Controversy in Collinwood?

Fri 10/4 @ 6pm

“Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw whatever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall — it’s wet.” – Banksy, Wall and Piece

Public art and murals aren’t new concepts in Cleveland — there is literally art everywhere you look throughout the city.  However, at the beginning of the summer a public art project called Zoetic Walls began taking over the streets of Collinwood’s historic Waterloo Arts District. It wasn’t just a couple of painted walls.  The project now includes about a dozen large-scale, outdoor murals from both local and international artists – with four more coming throughout October.

Zoetic Walls has made Waterloo one of the largest concentrations of public art in the region.  To fans of the project, it’s like living in a giant, open-air art gallery.  However, since the first mural went up, a small but passionate minority in the community have been strongly opposed to the imagery.

Opponents claim the murals don’t reflect the community, especially since many of them were done by internationally-renowned street artists from other states and countries.  Further, some of the paintings have politically and socially symbolic imagery.  While the artists’ visions were not censored in any way throughout the creative process, the community’s input wasn’t openly solicited during the planning stages of the process either.  This opens up an interesting opportunity for a discussion about public art, public opinion and censorship.

To be democratic, we’ve solicited opinions from as many of Collinwood’s residents and influential citizens as possible in hopes of facilitating an open dialogue.

John Farina, President of SPACES’ Board of Directors, owner of Waterloo’s Maria Neil Art Project and Collinwood resident, offered his insight:

“No one wants to stare at abandoned, empty buildings every day. As our community works to deal with these structures, why not color them with cool art? It shows off our creativeness as a community and our commitment to art and artists. It is just one more thing that makes Collinwood unique and one of the best places to be in Cleveland.”

Cindy Barber, owner of Waterloo’s iconic Beachland Ballroom & Tavern, comments:

“I really like Zoetic Walls and right now with the street completely destroyed during the construction of our new streetscape, I find some symbolism and joy gazing at all the murals but particularly the Gaia wall with the picture frame being held up with the beautiful view over the gritty uneven wall of an abandoned building ….so many of us on Waterloo have weathered hardship and are now weathering this disruptive construction…so bouncing to the Beachland along a one-way Waterloo, I worry if I can meet payroll this week because we are not getting enough people to shows…and I worry about Melanie at Music Saves who is really struggling through this…but when I see those murals I think so many of us created our own view and Waterloo is still very much a blank slate and we need more hardworking art-types with unique visions to jump over here and splash some color around…it’s like these world-class street artists came and blessed our creative village and are saying with the murals…you can walk through these walls.”

Pat Nevar, Vice President of Waterloo’s Slovenian Workmen’s Home, strongly disagrees:

“We at the Slovenian Workmen’s Home, 15335 Waterloo Road, feel that most of the murals are extremely disgusting and do not represent our area.  We are probably the oldest business in the area and none of the murals represent us nor most of the people in our area.  We hope that they are removed at once.”

Bob Peck added his contribution to the project during this summer’s Waterloo Arts Fest.  Even more recently, he painted a wall outside The Agora for Art City.  He says:

“My first thought about this was to talk about how the pieces brighten up the neighborhood and all that good stuff. But looking in further, I think the best part is the fact that it’s exposing the residents to many new styles of art that may be unfamiliar to them.  Whether the project was welcomed with open arms by some or walked by with a head scratch here and there by others, it opened people’s eyes to more than traditional landscapes and portraits.

“To any newcomer-art-patrons, I say this:  Looking at art can be kinda like eating broccoli for the first time. Sure, it smells weird and looks funny, but once you dump some melted cheese on it and take a bite, you find out it’s delicious!  So go take a stroll around the area and look at all those murals and see what you get from them. (Just don’t dump any cheese sauce on them!)”

Dave Desimone, former owner of Collinwood’s Low Life Gallery, offers valuable insight:

“As a long time supporter of the arts in the Collinwood Neighborhood, I applaud the Zoetic Walls project. The neighborhood is pretty hardscrabble and currently void of any real identity. I think the mural project, coupled with the Waterloo streetscape project can help create a sense of place. Cities like London, Chicago, New York and Miami have all embraced street art as a legitimate art form, one that can even draw foot traffic to commercial districts. Art should never be ‘design by committee’ but perhaps a bit more effort informing the local community could win additional support.”

Andrew Boehlefeld, Manager at Native Cleveland on Waterloo, comments:

“I personally love that we’re bringing in these talented artists to develop the culture and creativity of our neighborhood. I am a huge fan of street art and graffiti, so I was very excited to see all the new murals on the street. I think it gives our community edge and a feel that we are something special.”

Cheryl Carter, former Director of Arts Collinwood (Waterloo Arts), offers her take:

“As a member of the Cleveland arts community and the former director of Arts Collinwood (Waterloo Arts), I find Zoetic Walls to be one of the most cutting-edge neighborhood arts initiatives I’ve witnessed.  In order to set Collinwood apart, and not duplicate the efforts of other neighborhoods, it’s important to reflect the uniqueness of the arts and culture that thrives in the Waterloo Arts District encompassing not only a variety of visual mediums, but entertainment, and the literary arts.  To be randomly surprised by these striking and thought-provoking murals created by the talented artists participating in the Zoetic Walls project is an experience like none other. It is exciting to witness the revival of a neighborhood through the arts yet again in our city.”

Local resident Cherie Laylin of Collinwood’s Bonniewood Drive, offered her opinion:

“North Collinwood is a richly diverse neighborhood with many nationalities and cultures.  Our neighborhood experience is made all the richer with the music and art available on our streets. I have talked to people who drive in from all over the city to see the Zoetic Walls murals project and have started coming to art exhibitions.  I am proud of the community involvement that has helped to create the Arts Collinwood movement.  Please spread the word.”

Elva Brodnick, a particularly outspoken community member, isn’t impressed:

“Frankly, I’m not seeing ‘art’ in any of these murals. While I realize that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ giving the public nightmares is not ‘art.’ And that’s what most of these things do. These horrendous images, splattered all over walls in the Waterloo district, can’t be making a good impression on visitors to our neighborhood! I’ve had visitors see these, with a universal reaction of ‘ewww . . . !’ And that includes a young friend of mine who’s pretty up to date on whatever’s ‘cool.’ It’s so overwhelmingly negative — bizarre images, depressing themes, scale & colors that slap you in the eye — the combination is so in-your-face, it’s basically unfriendly. Who would want to visit — or stay in — a neighborhood that allows nightmares to be so prominently displayed? And all we can do is shrug & say, ‘Well, we had nothing to say about it!’ — and try to explain why we allow our neighborhood to look so depressing.

“Silly of me, I suppose, to think that ‘community art’ — especially on this scale — should reflect the community it’s in. What’s more, even sillier it seems, is to expect this ‘art’ to be done by local artists who are part of the community. Not imported from all over anywhere, but people who live and work in our community, and would (hopefully) be more thoughtful of that community. ‘Community’ art — meaning works that are installed in public places, where they cannot be avoided by anyone in the area — should have community input. However ‘trendy’ this kind of thing is, it’s not something that will last, because it doesn’t reflect the community. Putting these depressing, nightmarish — and hurtful — images out where they can’t be avoided is a poor reflection on our neighborhood. (I’d like to know how Collinwood got to be the recipients of these things — why aren’t these things being scattered throughout the city, rather than concentrating them here?)”

Katherine Vaughn, who regularly volunteers at and maintains a studio above Waterloo Arts, chimes in:

“It’s fantastic! Amazing! Original works from a variety of different artists, with different themes and styles, made especially for the Collinwood community. They of course can’t all be favorites among everyone, but part of what makes them wonderful is that they’re so diverse. It brings in artists and gets them involved, whether they’re local or international. And it’s great to get things stirred up a bit among the locals…surprising how some people get all frazzled over a little art, of all things!”

Local resident Rebecca Morgan adds:

“YES! Anything to dress up the buildings and neighborhood is a good thing. Maybe some gang members will turn their artistic skills into something beautiful.”

Troy Schwartz, owner of Waterloo’s Star Pop vintage toy store, comments:

“It’s been exciting to see the blank walls and the faded remnants of old advertising replaced by some beautiful, large-scale murals. My bike rides and drives through the neighborhood are much more colorful now thanks to Zoetic Walls. I’m definitely looking forward to learning about the next batch of artists that they plan on working with and seeing new murals pop up before Cleveland’s winter weather sets in.”

Resident Marci Curtis says:

“Hate them.  Love the idea — would like to see positive images.”

John McGrail, local singer/songwriter, feels differently:

“I think the Zoetic Walls are fantastic, personally — especially when you consider what was there previously.  I find it hard to believe that anyone would object.  My brother was in town from Chicago for the [Waterloo] Arts Fest and he thought the whole neighborhood was pretty cool.  I’d say keep them coming”

Nancy Prudic, Associate Professor of Visual Art at Lake Erie College and longtime Collinwood resident, adds:

“I’ve lived in Collinwood for 29 years and have never been as excited as I was when I first encountered the numerous murals around the neighborhood this summer.  They are thought provoking and beautiful and I love them.”

Longtime Collinwood resident Barb Clint offers her view:

“I’m a 25-year resident of the North Collinwood neighborhood who frequents the Waterloo area…Do I love the murals, universally? No. Some do not speak to my personal aesthetic. However, collectively, they say to me that this is a neighborhood willing to experiment, open to differences, playful, edgy and definitely embracing the provocative nature of art.

“I just returned from Detroit, home of the Heidelberg District. Talk about edgy ‘art’: elegant old home, now thoroughly dilapidated, treated as though they are gigantic canvases and covered, top to bottom, with stuffed animals, polka dots, numbers. Lawns adorned with upright vacuum cleaners. Trees decorated with shoes.  AND it’s become Detroit’s second highest tourist destination, second only to their phenomenal river walk. THAT’s the power of art. That’s the strength of provocative installations. They are not about comfort but about thinking. May Collinwood/Waterloo have the courage to find its own authentic voice.”

Steve Ehret, one of Northeast Ohio’s best street artists, will be one of the artists creating a mural this month.  He offers his experience:

“I can only speak on what I know from being involved in similar projects such as this one over the years. I can tell you that while painting these pieces people come up to me and want to chat about the work. People I would never get to interact with on a daily basis. People that might be nervous or afraid to talk to a stranger with a beard are all of a sudden opened up because of this thing I am doing…making art. I understand that people are nervous about the scale or even the imagery on some of the walls but it is all just a learning experience for both the artist and the public that will be viewing the mural.

“Bringing other artists from out of town or even out of the country can only be a good thing for Collinwood.  I know that some local and regional painters are getting the opportunity to put some work up and it is great that we are being included as well. It gets the ball rolling towards more projects and more ideas. People are sometimes afraid to move forward. It’s easy to stay in one place but sometimes these types of projects can open people up to things that they never even knew they were interested in.

“Of course some will look down on the new murals and that’s OK. Not every piece of art is supposed to be for everyone. Love it or hate it…at least it is getting people thinking. Talking and discussing. I have had people come up to me and tell me that they changed the route that they take to work just so they can see a wall I painted everyday. If it’s making someone’s day and bringing some kind of happiness or inspiration to locals then that’s all that really matters to me. It is engaging them.  That really makes it all worth it and I am honored to be involved in this project. It will be my second time painting in Collinwood and I am looking forward to it.”


One of the things that makes Collinwood’s Zoetic Walls project successful is its willingness to let artists be themselves.  Too often, artists have to bend their creative vision to please their clients.  Throughout most of art history, commissions dictated both an artists’ aesthetic style and subject matter.

Sure, paintings of smiling happy children playing in the sunshine would make for great social propaganda, but great art is a genuine, uninhibited, creative expression of the human soul.  And that’s exactly what’s happening on the Walls of Waterloo. Propaganda depicts liberty by inhibiting the artists’ creative freedom.  Zoetic Walls portrays liberty by nurturing and supporting it – allowing the artists total creative freedom.  The former talks the talk, while the latter walks the proverbial walk.

While the works may not feature overtly positive and uplifting imagery about the community, Zoetic Walls is successful because it represents the freedom we all have in Collinwood (and this country overall) to be ourselves.  The walls around Waterloo portray pure, uninhibited creative expression.  They represent the cavalier attitude of both Collinwood and Greater Cleveland.  Zoetic Walls lets visitors to Collinwood know that this is a place unlike most of the world – a place where you can be not just accepted, but embraced, for being as weird as you want – just as long as you’re genuine.

Art can sometimes be like a Rorschach Test.  Art is a visual language without a dictionary — there is no reference point for concrete meanings of visual imagery/semiotics.  Everyone’s definition of each element is based on their own unique experiences and interpretations.  Art isn’t about universal meaning.  Great art has infinite possible readings.

Moving forward, it is clear the project could benefit from incorporating more community involvement.  Perhaps letting the public vote on their favorite potential artists/mural designs would help the community embrace the work.  It seems the biggest complaint from opponents is the lack of community representation and input.  As Dave Desimone mentioned, giving the community a role in the decision-making process seems the quickest and most direct solution to the current issues.

Waterloo Arts is celebrating their Zoetic Walls project with a six week-long party in their gallery – kicking off this Fri 10/4 .  During the next Walk All Over Waterloo, come to the Waterloo Arts Gallery and watch Cleveland get bombed with mini-murals in an opening event for another month of Zoetic Walls.

At this live painting party, artists will help imagine the proliferation of street art in our fair city as they dress-up a Cleveland cityscape (painted on the gallery walls by local artist Rachel Strongoli) with their own mural imaginings. There will be live music, live painting, and as usual, food and libations available at the adjacent Callaloo Café.

An art table will be set up where anyone can draw whatever they wish and wheat paste it onto the cityscape. For six weeks following the party, the cityscape will be fair game for any creative, any age, who wants to come into the gallery and throw up their tag. Organizers promise there will be no arrests. Everyone is welcome to take part in this evolving urban landscape installation.

Oh yeah…the Bomb Party is FREE, but the special Bomb cocktail will cost you.

Walk All Over Waterloo takes place from 6-10pm.



Josh Usmani is a 27 year old local artist, curator and writer. Since 2008, his work has been featured in over 50 local and regional exhibitions.








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4 Responses to “Controversy in Collinwood?”

  1. emilie123

    Thanks for bringing this to the attention of the readership of Cool Cleveland, Josh.
    I am for the murals, BTW

  2. Lois Moss

    Collinwood is now on my list of places to see when I’m back in Ohio this December. If the photos here are a sampling, I can’t wait to see what else is there.

  3. Rodney Lewallen

    I applaud all the principles in the Zoetic Walls Project and the Waterloo Arts Committee for finding a way to bring life, beauty and art – to a neighborhood that due to the housing market – has seen its fortunes decline as well. I used to work around the corner from Downtown Waterloo, and I enjoyed seeing all the different sculptures, art galleries and eclectic stores spring up prior to 2008, but was very saddened when it seemed the area was in danger of declining before it reached it’s potential. Thankfully the Zoetic Walls Project is keeping the heart beating in North Collinwood until the neighborhood is back on its’ feet and completely restored.

    By the way, any naysayers to the project – should be helping paint, mow and clean up properties in the area instead of complaining about what amounts to using color and art to hide the ugliness of decline. The Slovenian home has no idea how art and fresh paint on an abandoned building – actually improves their property values, as opposed to an ugly and continually decaying exterior takes away that value.

  4. Carol Foster

    Carol Foster

    I totally disagree Mr. Lewallen,
    This “ART” as everyone is calling it will not increase the value of”OUR” neighborhood. Fresh paint is great,but the ethnic backround and history of”OUR” community should be be reveald on”OUR” buildings which would be a better site then what we are looking at now,DISGUSTING!!!!!!!

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