Painting the Town: Ryan Jaenke Turns Cleveland Into His Canvas
Jaenke's massive murals add color, creativity to the aging brick and steel of Cleveland’s neighborhoods
Inner-city Cleveland is a backdrop of brown and gray. It is weather-worn brick walls that have been standing for 100 years or longer. It’s rust on hulking metal beams that hold up the city’s bridges. It’s stone slabs on sidewalks and asphalt patches on streets.
These aging, rugged features are more than just a reminder of Cleveland’s industrial past. They’re also the perfect canvas for urban artists like Ryan Jaenke.
Jaenke, a graphic design graduate of Cuyahoga Community College, is part of a growing wave of artists transforming the muted hues of Cleveland’s neighborhoods into large, colorful murals.
“My inspiration for each mural comes from the surrounding city,” Jaenke said. “I do a lot of observing, taking notes, looking at what is both visible and invisible. The invisible part is the stories about the place, the memories of the people who have lived there. I try to translate my perception of all that into a piece of art.”
Jaenke’s murals are massive, often covering the entire side of a multi-story building to a height of 20 feet or more. These projects require aerial work platforms, ladders and industrial paint-spraying equipment — not to mention gallons upon gallons of paint.
But despite the scale of each project, urban artists like Jaenke work quickly, sometimes completing a mural of thousands of square feet in the span of days. It’s a work ethic rooted in graffiti culture, which spawned modern urban art.
Growing up by the tracks
Jaenke’s introduction to art came from the walls and bridges of the RTA Red Line. Growing up on Cleveland’s west side, Jaenke was fascinated by the maverick artwork that would appear near the Red Line tracks — literally overnight, in many cases.
“It was the first art I really connected with,” he said. “The work would appear overnight and create a surprise for commuters in the morning. There was a sense of mystery, because the personalities behind the work were invisible. You wonder how it got there and when. That was always interesting to me.”
Jaenke, now 45, dabbled in graffiti art in his 20s, but soon decided to pursue a career as an artist.
“Graffiti art gave way to more, shall we say, legitimate opportunities,” Jaenke said. “Cleveland Public Art, now LAND studio, used to hold a yearly outdoor art event in Ohio City where local artists paint on prefab panels. I won the contest for best piece in 2004, and it led to a mural opportunity the following year.”
It was Jaenke’s first permanent mural, still visible at the intersection of W. 25th Street and Church Avenue in Ohio City. There are two works of art at the intersection – the single-story mural by Jaenke and a three-story mural by British artist David Shillinglaw.
After graduating from Tri-C in 2011 with an Associate of Applied Business degree, Jaenke found work as a graphic designer by day while painting murals as a side job. With limited time to devote to mural work, the opportunities for new projects came slowly at first. Then, in 2016, he was accepted into an artist residency program through the Cleveland Foundation.
With SPACES gallery as his sponsor, Jaenke completed one of his most well-known works: a two-story mural just south of the W. 25th Street intersection with Detroit Avenue, known as “Full Tilt.” The red and blue arcade-themed mural took 10 days to complete.
On the heels of “Full Tilt,” Jaenke has completed other large outdoor works including a two-story mural at the corner of Detroit Avenue and W. 69th Street in the Gordon Square neighborhood and a mural on the side of the Warby Parker eyeglass store at Pinecrest in Orange.
As he takes on new projects, Jaenke is working on spreading his reach beyond Northeast Ohio. He is currently working on applications and proposals for public art projects in other states.
What started out as an ambitious hobby has turned into a second career, requiring business skills on top of artistic talent. It’s on the business side that Jaenke benefits the most from his Tri-C degree.
“There are a lot of non-art things you don’t think about right off the bat, but they’re important if you’re going to make it as a professional artist,” Jaenke said. “I took a print production class at Tri-C, thinking it was going to be kind of boring. But it wasn’t — it totally changed how I thought about setting up files and working with clients.”
For the Pinecrest project, Jaenke had to create two versions of the same mural: a painted version for the exterior of the building and a large-format digital print for the interior.
“I had to understand how to match Pantone colors and design to scale,” he said. “Those are all things I learned in that Tri-C class. All of my professors at Tri-C were great. They brought a lot of experience to the classroom and taught me many things that have stuck with me to this day.”
They’re lessons Jaenke continues to use as he tells the stories of Cleveland’s neighborhoods, wall by wall.
“The stories of our neighborhoods are the stories of the hard-working people in this city,” he said. “I saw so much of that with my classmates at Tri-C. They’re working and going to school so they can make their lives better. They’re challenged to balance everything in their lives, but they’re determined to follow through and succeed.
“It shows that if you persist, you can accomplish whatever you want.”
March 29, 2019
Erik Cassano, 216-987-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org