The Elementz of His Style

Youth-center alum returns to teach graffiti art after making a name for himself

Jun 16, 2015 at 3:18 pm
click to enlarge Local artist Max Unterhaslberger teaches the art of graffiti at Over-the-Rhine’s Elementz.
Local artist Max Unterhaslberger teaches the art of graffiti at Over-the-Rhine’s Elementz.

As an artist with practically an alphabet for a name, it’s fitting that Max Unterhaslberger hones in on one’s signature as a basis for art.

“When handed a pen, what would people write?” he asks. “I think the most common thing is their name. Everything humans do is graffiti — essentially putting your mark on something.”

Unterhaslberger is putting his theory to practice this summer as a graffiti arts instructor at Elementz youth center in Over-the-Rhine. Before picking up spray paint, students sketch with ballpoint pen on paper, often writing stylized versions of their names.

At age 21, Unterhaslberger has come full circle after taking graffiti classes at Elementz as a teen. As Elementz’s members find outlets for their creativity and plot their careers, Unterhaslberger says this summer is one of transition for him, too.

The artist has already built a résumé featuring multiple shows at the Phyllis Weston Gallery, time assisting the London Police and Irish street artist Maser on local murals and a role with Covington’s BLDG studio. Both modest and matter-of-fact, Unterhaslberger knows he’s unique among his peers when he can say he’s sold nearly 100 pieces at the Phyllis Weston Gallery alone, beginning when he was a Purcell Marian student.

Unterhaslberger received a scholarship to the Art Academy of Cincinnati but left after two years. Now, a year out of school, he says he’s hit a wall in his Northside studio. He’s been visiting top-10 art programs and intends to complete his bachelor’s degree starting in fall 2016, and then get a master’s. He calls college necessary for “long-term sustainability.”

“I realize I need that grounding to take it to the next level,” he says. “I challenge myself all the time, but it’s a matter of needing the book smarts. I want to know what’s going on in the art world, learn different styles, in order to keep challenging myself.”

But before he scales those walls, there’s a wall to paint in the alley behind Elementz’s Race Street building.

Abdullah Powell, the center’s creative director, had been talking with Unterhaslberger for years about coming back to teach graffiti art. Elementz already partners with the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning for other visual arts classes.

It was an Elementz graffiti show at PAC Gallery that introduced Unterhaslberger to Cate Becker (then Yellig) — the “C” in PAC — with Phyllis Weston and Annie Bolling. Walking past Phyllis Weston’s eponymous gallery in O’Bryonville months later, he recognized Becker, who showed his graffiti-influenced paintings to Weston, the grande dame of Cincinnati’s galleries. Soon, Unterhaslberger’s works were being snatched up by a fine-arts audience, including Weston herself, and he became the gallery’s in-house artist.

“Max is an example of what can happen four or five years down the road,” Elementz Creative Director Powell says. Video of Unterhaslberger leading his first class includes a youngster asking, “Do you do this for a living?”

Unterhaslberger came to Elementz in 2008, when the center was on Central Parkway at Liberty Street, after hearing about it from friends. Growing up in Pleasant Ridge, he hadn’t hung out downtown and in OTR. Elementz was a place where he felt accepted. “Every time I left, I felt more and more confident,” he says. “It was about the respect everyone had for each other.”

Unterhaslberger, whose mother was an artist, has been painting for nine years. He says that he wasn’t very good when he arrived at Elementz and that refining his calligraphy and graffiti took three to four years. “The talent was there,” Powell says. “He had to get the work ethic.”

After group shows featuring his vibrant spray-painted designs on paper, Unterhaslberger has branched out. His nearly sold-out solo show this past winter at Phyllis Weston Gallery featured Ault Park landscapes on glass. His artistic style remains recognizable, though. “Graffiti tumbles into everything I do,” Unterhaslberger says.   

Graffiti is the only art created by youth, he says, quoting one of his Art Academy instructors. Unterhaslberger says what he does is teach structure to Elementz’s young graffiti students, most of them African-American teens.

As kids sit to sketch, student Ariel draws a boom box, and Unterhaslberger suggests ways to make it appear as if it’s vibrating. The week before, another instructor painted Ariel’s portrait — something she says she’s not ready to try. But encouragement is contagious. “If you can do this,” says fellow student Temani, pointing at the boom box, “you can do that.”

The class heads to the alley, walking past an Elementz window that reads, “Bonded by the love of art.” Transferring a sketch from a sheet of paper to a wall — this one OK’d by Elementz’s neighbor — involves project planning. Unterhaslberger guides color choices and talks about technique and proportion. This afternoon they’ll collaborate on filling in an outline of “MAX,” his name. Unterhaslberger says they’ll be doing a “pizza fill” — a little of this, a little of that — with spray cans left over from other projects. Everyone gets a turn; everyone has a say.

Unterhaslberger finishes the border of his name with bright red paint and then criticizes his edges. While telling the class that it’s not graffiti if it doesn’t have highlights, he shares a tip: “Throw highlights where you have the worst mess-ups.” White starbursts go onto the wall.

He stands back and compliments the group: “You guys did that!” He then writes, “Hip Hop Don’t Stop” at the bottom and remarks, “We’ve got some Hip Hop for sure!”

Once the summer class is over, Unterhaslberger wants to spend months traveling, especially in Appalachian and Native American cultures, saying it will give him perspective necessary for his work. His artistic mother and German father have always allowed him to go his own way. “I seem to find the places I didn’t know I was looking for,” he says.

As to what he’s looking for after college: “I want to paint what I want to paint really big.” In 10 years, he’d like to do sculpture, especially public sculpture, and dreams of carving marble in Italy. And in 25 years, he’d design buildings. “That’s the ultimate — sculpture so big that you put people in it,” he says, paraphrasing Zoolander.

That’s making your mark.

Max Unterhaslberger’s graffiti class takes place Tuesday afternoons at ELEMENTZ. More info: