The modest Tremont duplex that's home to Dave Witzke, the local outsider artist commonly known as The Sign Guy, almost instantly reveals his obsessions and interests. Outside, you're greeted by a couple of colorful plywood cutouts affixed to his fence that make it appear as if a huge Pac-Man with an X for an eye is ready to chomp a giant grinning rabbit with a gun.
Inside his home/studio, a variety of signs, ranging from a battered School Speed Limit sign to a ragged board with the letter S on it, adorn the walls. Witzke, 39, does all his work in the corner on a small wooden bench. His distinctive and affordable street art has become such a sensation that much of his work these days is commissioned. He's often so busy, he can't keep up with demand. And the acclaim is well-deserved.
The odd creatures he paints on reclaimed materials have a playful, albeit sinister quality to them and suggest a cool cross between Keith Haring and Matt Groening. At the moment, he's into Catzilla, a fire-breathing, catlike creature with giant teeth and oversized claws.
His streetwise sensibilities date back to childhood. A Perry native, he was inspired after seeing the 1984 film Beat Street and immediately took up graffiti, assembling a small crew out of his teenage friends.
"The guys in Beat Street lived in New York City and painted subway trains and listened to hip-hop," he says. "When I saw that, it just lit a fire under me. Growing up in the country, we didn't have subway trains, but we had freight trains. I'm glad I did that [graffiti], or I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now."
Witzke moved to Cleveland in 2005 and, at the urging of a friend, started painting. "My friend told me to start doing something different to channel my artwork into something more positive than graffiti," he says. "He gave me a bunch of acrylic paint and brushes and told me to experiment."
He picked up wood and metal that people had thrown away and began painting on it. At first, he created butterflies and birds and flowers. "I had worked at a nursery, so I knew my plants," he says. "I would draw dogwood plants and flowers and hang them up. They just morphed into all cartoony birds and animals and stuff."
Witzke first exhibited his paintings in 2006 at a one-night show the Mutt Hut hosted as part of the Tremont Artwalk. "That's when I realized that I could sell this stuff," he says.
He quickly picked up some good gigs. He painted the Dim and Den Sum food truck, a mural on the side of Shaker Cycles and a wall at Nick's Diner. He's drawn a funky frog for Tremont Electric to use as its logo and has even explored turning his creatures into stuffed animals. While Witzke still has a day job, he hopes to one day turn his artistic outpourings into a full-time pursuit.
"That would be great," he says. "I don't know how I came up with characters like Catzilla. They just pop into my head. But now I want to do things on a bigger scale. I want to go bigger with them and create other crazy characters."