Taking Street Art To The Next Level

Danny Babcock and Matthew Dayler, the two principle artists in a fast-growing Cincinnati mural collective called Higher Level Art, amble up to the front door of downtown rock bar Mainstay on a cool fall day as a veritable contrast of one another.

Babcock has short red hair, a neatly trimmed beard and focused demeanor. Dayler's paint-splattered shorts, camouflaged University of Kentucky hat, wispy beard and chuckle-choked-way give an air of Kentucky redneck, though he is a formally trained artist from Canada. Babcock wears a tattoo sleeve on his right arm, Dayler his left. Though they claim to be opposites, it doesn't appear to be entirely true. The right word to describe their relationship might be the inverse, or complementary.

"We're like polar opposites, and yet we have the same vision," Dayler said. "It's really strange."
Babcock's background is in commercial art, sign making, scenery painting and street art, while Dayler has gallery and academic experience. Dayler deals with concepts and presents them to clients, while Babcock concentrates more on how to put those concepts into paint.

Their wide range of artistic experience has allowed their partnership in Higher Level Art to grow from a mostly outdoor wall-painting crew to a full-fledged commercial operation in a short span of time. They are now painting murals on the interiors of bars, gyms, school classrooms and - with three other artists and the help of about 1,500 volunteers - six blocks of 12th street in Over-the-Rhine.

Their early work is the trademark style of Higher Level Art, in which Babcock fills a wall with graffiti writing and "wild style" spray work slickly framing large ghost-like figures that Dayler paints with dripping black and white paint. The style is exemplified in a mural on the south side of the Know Theatre, and another on the side of All About Colors on Central Parkway that features portraits of Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco. They say the drastically different looks represent the two main styles of street art: aerosol and paste-up prints.

"The positive of that polarity is that one defines the other," Babcock said. "When you have something nasty and wet over here, and you have something dry and crisp over there, one becomes dryer and crispier, and the other becomes nastier and wetter."

Since they met three years ago through the first of their Know Theatre murals, their exposure has grown and new commissions have forced them to reach into their bag of tricks and forge new styles. At times, Dayler has added color to his portraits and Babcock has traded in the spray-can for a paintbrush. They said they hope to lose the moniker of "The Graffiti Guys" as some of the indoor styles evolve and, eventually move outdoors.

Babcock referred to the second of three pinup girls that he had painted that day on a deep crimson wall at Mainstay. The girls, situated above cream leather sofas, are cleanly painted in an illustrative style. There is no trace of the street-spray style or dripping lines exhibited in Higher Level's early work, and there is nothing hasty about them except a faint flutter and translucence of the brush strokes that give the murals some authenticity, appropriate with the pocked hardwood floors and urban feel of the room.

"The black and white plus graffiti is a quick-turn-around, you know, four hours bang-it-out style," Babcock said. "This is the meditative version of that."

Dayler agrees. "It's a time thing. The more time we have in a space, the more we can embellish and render and be creative."

In recent weeks, the pair have painted several classrooms at Holmes High School and Sixth District Elementary School in Covington, KY; including portraits of Albert Einstein, jazz musicians, other historical figures and a plethora of academic subject matter. Looking at pictures of the work, the classrooms are now barely recognizable as such - some covered in faux brick, faux-stone or vegetative cover.

"I like transformation," Dayler said. "It's one thing to put art on a wall, but I want some sort of transformation to occur."

At Sweat training gym, a downtown fitness loft recently opened by Danielle Korb at 18 W. 7th Street, more of Higher Level's art is on display. Visitors to Sweat are greeted by Babcock's flashy west-coast script with huge portraits of Korb's clients working out - including Dayler's signature drips as sweat, with intermittent scenes from the Downtown Cincinnati skyline. Soon, the outside of the building will be painted as well, with a mural that will advertise Sweat's presence there.

"When I get a sign job I don't necessarily look at it as a sign job, it's like plastic surgery to the face of the building or the face of the store," Babcock said. "That place is affected and it's like a beacon on the block. Whatever the city is, whatever block it's on, you make sure that it's the one that everything else on the block relates to."

At Jean Robert's Table, the men have pitched a sign and outdoor design job to chef/owner Jean Robert de Cavel. During their initial meeting, Babcock took a few seconds to draw up a visual diagram of de Cavel's storefront with a sign, a sculptural design feature on the corner of the building, and a space for a large mural on the side. Dayler tried to sell de Cavel on one of his ideas for the wall; a mural of the Chef as a mad scientist, concocting culinary experiments in the kitchen.

Babcock explains why "graffiti is selling" right now in the world market, and in downtown Cincinnati, for a number of reasons. "Graffiti can be anything," he said. "It can be marketing, or it can be the news."

The infamous "Bengals' mural", which the pair painted overnight just after it was announced that Terrell Owens was coming to Cincinnati, made it on the morning news by 6:30 a.m. the next day. Later, when Korb was planning Sweat she tweeted that she wanted "the guys who did the Bengal's mural" to paint the inside of her new gym, and it wasn't long before she was in touch with Higher Level Art.

In Cincinnati, Babcock and Dayler are eying a few places to paint an entire cityscape - several contiguous building's walls - in the near future. They are also finalizing plans to do a live-painting exhibition at Art Basel Miami this fall.

Eric Vosmeier, the Producing Artistic Director for Know Theatre - who is ultimately responsible for bringing the two men together - said the first murals they painted at Know have attracted a lot of attention to the theatre. He continues to work with them on indoor and outdoor jobs done in different styles.

"I love working with them because they are not just great visual artists - they are great project managers too," he said. "When we put something together they know exactly how they're going to go about it and how to make it work within the time constraints we have." Vosmeier attributes their efficiency to their passion for art. 

"They're totally flexible and they'll totally do anything - they really want to paint," he said. "They say to me all the time 'all I want to do is paint, man, all I want to do is paint.'"

Photography by Scott Beseler
Matthew Dayler and Danny Babcock
View of 12th st after Paint the Streets with ArtsWave
The Know Theater Mural 2010
Holmes middle school classroom
Sweat gym in progress
CAC installation for SmartWater
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