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, 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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