That old gray duct tape …

… ain't what it used to be: Now the trusty fix-it stickum is a crafting and painting medium, available in infinite patterns and colors.

Posted: September 29, 2012

When Joe Girandola took a job apprenticing as a stone carver in Italy back in 1989, he learned quite quickly that this romantic career move had a painful downside: It was blisteringly hard work, and gloves only made the blisters worse. Quickly, though, Girandola devised a solution. He wrapped his hands each morning in "gloves" made of duct tape, shipped by the case from his parents in the United States.

Soon, the tape became even more interesting to him than the stone he was sculpting. He could make not just gloves, he found, but also drawings and sculptures with layers of the sticky stuff. "I liked the immediacy of the tape," said Girandola, a former University of the Arts professor who keeps a studio in South Philly. "I have an immense tie to this material."

More than two decades later, Girandola is still working with duct tape - and, it turns out, he was way ahead of the curve. His drawings have evolved into vibrant duct-tape paintings thanks to a glut of bright (even stylish) colors washing over the marketplace, and everyone from preschoolers to entrepreneurs has joined him in transforming the lowly material into ingenious works of art.

While the versatility of duct tape has been a perennial punch-line (at the expense of thrifty enthusiasts who have long used it to extend the life expectancies of wallets, luggage, and even cars), the fix-all is now finding its way into a broader range of products than ever before - and it looks good while doing so.

It was the wave of bold new colors that first inspired Jennifer Graper and her sons, Ethan, 14, and Sebastian, 11. On a whim, the West Chester residents threw a couple of rolls of patterned tape into their back-to-school shopping cart two years ago. At first, Graper said, "We didn't know what to do with it." But they found a book on the medium, tried a few projects, and, er, stuck to it.

Now, they make wallets, braided bracelets, pins, and artwork out of the tape. "It's a very unique, different medium than we had been used to using, and it's great to make functional things that kids their age really love," Graper said. With her help, the teens went beyond impressing their friends and started a business, Just My Duck, selling at craft shows and on Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods.

Novelty drives many of the purchases, she said. "When we're at our shows selling, people come up and they really can't believe it's just duct tape." It's also a popular activity among the boys' friends from school, who like coming over to the house and trying their hand at the family's craft table.

Graper says she probably has about 60 kinds of duct tape in stock, and she's frankly excited about the Halloween-themed candy corn tape she picked up recently. "They just keep coming out with more. When we find out there's a new [pattern] out, it's like our mission to find it. It makes our whole week."

They're not the only teenage entrepreneurs who are on a roll. Temple University sophomore Heather Kasprzak, 19, started experimenting with duct tape about five years ago, after seeing duct-tape wallets at a store. Now, friends and family know what to get her for her birthday or Christmas: more tape, of course.

"At first, it was just kind of a fun challenge, and then people really liked them and they wanted me to make more, so I turned it into a business," she says. Now she makes shoulder bags, clutches, and hats, as well as wallets (which utilize clear packing tape to hold ID cards). She has sold about 100 pieces at art shows and on Etsy under the company name HMKducttape.

Kasprzak carries a duct-tape wallet and purse almost everywhere, though it's not quite suitable "for all occasions," she concedes. She likes that it has become her trademark. "I think it's unique. I'm in advertising - that's my major. So we're always told to have something that makes you stand out, and that's what it is for me; it's my duct-tape products," she says.

It was the burgeoning popularity of duct-tape wallets several years back that inspired University of the Arts graduate Teresa Bonaddio to begin writing Stick It: 99 DIY Duct Tape Projects, which will come out in paperback this fall from Philly-based publisher Running Press. The first edition was released in 2009; Bonaddio says that, even back then, colored duct tape was a little hard to find. Now, it's everywhere, in paisley, plaid, polka-dot, and pretty much anything in between.

Bonaddio first tried her hand at the unconventional material for the book project - and learned it was quickly turning from a fringe pursuit into a mainstream hobby.

"There are a lot of parents working on projects with their kids, so I think it appeals to them. Personally, I've come across a lot of little kids, ranging from preschool to high school, who have latched onto it through teachers utilizing duct tape in the classroom," she said. The projects have also become standbys at local camps, art centers, and libraries; Molly Carroll, a crafter and young-adult program coordinator at Radnor Memorial Library, can count on a crowd at her popular monthly Ductivities workshops for teens.

But perhaps the market is growing up, as brands like Duck and Platypus release rolls in faux linen and saddle leather. Bonaddio's book, first released under Running Press Teen, is now being issued under the publisher's general-interest imprint. And she updated her list of crafts to include things like rings, pencil cases, and ideas for recovering old furniture in tape for an instant home makeover.

"I've seen a lot of adults comment on the nostalgia of it: When they were younger they made duct-tape wallets, and I had somebody tell me recently her grandfather would make everything out of duct tape - he was a real enthusiast."

Some might say duct-tape projects are a little gimmicky, but that doesn't worry Girandola, who teaches duct-tape drawing to his college art students. It doesn't seem to bother the art world, either. His drawings - many of crumbling buildings he wishes he could tape back together - will be shown at City Hall this fall as part of the prestigious West Collects exhibition, and will be the subject of an exhibition at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts in Wilmington beginning Oct. 6.

"The world of duct tape has gone from being something to cover ammunition boxes to this DIY craft material," he said. "I like that it can be this American oil paint, where you can use it in crafts or to fix your rearview mirror. It's this essential thing you carry in your toolbox, something you make wallets out of, prom dresses out of, or a contemporary art material that you make museum pieces out of. This material can be whatever you want it to be."

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