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Visual arts

Attack of the killer angels

Artist Derek Hess takes on religious right

Hess's Thrown: pen, ink and acrylic. 2008.
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Published 10/15/2008

When artist Derek Hess and Cleveland-area politician Kent Smith finished their book of political art and essays, Please God Save Us, they knew they had to get it out before the presidential election. But none of the interested publishers could make the deadline. So Hess added Strhess Press to his roster of companies and projects for the sole purpose of releasing the book.

Hess runs several businesses in Cleveland in a building that used to belong to the American Greetings Corporation, the same location where Robert Crumb worked for the card company as a color separator in the 1960s. When he isn't traveling or doing book signings, Hess spends time in his studio where her draws, paints, makes prints, designs music CD covers and creates fashions for his Strhess Clothing line.

In December 2006, Hess exhibited some of his fine art with the politically conscious "street artist" Bask at the 1300 Gallery in Cleveland. It was the final show for the gallery, and Hess' part was called Please God Save Us From Your Followers. The book born out of the show would've been titled the same, but was shortened to avoid infringing on another author's copyright. The art (mostly pen, ink and acrylic) was inspiring yet ghastly, a postapocalyptic zoo of blood-red elephants, smiley faces, fish, skulls and humans in varying phases of degradation and evolution. Its themes ran the far and wide: war, global warming, oil, corporate greed, rock 'n' roll censorship, Christianity, Republican politics, stem cells, Santa Claus and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Longtime friends, Hess and Smith met about a decade ago when they were working as doormen in Cleveland-area night clubs. At the 1300 Gallery show, they decided the art spoke to so many political issues that it should be collected in a book with text by Smith, a Ph.D. candidate in economic development at Cleveland State University and a former writer for Cleveland Free Times. His essay "The Missing Message of the Religious Right" sits next to Hess' illustrations of comic-like angels killing two men. Above the scene, a big smiley face looks out from a sunny yellow background. It says, "Smile! God Loves You!"

On a recent afternoon, Smith was doing some door-to-door canvassing in his hometown, Euclid, Ohio, to support Barack Obama. "We're very supportive of the Obama candidacy," he says. "Change is what's best for America, and Obama is the candidate to bring that."

Hess is also an Obama supporter. He created an Obama poster based on a cover design he did in 2002 for Marvel Comics. "I based it on a Captain America design I did. He's rising up, reaching for something better." For a limited time, the poster comes free with purchase of the book.

Several images in Please God Save Us include Hess' crosstika, a swastika elongated into a Christian cross. Hess says he combined two of the most powerful political symbols in history to point to oppression. The piece called "Crosstika" in the book shows the controversial symbol on a flag that hangs over a pile of dead bodies. Hess' comment to the upper right reads: "The Crosstika flag is raining, I mean reigning down on its subjects." A few pages after that there's a red elephant being crucified with the crosstika appearing again at the top of the cross. The images fall into a chapter of critical essays about the Republican Party called "The Red Elephant Agenda: More for Me." While politics is a new arena for Hess, Smith says he's right at home discussing issues that should be on voters' minds before the election.

"You need to be able to communicate these ideas," Smith says. "Having worked with campaigns and having been a candidate myself, you learn to figure out what the issues are ... what's important and what's fluff."

Well, there's no fluff here. Hess reached a place where his art and politics intersected, and he applied his sensibilities and talents accordingly. Both art and politics should strive to tell the truth while building a vision of how things can be — good or bad. As Hess says in the book, he was never a political artist, but he was compelled to become one during the George W. Bush administration.

"Especially when he served a second term," Hess says. "That's how it started. That and seeing a lot of intolerant, right-wing Christian fliers around."

Rich with chaos and color, Hess' style is dark and severe. It combines fantasy, pop culture and symbolism in the same way heavy rock music might lift one to new heights of despair. He got his start doing rock 'n' roll posters (one is on display in the Louvre and another in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), and up until 1995 he was booking bands at the Euclid Tavern in Cleveland. In the late 1980s, Hess went to what is now the College for Creative Studies to study graphics and illustration. There he ended up studying under one of his biggest influences, the artist Russell Keeter. But Hess became interested in printmaking and changed his major, which took him back home, where there was a more focused program at the Cleveland Institute of Arts.

His fine art is a departure from doing posters, but the underground youthful rebellion can still be seen in it. Maybe that's why people around the world are getting it tattooed on their bodies. Hess has never created designs for tattooing — he's been a lot of things, but not a tattoo artist. Somehow, though, his poster art and CD covers for rock bands like Converge have inspired enthusiasts to go into parlors and asked to have his work rendered on their skin. Hess gets pictures of these tattoos regularly from fans via e-mail. And for him — a tattooed guy who appeared on the reality show LA Ink in January — it's the highest form of flattery.

"The tattoo culture has been aware of my work in the music industry," Hess says. "Those people who tend to listen to the heavier stuff tend to get tattoos. I sometimes see people at book signings who have my work on them."

So this is why an artist and a politician are currently traveling around the United States doing book signings at all kinds of venues, but mostly tattoo parlors. Smith shows up in a suit and tie. He says he's only seen Hess in a suit one time in his life. But fans respond to the unlikely duo and their work with high enthusiasm. For the book tour, Hess has created a special edition print of an illustration from Please God Save Us titled "Thrown." It's a red elephant reclining on a bed of human skulls.

Friday, Oct. 24, 7:30-10 p.m., Lucky Monkey Tattoo Parlor, 308 S. Ashley St., Ann Arbor; 734-623-8200; luckymonkeytattoo.com; free.

Norene Cashen is a freelance arts writer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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