Art of the Day: HEK

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Mon, 06/16/2008 - 23:00.

Two people reported to be HEK and MAK were reportedly arrested, May 30th, 2008. Jeff Buster and I have had a great interest in the work known all around NEO as HEK, and we both seem to wonder if there is really anyone to "arrest" as HEK, for HEK, as HEK seems the identity of many... the voice of many... and is today's Art of the Day.

Last July, 2007, I posted on REALNEO about some aerosol painting at W. 45th and Detroit, featuring "HEK", and "MAK". Since then, HEK et al aerosol art has surfaced on 100s... perhaps 1,000s... of mostly abandoned buildings, and some billboards, at prominent and often precarious sites on backroads and mainstreets of distressed urban areas of Cleveland and East Cleveland - probably beyond.

The HEK phenomenon is to me one of the defining public art performances in my Cleveland life-experience. Looking back over the past few years of REALNEO, no local identity has appeared more dynamically in postings here than HEK - Jeff Buster and I have each been moved to write about the HEK many times, always drawing engaged comments from many others.

That has broadened discussions to valuable matters like public art, social responsibility, blight and branding of our region. HEK was even featured in the REALNEO header mash-up by Jeff Buster, below... art begets art.

In December, 2004, in a posting titled "Dear Peter: Let's Make NEO The World's Aerosol Art Capital", I proposed we as a community tap the power seen in HEK...

I suggest NEO proactively pursue to become the world capital for aerosol art, and leverage young, grass-roots local talent to bring inspiring art, color and beauty to areas abandoned and destroyed through the neglect of generations of irresponsible property-owners. Going after these slumlords is a job for local government, and developing an aerosol art "industry" is a job for local arts enthusiasts, hopefully with the support of other community leaders who share a vision of a diverse, creative community united around freedom of expression, creativity, talent and rewards for excellence with that.

I've seen HEK and MAK, and BAK and KAM, all over town - there are many in East Cleveland, all throughout my neighborhood... largely on boarded-up buildings... seemingly painted by many hands... I think there are many people behind these.

I always figured this was a performance art project by a group of artists making a statement about REAL America... art explores freedom of speech... as is so beautifully demonstrated by globally acclaimed Chinese conceptual artist Zhang Dali, in China, left, and various NEO artists, in the blighted Cleveland Flats, right below.

The only "graffiti" artist in China in the 1990s, from 1995 to 1998 he spray-painted over 2000 giant profiles of his own bald head on buildings throughout Beijing, placing the images amd tag AK47 alongside 'chai' characters painted by the city authorities to indicate that a building is scheduled for demolition. As Zhang Dali stated in a 2006 CNN interview, about why he does graffiti... "I wanted to change reality into art, the things near me into art."


Dali AK47 Graffiti and cutout

Graffiti art and negative space destruction art in Beijing, by Zhang Dali

Of the HEK/BAK tags and variations I've seen, there are two distinct categories. Some are large, multicolor graffiti spray paint "brands" ... there are several similar ones within blocks of my house in East Cleveland.

Others are quick black spray tags, like gangs use to mark territory - there seem to be 100s of these around NEO, and they often seem intended to highlight blight, irony or conflict...


In many cases, other people interact with the HEK tags.

In addition to HEK, MAK is a frequent accompanying graphic. It does not seem like these are signatures or gang tags, marking territory... those are in my neighborhood, too, and they mean business...

I have seen very few examples where the HEK tags have been put on active business establishments, public spaces or occupied houses - in almost all cases, the tags are on boarded up and abandoned buildings.. The exceptions would be some large, dramatic images on billboards, including as an apparent overlay statement on some of the Carl Pope public art pieces "Mind of Cleveland", captured by Jeff Buster. It would be interesting to get Pope's feelings about HEK, collaborating with Pope and Real NEO, below.

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HEKW45thGasStation650.JPG148.98 KB
HEKLockwoodPorch650.jpg155.42 KB
FuckHEKLockwood650.JPG195.55 KB
HEKsCrackHouseSign650.JPG237.16 KB
HEKMAKPopeRealHEK500.jpg105.43 KB
HEKMAKE55thSuperiorComp650.jpg29.35 KB
HEKMasonic55th650.JPG91.66 KB
HEKMAKPopeSnitch500.jpg94.79 KB
HEKRoxbury650.jpg113.83 KB
OopsKnife650.JPG70.3 KB
HEKECBurnOutPanLogo.jpg41.05 KB
HEKECBurnOutPan650.jpg18.42 KB
HEKECBurnOutPan.jpg942.11 KB
NationalCityEuclidBlightPanLogo.jpg44.44 KB

Sign of the times

Established hierarchies are repressive for many people.  I am sure that the consequence for graffiti in China is far more severe than in America, nonetheless, these "statements" are childish and, in no way, constitute art.  In all of these pictures, I see a society of children without real parents.

A society of children without real parents

That would be America... a society of children without real parents. Can you say George W... Washingtoon? The pilgrams? We haven't been a nice, free place ever... hell, we killed the owners of this land and raped their children.
After that it is hard to give a hek about much of any rules of propety over public free speech, in America... especially in a place like Cleveland, so fucked-up by the current "owners" of our land, like Mittal, the Ratners and Wolstein.

I suspect the consequences for artistic expression are more severe in Cleveland than Beijing. But then China has ancient heritage, whereas Americans killed our nation's parents... and UnREAL Clevelanders Wahoos today over that!

If more artists felt free or compelled to express themselves in America, in face of authority, our society of children without real parents would not be in a world war today. In NEO, most artists are too cowardly to piss off a "foundation" much less test the appreciation of the real power base here, being slum lords, or of America, being genocidal lunatics.

HEK makes me (and you?) think much more deeply about real issues than the thoroughly corporate Thinker, Portal, and Free Stamp, combined, and that is the best one may hope for, of art.

Play nice

  And share the sandbox.  It applies to all of us.

But, if, as you say, Norm, these childish scribbles make us see how we have failed children in America, then all is not lost. 

I only know that in my neighborhood, when someone plants a flower and someone comes along and pulls it out, or someone paints their garage, and someone comes along and spray paints HEK all over it, then I am sad for our society.

(And you don't want to get into gender, but admit it, you and Jeff feel for these guys, because you want to do the same thing--bad boys, bad boys).

No time for playing nice... children are dying

I'm off to my meeting to help figure out how to reduce the 1,000s of new lead poison cases in NEO each week, all because our "society of children without real parents" have destroyed America and that is poisoning our children, who become our adults. I'm seeking others with real fury to try and solve our problems. To me, HEK represents the right type of fury, going far beyond Cleveland...

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cowardice or voicing inequality?

I can't speak for the motives of HEK or MAK in particular, but I know I am thankful to have the ability, opportunity, and space (such as REALNEO) to speak where others can hear.

I'm not sure what means I might take if I didn't have these outlets, when my own world is bombarded (signage, TV, radio) by others that do.


  Get REAL Norm--these "fearless" artists don't make political statements in your neighborhood East Cleveland or in Jeff's neighborhood Shaker Heights.  They are here in my neighborhood.  See the banners posted on the bridge?  Just below the posters, you will see HEK and MAK, kind of like those two cartoon crows--Heckle and Jeckle.  Cowards with cowardly statements to make and then they will run back to hide under mom's skirts. You want to paint something? I have made the offer before.  Paint this bridge.  Go to town. You can actually see the town from this vantage point.

Most of my love of HEK comes from EC

HEK and MAC are landmark symbols in EC - many of the pictures I posted here are from within blocks of my house, on property of slumlords and bums who abandoned our city and don't give a HEK.

I'll come photo all the HEK I can find in your neighborhood - I'm curious how this brand identity has spread across the region.

And who says HEK is a he, or anyone in particular? Look at the images here - I see many hands at work.... a movement

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Know your place

Jeff S--you are right about RealNEO being an opportunity to be heard without being told to shut up.  All too often, I have been told and others have been told "Shut up!"--"Don't speak, until you are spoken to," and even then--told to "Know your place." But, I haven't resorted to spray paint, yet.

my eyes and ears: whose place?

It's not so much about the writing instrument (spray paint) as about what's being written on.

Money buys land and airwaves, upon which the buyer's messages and motives can (more and more powerfully) be broadcast to others in public space.

When so much of the Commons (our sensory and physical environment) is sold without the felt consent of -- and un-affordably to -- those to whom it belongs, it's no wonder that some resort to stealing [back] in order to re-claim it.


  Remember that those who get stolen back from, don't have much to begin with in the first place.  If these "artists" really want to take back, then start spraying in Moreland Hills, Bay Village, Rocky River, Solon, Westlake...

buying headspace

It might not be for lack of trying.

Getting away with such crimes in the areas you mention would be a lot more difficult. Likewise, try finding billboards on high-class neighborhood streets.

Like metroparks muse said, part of the message is, I can get away with this.

did not pass design review

I think you are right on Jeff. It is easy for us with computers and internet connections to blog blog blog what we think about blight, crime, violence and living in Cleveland.  It is easy for people with means to find legal spaces for expression--and be heard.

Graffiti is always a marginal medium. It doesn't matter what HEK and MAK mean. It matters that it matters to HEK and MAK to make a mark.

Personally, I am intrigued by HEK and more curious than outraged at his/their vandalism. That level of motivation and persistence is hard to find in Cleveland in any sphere. 

HEK is either a stunningly prolific tagger or a groundswell of individuals armed with aerosol who are changing the visual landscape of Cleveland with outsider art on a very large scale.


Couldn't say it better.

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 How does scribbling your


How does scribbling your initials on others' (public/private) property help bring out ideas or further dialogue? It actually detracts from discussion as time and money are spent preventing or repairing the damage. Potentially sympathetic spectators look at vandalism and say "that's going too far."  I detest billboards, but grafitti does not make them less offensive. Using blank walls for neighborhood murals allows local artistic expression, but I bet they get sprayed over, too. 




There is great frustration, but providing a sense of possibility and hope can help. Problem solving - exploring, observing, testing is a large part of childhood and Jeff learned just by watching his brother build and dismantle the tower. Gaining self confidence from skills or group support (including gangs) empowers kids to do things whether good or bad.




Eliminating lead poisoning is critical; many of those absent fathers or child-mothers may be victims themselves - how can they make good decisions or control impulsivity?  Learning disabilities (lead poisoning, fetal alcohol syndrome) make it tough to gain the skills that might help. Parental 'role models' may be as immature as the kids. 




Lacking (or supplementing) the family, mentors can be a powerful force and benefit themselves as well. And, yes, having limits is part of group living in family or society. I doubt if St. Ignatius tolerates paint on their walls as a means of self-expression. Goals are set, a means to achieve them is laid out, and progress can me seen and felt. Or that is what we want from schools.




Conversation is a two way street - time and attention in exchange for a somewhat coherent, civil discourse. Whether the message is spoken or sprayed. This 'message' seems to be about power - I can get away with this.




furthering dialogue

How does scribbling your initials on others' (public/private) property help bring out ideas or further dialogue?

Isn't that exactly what's going on in our discussion?

I'm not supporting vandalism or stealing -- I agree that they're inappropriate and disrespectful, and that there are better alternatives. But I'll defend them as symptoms of deeper, subtler, and causal crimes.

Who are the vandals of NEO's urban core?

When I think of vandals, I think of people who buy property and blight it and the surrounding neighborhood - perhaps for blocks, like with the Richmond Brothers building on E. 55th - instead of keeping the property in valuable use - or selling to someone who will. Cleveland is blighted by 1,000s or rich and relatively wealthy people... shitty property owners riping off the government and system... not artists. HEK draws attention to shitty, blighted property, raising awareness of all aspects of that... it is the first wave of marketing that draws awareness that leads to urban redevelopment... "Give a HEK"... or it is the writing on the tombstones of failed property owners... "Go To HEK"... in either case, the truth hurts.

From my original posting of this book, on making such art good for NEO...

As Channel 3 reports "The big fear is what businesses that might move to the area may think. The city could lose tax dollars; job opportunities and the schools could get less revenue." Wow, that's a heavy burden to hang around the necks of a few artists. Fact is, one drive down Euclid makes clear this is an area blighted not by aerosol artists but irresponsible property owners who for decades have neglected and abused what was once one of America's great boulevards - and this harm will take decades of redevelopment to erase, and that past splendor-destroyed can never be recaptured - now that is interesting news.

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guerilla gardening

  Drop the spray paint.  Grab a pitchfork and a shovel. 

Who's got seeds?

I agree, Laura - I'll even move my posting on guerilla gardening under this graffiti book... if anyone knows how Imay get sunflower seeds, I'll spread them all over EC... unless someone has better suggestions. But, bottom line, yes, let's start some green tagging.

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seed bombs

Anyone got compost, clay and seeds? Here's a how to video on making seed bombs from Richard Reynolds. I say we make a lotta lotta seed bombs at our realneo benefit in EC and give them out as party favors for folks to take home - give a man a fish, you know. This could be a nice adjunct activity to a fund (fun) raiser for realneo. If anyone knows of a lot we might plant with sunflowers, I'd be game to help pitch in with tilling and planting... Anything in Old Brooklyn, Laura or EC, Norm?

I can't remember now where I posted this suggestion, but the path behind Steelyard Commons needs some green - trumpet vine, local grape, virginia creeper... Andrew Watterson suggested Guerrilla Gardening as a solution. Let's figure out how these plants are propagated and get ready for next year or this fall - an attack of green on Cleveland. We can't wait for Elaine Price to drive the county greenprint - that'll take forever. Let's start planting or at least planning now. Anyone asks what we're doing, we'll say strategic planting.

Hurricane Greed

I can't quite attribute this quote, but today's article in the Plain Dealer generated 71 comments, thus far, on the state of our cities--with Cleveland being a prime example of a metropolitan area suffering major fallout and destruction.  Graffiti is a symptom of an unhealthy city.

The June 8, 2009 New York Times Magazine also covers most of the territory we discuss here in The Next City issue.  There has to be a shift in our thinking and our ability to live together regardless of nationality, heritage and income level.  Running away is not an option any longer.

Signs of the times... realneo header today

I heard on the news Saturday night a vacant apartment building in East Cleveland had burned. I went to find the site, the next day, to assess the loss. It was an historic building on a street of nearly matching historic apartment buildings, near Shaw High School, all of which are boarded up. Recent and current owners of these properties have been so destructive to society that 100s of housing units, 10,000s of tons of bricks, wood, stone, metal and concrete, and entire blocks have been made worthless, blighting blocks around that. Within all that rubble and social disaster was one small MAK, seen in this header of the day... the burned out building is on the right... see full size for details here.

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Comic book heroes

  So, you have established that we have a bunch of characters, who fly-by-night, and, essentially, pee on walls.  How does that help any of us? 

Absence is presence

Their presence brings attention to the absence of responsible adults in our community, and brings attention to irresponsible adults who speculate in real estate and blight entire communities for eventual personal profit. It brings attention to community leadership that allows people to so blight the environments of poor people, for personal profit. It beings attention to blocks and blocks... miles... of urban wasteland, caused by irresponsible adult real estate speculators and poor leaders, and forces all people explosed to that wasteland to be ashamed, angry and do something about that. It forces the city to clean bus shelters never cleaned before, and take the burden of painting private property for the absent owners not prosecuted by the city. It forces change, and we need change.

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How does this help any of us?

Across from the multi-million-dollar Harp investment, and Hayes Cleveand public school, is an abandoned gas station owned by someone... probably with toxic land beneath... boarded up. Is it better to allow this in obscurity... grey walls blending in with the urban blight it causes all around it (I lived a block from here, and such absence of reponsoble ownership and activity does blight the entire neighborhood), or is it better to post notice it is a blight, to shame the community and owner? Did the attention the property received due to tagging lead to it being painted and better attended, making it and the neighborhood more sucure. Did HEK take the branding far enough... wouldn't this corner be better off if an arsonist burned the buidling to the ground, forcing the owner to actually clean it up and return it to a natural state where it is nature or can be redeveloped for a cleaner future? Should someone who brought attention to his blight go to jail, or should the people who cause blight go to jail. Who owns this blighting boarded-up gas station in this important crossroads of our community? Who in government should be pushing to eliminste it? Who should go to jail? Changing the answers to all of this, starting with the dialog about all this, is a reason to give NEO HEK.

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I agree with everything you say

But I don't see that it forces any change.  The "adults" in our society are children, who will find some one else to blame, and will leave their broken toys for new ones.

Branding reality of Cleveland+evil

Zhang Dali tended to put his 2,000+ primative profile and "AK47" (pretty threatening) tags and art where the chinese government had put demo permits. Here, government is corrupted by industry and real estate speculators and has allowed slumlords to lead poison children inside 10,000s of housing units... I suggest we paint 10,000s of big red skulls and crossbones outside the doors of each of those (and the Dept. of Health does eventually issue a notice disallowing occupancy, after much court trouble)... that would be 10,000s of LEAD tags all over NEO, and would not begin to properly label NEO. Add black bomb tags anywhere within the fallout zone from Mittal... that will be 100,000s of tags. Or, we can just read the writing already on the walls, all be ashamed, force change at government and in our neighborhoods, and try to clean up the 10,000s of private and public defects and messes of the REAL Cleveland+.

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Positive Protest

They spray paint bridges and buildings in outer ring suburbs and Metroparks - cruder perhaps but maybe they just need more practice? And we should allow them to perfect their technique? There is no question that richer entites can better afford to keep up with the endless need to repair vandalism (which is expensive and takes time and money from other tasks which might actually improve things.)  


And those neighbors who stick it out should be rewarded by this grafitti and should appreciate it? Sorry, but I'll take vacant lot guerilla gardening as a positive protest - improving the surroundings, not merely satisfying some urge for adolescent rebellion. If this forum consisted of trying to outdo each other with giant font then it might be comparable. Instead, there are ideas put forth and examined -  offering - and dissecting - possible solutions. Also viewpoints and opinions different from our own allow us to benefit and learn from others' experience. Seeds for thought. Cultural literacy as it were.


those neighbors who stick it out...
...and wipe it out.

They were having trouble with their chosen cleaning product. I overheard "I'll go to Home Depot."


Let me guess?--West 7th St.  Gang mentality goes beyond the teenage boys in Cleveland--it runs all the way up to the top.  Will our biology be the end of us?

reverse graffiti

E. 36th.

But here's an idea: Reverse Graffiti. A great project for the tower city rapid station...

See our OOL

I just came back from swimming in Lincoln Park Pool (which reminds me--Norm, can you please take a header picture of the wasteland surrounding Lincoln West School and Meyer Pool?  CMSD needs to put their investment there before tearing down anymore buildings--you will also find HEK and MAK there)

But, back to my point--

See our OOL. Notice there is no P in it?  Please keep it that way.
That's the sign hanging at the pool.  I like that the staff reminds pool patrons that there are standards to uphold.  Elitists may scoff at the need to remind people to respect one another.  Recently, a exurban district encountered students peeing in the drinking fountain.   No one took responsibility.

The female principal took the same approach I would take to cure students of that problem.  She had all of the students drink from the same water fountain.  Of course, the "parents" are up-in-arms.   Child psychology: if no one fesses up to a crime, punish everyone.   If a child breaks something and no one admits it, then it's off to bed without dinner for everyone.  We are all, unfortunately, being punished for the crimes of bad children, and those of us in the city, feel it, first.

"The state did not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt"

Interesting verdict reported in the PD today in the trial against two local men prosecuted as Hek and Mac, as discussed above - Mac was found not guilty by association and Hek was found gulty of what he was caught doing, which was spraying a little Rustoleum on an old beat up utility pole... justice prevailed. Good ruling, in my opinion... although even more harsh that the REALNEO community considered appropriate, in general, as voted by our pole.

Eastburn and Skapin were charged with felony counts of vandalism, criminal damaging, possession of criminal tools and criminal mischief, records show. Attorneys for both men asked if they could plea to misdemeanors. Prosecutors objected.

Last week, Skapin and Eastburn chose a bench trial in front of Common Pleas Judge Eileen A. Gallagher.

Gallagher dismissed the charges against Skapin. She found Eastburn guilty of two lesser counts -- misdemeanors -- and sentenced him to six months in jail. She then suspended the jail term and ordered Eastburn to spend 100 hours cleaning graffiti in Cleveland, records show.

I need to remember that name... Judge Gallagher...

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nice call


Least favorite

  This is my least favorite thread and "cause" on REALNEO.  I hate to quote myself, but since I live with a lot of mostly suburban taggers getting their jollies off in my neighborhood--let me say it again:

Remember that those who get stolen back from, don't have much to begin with in the first place.  If these "artists" really want to take back, then start spraying in Moreland Hills, Bay Village, Rocky River, Solon, Westlake...

And, as spring is almost upon us, and with it the male ritual of spraying, I ask you to stay on your home turf.  I can deal with the locals.