Nestled as it is amid the taquerias of Cherokee Street, the face of a masked female wrestler painted on a boarded-up building is easy to miss. This particular luchadora sports gaudy blue eye shadow and puckered red lips that poke through the mouth of her crimson mask like a rose.

A few blocks down the street, cutouts of a half-dozen more masks lean against the wall of Peat Wollaeger's attic-like studio. The masks are part of a collaborative series organized by Wollaeger, another Screwed In artist. He sends templates painted with just the eyes and mouths to different artists around the globe. They add their own custom masks and send them back. The works debuted at an art show in San Francisco and have traveled as far as Australia. The Cherokee piece, though, might be the last time that one of the masks appears on the street in St. Louis.

"I'm done with street art indefinitely. It's just not worth it," Wollaeger says. "A lot of people in St. Louis don't understand the difference between street art and graffiti, and I don't want to get caught doing it and put my family or career in jeopardy. Right now I'm just doing it for the love of it."

Peat Wollaeger poses in front of his work.
courtesy Peat Wollaeger
Peat Wollaeger poses in front of his work.
Tolentino and Wollaeger's murals stand side by side at Fourth and Lombard streets.
Jennifer Silverberg
Tolentino and Wollaeger's murals stand side by side at Fourth and Lombard streets.


RFT Slide Show

View a slide show of graffiti around St. Louis by some of the artists profiled in this story.

Now 32, Wollaeger got his start in commercial graphic design; his projects included creating matchbooks for Camel cigarettes and using urban contemporary art to give products a hip image, marketable to a young audience. In 2003, inspired by the satirical stencil work of the British street artist Banksy, he began cutting his own elaborate stencils.

"I was just tired of creating for the Man," Wollaeger deadpans. "I had to create for myself."

Wollaeger wasn't alone in adopting Banksy as his muse. Though the buzz that brought highbrow graffiti into the mainstream had vanished by the end of the '80s, relegating street art to its previous status as a public nuisance, Banksy and his iconic stencils served to reinvigorate the medium just in time for the new millennium. As the first decade of the 21st century nears its end, Banksy is widely regarded as the catalyst of a global resurgence in guerrilla public art.

One of Banksy's most famous works depicts a police officer in riot gear searching the picnic basket belonging to Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Wollaeger's approach tends to be more lighthearted. In addition to the masks, he's done a series called Dead Fat Comedians that includes the colorfully stenciled faces of Chris Farley, John Belushi and John Candy.

Wollaeger might be the most successful of St. Louis' street-to-gallery crossover artists. His work has taken him around the world, including a trip to Melbourne, Australia, for a street-art exhibition last year. He still dabbles in commercial graphic design; in 2007 he was one of eleven artists, including the famed New York graffiti writer Dr. Revolt, selected to create a custom Mountain Dew label. Wollaeger's design, a hippy/hillbilly hybrid he dubbed "Beardy McGreen," is now painted on a garage door in St. Louis on South Fourth Street at Lombard Street.

He says opposition to his public art in St. Louis has increased dramatically over the past year. He has received complaints from neighbors on Cherokee and phone calls from police asking him to stop stenciling. Now he's considering yielding to their demands.

"I'm just getting sick and tired of being known as someone who's out wrecking shit when I'm not wrecking anything out there," Wollaeger says. "Anything I put out there is more to beautify the community."

In St. Louis' insular graffiti community, the railroad tracks beneath the intersection of Tower Grove and South Vandeventer avenues are known as "The Arena." And for good reason: This is where the rival crews do battle. Thousands of colorful tags decorate the concrete walls that run parallel to a long stretch of tracks. Though most of the pieces have been painted over, scratched out or otherwise ruined by feuding crews — acts known as "disses" — a handful of well-preserved pieces date back more than a decade. There are layers upon layers of paint.

Leading a tour along the railroad ties, Hoax, a St. Louis graffiti writer, expounds upon the significance of a crew.

"It's all my best friends. It's not a gang or anything like that, it's just a group of guys united under a title," he says. "There's no initiation. You go out painting a couple times, and then if they're cool, they're in the crew. You learn who you can count on and who you can trust real fast when you're out in the middle of the night running from the cops."

Hoax says he founded "LD," also known as the "Low Down" crew, in 1999. Tattoos poke from his shirt collar and climb both sides of his thick, muscular neck. His bottom teeth are capped with a fanged gold grill. He has served time in prison and says graffiti abetted his path to crime.

"Graffiti is like a gateway drug. It desensitizes you. It puts you in a situation where things that aren't all right are suddenly all right," he says. "It can be positive, but it can also lead to being a total fuck-around. Once you start doing shady stuff, what's to stop you from doing other shady stuff?"

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