The English language is filled with apparent contradictions – phrases such as “alone in a crowd,” “jumbo shrimp,” “open secret” and (thanks to George Carlin) “military intelligence.”
Until recently, I would have included “graffiti artist” on that list – until I had a chance to talk with Max Meano, who specializes in that genre.
Max’s medium of expression is spray paint, but that’s where his similarity to typical “taggers” ends. Rather than randomly spraying colors on any flat surface he can find, he executes complex, large-scale productions in locations along the East Coast.
As a child, Max was attracted to the graphic arts; in high school, music took over. “I was still doing some art stuff,” he said, “but I was more interested in elements of hip-hop – producing and engineering in a studio.”
In fact, he graduated from Northampton Community College’s radio/TV program, and then moved to Manhattan to study audio engineering at Mercy College. “I graduated at the bottom of the recession,” he said, and found himself moving back to the Valley.
Although he was still involved in the local music scene, his interest in it began to fade – along with the economy, the quality of talent had dropped.
While recuperating at home from a work-related injury, Max turned to his long-neglected graphics background to help pass the time. “Much of my early life had involved drawing and sketching, so I combined that with my interest in graffiti. While I was laid up, I spent hours sketching and painting. It’s been pretty much non-stop since then,” he said.
Technique is everything
Max is basically a self-taught artist who uses a variety of techniques to plan and execute his eye-grabbing conceptions (in other words, he doesn’t just grab a can of paint and let loose).
Typically, his preliminary designs take shape the old-fashioned way – freehand, on paper. But for larger productions, he often uses computer-based imaging software to create a digital version of the proposed piece.
And when it’s time to get down to business, he uses can after can of artist-quality spray paint – you didn’t think he relied just on stuff from the hardware store, did you? – “which means it’s loaded with pigment and gives me good coverage,” he said. A project might require a mix of aerosol, acrylic, paint markers and other media. He also knows his way around scaffolding, scissor lifts, boom lifts and OSHA regulations.
Much of his work is very precise. “When I do letters, I can make them seem like 3-D, add drop shadows, highlights and other effects. I also use different tips on the sprayers to make fat or thin lines, or different shapes.” (Think of the tips used on a piping bag, and you’ll have the basic idea.)
But there’s still room for improvisation. Max has also simply splashed paint for a particular effect, and even “stabbed” cans of paint and applied the gushing streams of color by moving the can in various directions. “There are many tools to use,” he said, “you just have to figure out which ones will work best.”
The south side of Bethlehem is home to one of Max’s original works – a custom mural on the 162-foot brick wall that runs along W. Third Street, just in front of Comfort Suites.
Meano was speaking and painting as part of a hip-hop program at Lehigh University last year when he was approached by a student who eventually commissioned him to design and paint the mural. Environmental engineering major Courtney Thier had learned that pedestrians dislike blank walls that are over 30 feet long – so she developed a plan to liven that stretch of brick. Large metal letters would spell out “Welcome to the South Side,” and Max’s painted imagery would fill the bodies of the letters.
(Because the wall is the last remnant of the historic Brown-Borhek lumber company, Max was prohibited from painting on the wall itself.)
The approved design includes images of iconic South Side buildings – Bethlehem Steel, the Banana Factory, the Star of Bethlehem, the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, the city’s Skateplaza – even the old Brown-Borhek planing mill.
Those buildings have special meaning for him; Max is a native of south Bethlehem.
Other local venues have been the Banana Factory (live painting, an annual street art festival and a TED Talk event) and the Allentown Art Museum (live painting for a Robert Indiana exhibit).
But he’s dealt with controversy as well. Max was hired by Amman Jesani (via the Alternative Gallery), a co-owner of Dell Motors in east Allentown, to paint an otherwise blank 1,000-square-foot wall of his building.
“He’s a big fan of Japanimation [another term for anime, a popular and highly stylized cartooning style], so I designed the mural using those kinds of characters,” Max said. The mural also featured huge wrenches and an anthropomorphic car engine that sported eyes and teeth.
Although the owner was delighted with the outcome, it wasn’t long before neighboring businesses and residents complained – imagining the presence of gang-related symbols, or fearing that the artwork would reflect poorly on the area.
Far and wide
Word of Max’s skills has spread far beyond the confines of the Lehigh Valley. He was recently invited to paint by the Bushwick Collective, an outdoor street-art gallery in Brooklyn that hosts artists from around the globe. The 1,000-square-foot mural is Max’s largest solo project to date. He’s also painted for Beats, Rhymes and Relief, a non-profit organization headquartered in Washington, D. C., that uses the arts to raise awareness and support for worldwide humanitarian relief efforts.
“Much of my early life had involved drawing and sketching, so I combined that with my interest in graffiti.” – Max Meano
But Max still maintains his Valley roots. He’s a resident artist at the Alternative Gallery, where you’ll find him painting mural, assisting with various gallery projects, and helping out with programs that focus on disadvantaged kids. He’s quite active with Allentown’s ArtsFest, for which he’s the “graffiti jam” curator – developing the roster of artists, organizing and executing the event, and participating in it himself.
Photography by Ryan Hulvat