Irvington graffiti artist spray-painting red and blue faces remains a mystery

(MIRROR INDY) — On April 3, Irvington-based artist Dave Combs — known professionally as DaveToo — stood on one side of an eastside bathroom stall, in a location he declined to disclose, and spoke to a mysterious graffiti artist.

The artist, who had been tagging Irvington businesses, bike trails and dumpsters with blue and red faces, usually signed their work with “Pig” or “Mao.” They used a voice disguiser to distort their voice. 

Artist Dave Combs poses for a portrait near graffiti art in Irvington on April 27, 2024. Combs is creating shirts that feature the face-like design, which has been left by an anonymous artist in multiple Irvington locations. (Photo by Jennifer Wilson Bibbs/Mirror Indy)

The meeting only lasted a few minutes, and Combs, 50, learned very little about the artist whose work has made them somewhat of a local celebrity in Irvington – aided, in part, by Combs, who began making T-shirts and stickers with the faces emblazoned on them. 

He initially started selling the $20 to $24 T-shirts to “turn a negative into a positive,” by supporting local business owners, who might have to pay up to $1,000 to remove the graffiti. 

“People seem to love it or hate it,” Combs said. “The people who hate it, hate that we’re putting it on T-shirts because they feel we’re giving too much attention to the artist — or vandal — depending on how you see it.”

Combs led one clean-up effort to remove a face from the dumpster enclosure behind the Irvington Lodge. But half a year later, no one is any closer to knowing who this artist is. Some people love the graffiti. Others hate it, decrying it as disrespect for private property. Police say they have received no reports about the graffiti. 

A bus drives past graffiti on the side of Irving Theater on May 10, 2024, in Irvington. The face-like depiction has been left by an anonymous artist in multiple locations around the east-side neighborhood. (Photo by Jenna Watson/Mirror Indy)

“Might be a hot take, but I like this artist,” one Facebook user wrote in the IRV – An Irvington Indianapolis Neighbors page. “He seems to, more often than not, tag vacant buildings or impermanent structures.”

Another user wrote: “It is very sad to me to think that someone thinks it is OK to deface someone’s property.”

Mystery Graffiti artist: “I have no respect for private property.”

Combs may be the only person who has met with the mystery artist. Their meeting at the bathroom stall was arranged on April 2, after Combs received an invitation from an encrypted email address. By that time, Combs had been making and promoting the T-shirts on social media. 

During their meeting, Combs learned it takes the artist roughly three seconds to spray-paint their signature tag, which undoubtedly aids them in tagging buildings unnoticed. While he can’t be certain, Combs said he believes the person lives in or near Irvington due to the high number of tags. 

Combs asked the artist for a statement he could put on the website where he sells the t-shirts. The artist wrote: 

“This is Pig/Mao. Thank you for your interest in my work. I have always liked to draw faces for no particular reason. I have no respect for private property. I slink around at night and bleed into the world, leaving lots of little vague impressions in many bored minds. 

“Everything is collapsing and it is important to remind each other of this so we can think and do the right thing once it all does crumble. I want people to remember that their time and labor are their own and that their bosses and landlords are vestigial parasites.”

The artist ended their message by requesting that all proceeds from the T-shirt project not go to local businesses, but instead toward the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), a United Nations agency supporting relief for Palestinian refugees. 

Combs said he couldn’t be sure what in the artist’s message was serious and what was tongue-in-cheek. But, he is now sending the proceeds from the shirts and stickers to UNRWA, out of respect for the artist’s wishes. The sales have provided food baskets for four Palestinian families, he said. 

Irvington business owners fear retribution

Some Irvington residents don’t find anything positive about the graffiti or the T-shirt project. The artist has tagged the Irvington branch of the Indianapolis Public Library, the Pennsy Trail, an infamous house on Ritter Street and other public and private locations. 

Susie Payne has been living in Irvington for 30 years. She first noticed the face graffiti about a month ago on the CSL Plasma Center while driving through the neighborhood. Payne believes the T-shirt project celebrates the defacement of private property.

“I think this is a misdirected way for (Combs) to support the artist world,” Payne said. “Per local law, the businesses who own the property are responsible for getting it off at their own expense. 

“At first, we found out that the money was going to somebody to clean this up, but now it’s not going there, it’s supposed to be going to people in Gaza,” she said. “If people want to help people in Gaza, find an organization, there’s numerous. This is just promoting vandalism.”

Angie Stults, an artist and curator at the westside’s Marilyn Rose Center — an art gallery space known for inviting graffiti artists to hone their skills on an outside wall — said that while graffiti is art, tagging a building without permission isn’t OK. 

“There’s a difference between tagging and doing graffiti,” Stults said. “That’s the kind of thing I like about the outside walls at the Marilyn Rose Center, it’s public domain, so to speak.”

While the Indianapolis Department of Public Works (DPW) will clean graffiti from public spaces — like the Irvington library branch — it is up to private business owners to remove the graffiti. Once a business has received a graffiti citation from the city, they have 30 days to remove it before being fined. 

An Indianapolis Public Library spokeswoman declined to comment on whether or not the library reported the graffiti to DPW, but the graffiti is no longer on the Irvington branch.

Businesses that remove the graffiti have faced retaliation from the artist. And Mirror Indy has learned of one local worker who is afraid to work in the office alone after the artist’s message was published online. The person’s name and the business are being withheld for safety concerns. 

CSL Plasma Center, located on East Washington Street, has been tagged twice by the mystery artist. Less than one week after a large red face on the east side of the building was removed on April 10, the building was retagged. This time, the artist spray-painted an even larger blue face on the same spot. 

John Moore, owner of Bareknuckles Barbershop in Irvington, is no stranger to having his business graffitied. In 2020, someone defaced the side of his property with hate speech. Moore covered it up with paint and then commissioned a mural — a pair of butterfly wings — painted by Combs. 

Three months ago, a small, blue face appeared on the utility box on the back of his property. Moore quickly had a security camera installed, but has not yet had the graffiti removed. 

“I’m questioning if we should remove it,” Moore said. “When (CSL Plasma) removed theirs, we were going to paint over ours, but then they got tagged again.”

Moore is concerned the artist might tag the butterfly mural. Initially, he was onboard with Combs’ T-shirt project, viewing it as a way to take a swipe at the artist and while helping business owners. After reading the statement the artist provided to Combs, Moore’s support of the project waned.

“That’s not saying I can’t support Dave or what he’s doing, because I like Dave and understand why he’s doing the shirts,” Moore said. “But now, we’re at a point where the plasma place has … removed it, and then (the artist) comes in behind and basically says ‘f*** you,’ and I can’t support anything like that.”’

Police encourage business owners to report graffiti 

William Young, a public information officer for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, told Mirror Indy that there is no active investigation into this string of vandalism. But he encourages business owners to report any tags on their buildings to the non-emergency number, 311. 

An officer will create a report. If the business or property owner has security camera footage, police can use that in identifying who is responsible for the tagging. 

A person caught vandalizing buildings would likely be arrested on charges of criminal mischief, a Class B misdemeanor defined as  “recklessly, knowingly or intentionally damag(ing) or defac(ing) property of another person without the other person’s consent.” 

If convicted, the person could spend up to 180 days in prison and might have to pay fines. Young said the charge could be elevated to a Class A misdemeanor if property damage is estimated between $750-$49,999 or a Class C felony if damage is over $50,000.

While Irvington businesses work to remove the graffiti from their buildings, Combs said he will continue to make the best out of the situation. (When Mirror Indy asked Combs if he was the artist, he said we were not first to ask him this, and that he does not tag private property or condone the act.)

“I think the artist — or vandal — is going to continue to do what they’re doing with or without any encouragement,” Combs said. “I don’t think the artist is encouraged or discouraged by people wearing T-shirts about it.”

Local business owners, however, plan to address the issue at their June meeting. 

Mirror Indy reporter Breanna Cooper covers arts and culture. Email her at Breanna.cooper@mirrorindy.org. Follow her on X @BreannaNCooper.

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