Karen Heller: Germantown resident turns cleanup artist

Posted: April 08, 2013

Zack Bird paints walls. He does pretty well creating murals and faux finishes for Palm steak joints across the country, and in some of the nicer homes across the region.

Bird has a second, stealth job unpainting walls.

Specifically, he paints over graffiti on walls and bridges in public spaces, along the river drives, and in the Wissahickon, "the thing I love most about Philadelphia." Call it faux unfinishing.

It's his one-man beautification project. Instead of Lady Bird, we have Zack Bird.

"I'm just doing my little part," said Bird, 43, the son of two artists, who grew up in Mount Airy and now resides one neighborhood over in Germantown. "How can you grow up near the Wissahickon and not be entranced with the stonework?"

So this is a story that reveals how one person doing one thing is helping the city and making our lives better.

Bird has taken his talent and applied it, literally, for free to restoring what was. "I don't want to compete with graffiti artists, although the art hasn't developed much in the last 20 years," he said. "But I want it out of the parks. It's an eyesore. They're vandals, not artists. There's nothing cool about defacing other works of art and public property."

Since December, Bird has completed a dozen reclamation projects, along Kelly and Lincoln Drives, a retaining wall near Cresheim Creek, train trestles on both the Chestnut Hill East and West regional lines.

As he wrote on his blog, "Ironically, when done correctly, faux finishing is impossible to detect and so my efforts (unless pointed out) disappear into the scenery." His anti-graffiti work can be found at http://smartworkstudio.blogspot.com.

"Color is 90 percent," he said in making the unnatural natural again, matching the paint as close as possible to the original bridge or wall. "If you can nail the value and hue, essentially you've done most of it," said Bird, who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. He uses five or six different tints, matching the base, returning the next day to apply the glaze, laying and stippling colors to obliterate the spray paint's harsh tattoo.

"That's where weekend warriors make their mistakes," he said, referring to volunteers' cleanup efforts. "They go with what's in their basement, a semigloss of baby-blue paint, and then paint a big square." Takes a nimble eye to get it right.

Killian Hardware in Chestnut Hill, celebrating its centennial, has donated paint, but Bird is basically his sole funder. Then again, the cost is minimal compared with the joy of undoing damage. No one may notice, but Bird knows what he's done.

Now he is teaching other people who want to tend the parks and other public spaces. Every month, Todd Bernstein, president of Global Citizen and founder of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service, cleans the McCallum Street Bridge in Northwest Philadelphia, including the road and stonework underneath. "I tried to match up the paint on the bridge," Bernstein said, "but I don't know what I'm doing, so Zack's helping me out."

Maybe Bird should conduct workshops. Certainly, he would like company. "It's like picking up trash. It only takes a few minutes to clean up the work of a small number of jerks," he told me. "If only 2 percent of the population worked hard to pick up trash, we would have an immaculate city in a weekend." We shouldn't have to wait until Martin Luther King's Birthday.

"I think it's your civic duty to help, to clean up. I'd like to see more get off their bums," Bird said. "If you like the park and see me painting along the road, honk your horn. If you love the park, pull over and help me out."

In many ways, Bird's an aesthetic avenger, sweeping in to restore the natural grace of public spaces. He calls his work "editing" and "tagging out their tags." I call it magic, a gift to us all.

Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.

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