Who Was That Masked Cartoonist?

2014-11-17T10:59:37-05:00November 17, 2014|

By Dan McGraw

In 1976, police in the Cleveland suburb of Euclid were after what they considered perhaps the most wanted man in their city, a teenager who wasn’t exactly the kind of criminal who would show up on FBI posters inside the local post office. He was what we would now call a graffiti artist (that term wasn’t really around back then), and he signed his work as the “Masked Cartoonist.”

The Masked Cartoonist used a black Magic Marker and drew funny faces and goofy social commentary on street signs, traffic light control boxes, fire hydrants, construction sites, and any other spot that appeared vacant to the eyes of the 17-year-old Euclid High School student. But in June of 1976 the police caught up with him on a dragnet of sorts, arresting the Masked Cartoonist and his getaway driver as he rushed another cartoon full of 70s teenage social commentary.

The front page headline in the Euclid Sun-Journal on June 24, 1976, summed up the seriousness of it all: “Furtive Phantom Configurations Foiled by Fuzz.”

Rick Ray [credit: Dan McGraw]

Rick Ray [credit: Dan McGraw]

Rick Ray, 55, the man formerly known as the Masked Cartoonist, finds it all funny now, but does not think he was doing anything wrong either. “I really thought at the time that I was giving people something to look at on spaces that were blank,” he says from his home in Perry, Ohio. “And it was fun in some ways to have the police after me, and to have friends as my lookouts. Sometimes I’d draw something in a five or ten minutes, sometimes I’d only have 30 seconds.”

“I turned the whole city of Euclid into my museum,” he says with a laugh.

And he has continued to do his art. A longtime guitarist and songwriter whose band plays in the “psychedelic/progressive/hard rock/fusion” realm, through the years he has done hundreds of pen and ink drawings, none of them ever really on the sales market. He says he does them because something lodges in his head, “and I have to draw to get those things out.”

His characters are often quite odd, with frozen facial expressions, and reminiscent of the crooked animation that Terry Gilliam did with Monty Python. The people in Ray’s cartoons usually have no hair, have big teeth that are thrusting out in nervous smiles, bulbous heads, and a distortion of perspective that makes the viewer stare back at the characters staring unemotionally through them.

The heads of these creatures are often opened up (faces or skulls sometimes can be seen through forehead openings) or with attachments (pressure gauges and horns) or other human or animal heads growing out of the dome. And the heads are often all going in the same direction, sort of a group- think marching that one might associate with social conformity.

“You might say some of that is going on,’ he says with a smile. He doesn’t like to explain his work — “whatever people see is fine with me, and I don’t like to tell them what to see.” His main inspiration is M. C. Escher, whose lithographs and woodcuts in the first half of the 20th century confounded many in the art world because they portrayed mathematical relationships among shapes, figures, and space.

Right now, Ray, a circuit board technician by day, is working on another album. The Rick Ray Band has done 32 albums since 1999, and has opened for Robin Trower, Kansas, Peter Frampton, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. A company that makes T-shirts has picked a few of his drawings to sell on clothing, and much of his art work can be seen on the “Paintings I Love” website. His also does occasional cartoons for North Coast Voice, a small bimonthly free entertainment paper that circulates in Northeast Ohio.

Ray, married with two adult children, says he still gets people asking about his days as the Masked Cartoonist, but he doesn’t quite understand when they ask him if he was one of the pioneers of the graffiti art movement. “I wasn’t making any statement,” he says. “I just thought giving people something to look at out on the street was better than them looking at nothing.”

When Ray went into juvenile court in 1976, the judge wanted to make an example of him, given all the publicity surrounding his arrest. But when the judge told the young artist he was charged with defacing public property, Ray responded that he was facing public property, i.e. putting faces on blank city spaces. The judge found humor in that remark, and Ray was only sentenced to community service. The getaway driver, however, an adult, was convicted for his role and spent the summer cleaning out Euclid garbage trucks.

And as the Euclid Sun-Journal wrote in their story on his arrest in 1976, Ray had a “certain amount of natural talent” and that “the South Seas have their Paul Gauguin; Euclid has the Masked Cartoonist.” And though that great Euclidean artist was “foiled by the fuzz” for a short period of time, he is still with us, though he now faces paper rather than the backs of street signs.

Daniel J. McGraw is Senior Writer at Belt.

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  1. Dennis November 17, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    Great story Dan. I remember it well. My cousin Larry was the getaway driver who had to clean the garbage trucks all summer. We busted his chops about the way he smelled when he came home at night. The cops were looking for him hard for awhile, especially after he snuck up on a cop car while the officer (Officer Tramsec, I think) was in it and drew a picture on the bumper of the car. I will let Rick tell you what the picture was. When they caught up with him at my cousin’s car that night they knew they had him because my cousin let him draw all over the inside of the car. They just looked at it and said “yep we got him”. The most amazing thing though was that everyone loved his drawings, even the cops because they lined up at the police station to ask him to do some drawings and autograph it for their kids.

    He had painted all 4 walls and his ceiling in his room white and started drawing on them with different colored markers. We would go over there just to see what he had added to it. It was really cool.

  2. Bert Stratton November 18, 2014 at 9:48 am

    Nice, Dan. We need a follow-up (from you maybe) on Fred Mertz, the artist who “defaced” Cleveland billboards in the 1970-80s.

  3. Jasperette 1 November 18, 2014 at 1:42 pm

    Great job of exposing a very talented artist then and now. I would like to hear more stories about the talented people in the Euclid area and their contributions to society . Keep up the great work!

  4. Nick Hadzima (Ninktapractor) November 18, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    Well Richardo, MC still lives on and my favorite memories of the Masked Cartoonist is playing rhythm guitar for your Band , at that time Neurotic, and having the Band back drop, on a blue bed sheet, of are loony, cartoon character friends behind use as we played the greatest music around. But the best was always wearing a tee shirt with a drawing on it when we played out and the great classic drawings all over a pair a white pants that your greatest fan, JB (Jim Brunskill, R.I.P.) wore when he traveled to watch the band or wore when him and I attended Ohio State University back in 1978-81. And, hey, the white lab coats I used to wear in cadaver lab while studying anatomy at the National College of Chiropractic in Chicago really turned heads when my classmates saw your magical, psychotic, neurotic drawings plastered all over them (lab coats)……great times my friend and many more coming our way. Enjoying growing old with ya….. Nick

  5. Lisa November 19, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    Dan, another really enjoyable article from you! It is great to hear about Euclid and the exploits of people we know and love. My favorite part is Rick telling the judge he was facing public property, not defacing it! My own son has been to court a few times for his decorative impulses around town so this article was especially meaningful for me. Thanks!

  6. Paula November 19, 2014 at 9:19 pm

    Thank you, Dan! Rick is a super talented artist and musician. I thoroughly enjoyed this article! It was a fun trip down memory lane. Growing up in Euclid during the MC era was the best.

  7. Practice Man November 20, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    I’m guessing the old Slovenian, Croatian and Lithuanian babushka ladies of 1970’s Euclid, riding down Lake Shore on the 39, didn’t think Rick Ray was funny or artistic at all. They probably wanted him horse-whipped!

  8. Al Wilhelm December 25, 2014 at 10:53 am

    I remember the cartoons with fond memories, To be a teenager sneaking out at night to decorate the city ( go swimming in pools that arent yours) and climbing around on rooftops would have been magical memories. Im just glad I was’nt the one who had to clean the garbage trucks

  9. al November 23, 2015 at 9:54 am

    Euclid, back in the mid 70’s had become the Masked Cartoonist’s art museum.

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