t know the work that goes into creating a piece of graffiti that stretches end-to-end on a freight car because you weren’t there. The effort gets put in while your average citizen is asleep. But while the sun is down, there’s an entire world that thrives under bridges and in darkened, shadow haunted train yards. 

I met Beers, through a convoluted chain of events, at an art exhibition he was doing at Kenmore’s Project Three Gallery. Having only ever seen his tag, I had no idea who I was looking for or what to expect. To make matters worse, I was running on about three hours of sleep, I was early, the gallery was locked and it was 90 degrees outside in the shade. My choice of business casual was proving to be a mistake. 

As I sat on the outside windowsill of the gallery facing the street, I tried to guess if anyone passing by was the type to wield cans of spray paint under bridges or in train yards. As more and more folks walked by without stopping, I wondered if the whole thing was a bust.

Given the inherent illegality of graffiti, there aren’t many practitioners out there that openly broadcast their face. Vandalism charges can carry stiff penalties. If charged with a 5th degree felony, a graffiti artist might face six to 12 months in prison and fines of up to $2,500. Graduating to a 4th degree felony can land you six to 18 months in prison and fines reaching $5,000.

My phone buzzed, an email coming in. It was from Tina Boyes, the Executive Director of the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance who made our meeting possible.

“Artist is running late. What is your phone number?” 

I sent her my number and went back to playing my guessing game. Suddenly, someone appeared with a key to the gallery. He had dark hair and tattoos on both arms. The short-sleeved collared shirt he was wearing echoed my own attire, but he demonstrated more practicality by wearing shorts instead of jeans. We shook hands and went inside. 

We were knee-deep in conversation before I realized who I was talking to.

“Oh wait, you’re the artist?” I asked. 

He nodded and I laughed, trying to play it off. By the time I got the recorder running, we were already talking shop. 

“So, you are going to do the R. Shea thing?” I asked. 

“I am going to do the R. Shea thing,” he responded.

In March 2018, Ron Shea, founder of R. Shea Brewing Co., signed a lease on an industrial space at Canal Place on South Main Street in downtown Akron. The new location will house a 50,000-square-foot production brewery and an 8,000-square-foot restaurant. In addition to the massive undertaking in construction that this has proven to be, Ron will unveil a massive mural painted by the enigmatic artist himself — a mural that was surprisingly hard to commission. 

The story shakes out like this: In May of this year Rick Armon, a staff writer for the Akron Beacon Journal and beer news blogger, wrote a piece detailing Ron’s desire to contact Beers with the intent to commission a mural for the new location at Canal Place. Ron had seen Beers’s work around the city and was intrigued.

Beers was in New York when the article was brought to his attention via Instagram.  After painting a hand holding a foaming beer mug at the Brooklyn Beer Garden in Bushwick, a friend of his suggested that Beers write his Instagram handle, @youngbeerski, next to his work. He did. 

The New York Daily News picked up the ABJ article and all of a sudden it was a national story. With national attention came paranoia from Beers’ Instagram followers. A number of commenters attempted to wave him off from doing the R. Shea mural because it could be a sting set up for him by the police. 

Regardless of the risk, perceived or real, Beers entered negotiations with Ron. Eventually, they decided that the funds for the project would go to a non-profit based in Cleveland called Graffiti HeArt. Graffiti HeArt would then pay for the paint for the mural and for Beers’s artist fee. 

“Look, dude, I knew dealing with you that there was a risk,” Beers told Ron during the planning. “No risk, no reward.”

It might seem that this is all a result of dumb luck; the product of simply being in the right place at the right time and having a skill that has relatively recently become in-demand. Fate, or luck, or whatever other name you have for it does play a role. But chalking it up to mere coincidence alone belittles and obscures the amount of work that Beers has put into his craft over a career that spans 25 years and starts on the west coast.

“I grew up in Southern California, man. It was all about just tags… Everybody had a tag,” Beers says.

Beers and his twin brother were raised by their father, a single 20-something who had split from his wife, and his grandmother who was the art director at the Akron Art Museum for a time. She offered to help with the kids so the young family relocated to Ohio, kicking off a years-long shuffle between the two states.

“My dad liked it [in Ohio]. He went to Kent State and we used to live on Mull Avenue when I was like really, really young. Then we all moved back to California. When my dad got remarried, that was about second grade, we moved back here. I did a year out here, went back to my mom’s for two years, came back out here for fifth and sixth grade, back out there for seventh and eighth, came back out here and lived in Austintown for a year. Redid eighth grade there and then moved to Stow for high school. That’s kinda when I was like, ‘this whole thing isn’t for me.’”

Beers left his father’s house and started traveling when he was 15. When he returned home, he found it hard to re-adapt to domesticated life. 

“I came back for about a month or two when I was 17 and it was like, ‘be home at 10:30,’ after, like, just literally traveling the country, setting up shop at a hippie festival parking lot making money? No, this isn’t for me,” he says. 

That was it for his formal education and any semblance or pretense of normalcy or stability for awhile. 

“I’ve been writing graffiti since I was 12. I got serious when I was probably about 19. Then I started painting freights,” Beers says. 

Until then he had been involved in all the different aspects of hip-hop culture. Eventually he decided that it was time to focus on something. “I was kinda, like, halfway into graffiti, halfway into breakdancing, like halfway into rapping, I’m not great at any of them, I’m okay at all of them. And I was like, all right, I’ve never been serious about anything. I’m really gonna do this graffiti shit.” 

That he should pick graffiti out of the deck is no surprise for someone who had been so taken in by hip-hop. “Graffiti is visual hip-hop. It’s something to look at when the music stops,” he says. Through spray paint he began to fill in the spaces between songs.

That was 1999. After that, it was all about painting. 

In 2005 he was arrested during his bachelor party for writing graffiti and given 18 months of probation. Still, for those 18 months, he spent as much time in the train yard as possible. 

“I was trying to do 200 trains a year,” Beers says.  

That kind of single-minded focus is costly, though. “Graffiti literally ruined my marriage,” he says. “It was like competing with another woman, almost.”

When he and the woman he calls his high school sweetheart were initially married, Beers promised to only go painting one day during the weekend and one day during the week. But that wasn’t enough. He spent the other five days of the week scanning the landscape for spots to bomb, working out a way to get paint, or taking pictures of graffiti.

 It takes a long time to get to a point where a graffiti writer’s name is recognized. The name of the game is longevity. Plenty of people can pick up a paint can for a season, but what eventually differentiates the corn from the chaff is sticking with it. 

“Everybody starts at the same point. We all sucked at some point. When I meet young cats they’re like, ‘Oh my god, you’re Beers,’ I’m like, ‘the only difference between me and you is literally a body of work and that is it,’” he says. 

All of the time spent in train yards and under bridges with a paint can in hand has made Beers look like a consummate professional. The night before we met at the gallery in Kenmore, he’d been under a bridge with a backpack full of spray paint. After an hour talking at Project Three, we walked down the street and up an alley to a set of train tracks. The only reason we were returning was so that Beers could put the finishing touches on the piece he threw up the night before.

I suspect that he had broken up the process of painting the piece into two parts at least somewhat for my benefit. I’d never seen a graffiti artist in action, and I’m betting he knew that even before I turned up. 

When we emerged from the alley, a splash of color on the concrete pillars supporting a highway bridge jumped out from the bleak gray-orange landscape of gravel and aging railroad track.

In a palate of blue and purple and green, he’d spelled his name out in five-foot-tall letters. From the top left corner emerged a caricature of the creature of the Black Lagoon, his face a mask of mischief with fangs punctuating the grinning rictus.

Watching him work was like watching the conductor of an orchestra. A Gerhardt Zimmermann with Rustoleum. Short, focused shots of paint in key areas made the whole thing pop. It began to rise off the concrete, taking hold of the life given to it by its creator. Like the monster that never asked to be made, it loomed out over the tracks, a hulking testament to humanity’s need and drive to create.

As with most artists who have been at it for a long time, Beers displays the twin characteristics of fierce pride in his medium and a self-deprecating humor about what he does. More than once during the time we spent together, he described himself as a full-time loser and professional time waster. Then, less than five minutes later, he declared that painting graffiti is like going to church for him. People are full of these kinds of contradictions, and he’s no exception. He recognizes the dichotomy between those two aspects of his personality. 

 Knowing that things might have been different if he’d been honest with a guidance counselor about his interest in art, he has an idea about how to address a restless artistic spirit in other people. Having left the traditional education pipeline early for a more streetwise education, Beers is in a unique position to help people avoid some of the missteps that he’s made, while still ushering them in a direction that could lead them on a path to fulfilling a dream.

 He wants to start a non-profit organization to benefit what he refers to as “problem kids” — “Kids that have run away, kids that don’t think they care about school,” as he describes them. “All that stuff matters. I thought it didn’t matter and, boy, I mean, I wish I had woulda went to prom… I had every opportunity in the world, and I just chose to be a hard head.”

Despite these misgivings, Beers sees the work that he does as integral to who he is as a person. “Would I change it? No, dude. Essentially, this culture saved my life. It not only gave me something to be proud about — when you’re, like, out the night before and everybody else is wasting time and money at the bar or sleeping, and you went out and created this art project under a specific timeline with all of these other elements that are factors like cops, or other people, and you pull it off… Dude, you’re walking tall the next day.”

Before Beers got started on the R. Shea mural, I spent a weekday afternoon hanging out with him on a porch in Akron. We talked about everything from graffiti in relation to hip-hop culture at large to graffiti in relation to model trains. No matter what we were conversing about, it always came back to the paint. Toward the end of our conversation, he summed up what I think he had been trying to get at all along. 

“I’m not out here saying, ‘hey, go pick up a spray can and go deface some public property.’ But what I am suggesting or prescribing to anybody is, whatever you’re passionate about, do that. Build something around that. Don’t let anything, I mean anything — no police, no… religious leaders, parents, whatever… Dude, if you love it and that’s what makes you move, do that. And do that like you’re never going to get paid from it, and do that like this might be the last time,” Beers says. “There’s no half-assing it.” 

Derek Kreider is a freelance writer and sort-of musician from parts unknown.