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Rise Up as One
Rise Up as One by Peat Wollaeger
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Peat Wollaeger Truck
Peat Wollaeger Truck
By Amy Burger
Every inch of stencil artist Peat Wollaeger’s south St. Louis studio is a visual playground. Painted across the front of an old building on an otherwise nondescript section of Jefferson Avenue, his signature Eyez mural lets visitors know that they’ve arrived somewhere magical. Open on Saturdays from noon until 5 pm, the small storefront is filled with prints, T-shirts, dresses, and a recently launched Eyez line of leggings. Behind the storefront, his work hangs with that of other artists he’s collected in his studio and office.
St. Louis residents and visitors may have seen Peat’s Eyez—a hypnotic stencil design that’s been adapted on murals and other spots around the city, both commissioned and not.
“Even in smaller towns like Wright City,” he says. “Every time I stop, I drop a couple eyeballs. My mission with Eyez is pretty much just to wake up the world.”
A St. Louis County native, Peat grew up in the suburb of Webster Groves and attended the College School, an experiential private school.
“They taught me to think differently,” he says.
In eighth grade, the students could pick a subject of interest to learn, so Peat began learning to draw on a Mac computer using MacPaint. It was his first experience with what would eventually lead to an early graphic design career. Later on in his schooling, Peat played guitar and sang in a local Ska band called Cucumber Jones while he attended Webster Groves High School.
“My art teacher loved Cucumber Jones logo and asked me who did it,” he says. “I told her that I did, and she told me that I should start looking into art.”
When Peat was seventeen, that teacher, Marilynne Bradley, connected him with a summer art program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, an experience that would forever broaden his perspective.
“It was the first time I saw true diversity,” he says. “I’d seen black and white, but once I got there, I was like, ‘There are so many kinds of people here.’ It made me really think about what St. Louis was lacking.”
Following high school, Peat took a few drawing classes at community college and spent several years gaining real-world work experience and building his portfolio with internships at graphic design agencies in
St. Louis. He also married a fellow Missouri native from Kirkwood.
Then, in 1998, he landed a design job at a Chicago agency, KBA Marketing/Draft Worldwide, doing marketing for large brands such as Camel cigarettes and Coca-Cola. His wife moved along with him, and he eventually worked his way to the top, becoming an art director, 3-D modeler, and animator.
When the young couple found themselves expecting their first child, however, the impending change in lifestyle and responsibility brought them back home to St. Louis and family, where Peat landed a job designing banner ads for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Around that time, he began painting portraits of his family and other people who had influenced him. They all had one thing in common: big eyes.
“I got a 1963 Econoline truck—the eyeConoline,” he says. “I had a small studio and needed a way to haul around all the supplies I needed as an artist, so I wanted to make it an art car. All my paintings had these big eyes, so I painted the truck with a pattern of eyes.”
In 2013, Peat did a large commissioned mural, Eyez on Delmar, at the walkway of Washington University’s Delmar Loop construction site.
People began identifying his signature pattern as the St. Louis eye, from spotting it around the city.
“The eye represents waking up,” Peat says. “We live in a world where people text things they’d never say in person, eye to eye. St. Louis is now having a lot of upheaval, and people’s eyes need to be open.”
After the Michael Brown shooting in the summer of 2014 and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Peat was set to do a mural—planned before those events—next to the iconic Crown Candy Kitchen in Old North St. Louis. Originally designed to be a pattern of homes reflecting community, he wanted to add a bit more substance in light recent events.
“I added some hands in diverse colors holding up peace signs, and the words ‘Rise Up As One,’ ” he says. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me that it really hit them and made them think about how we can come together.”
Peat counts other well-known street artists such as Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Dabs Myla among his inspirations.
“With the whole movement of street art, my motivation is to beautify, not vandalize,” he says. “I’m not a graffiti artist. Some stuff I’ve not had permission to do; but I would not paint over a nice, raw building. It’s not really about me; it’s more about waking up the streets. The difference with street art is these are really artists, so where maybe only a hundred people might see their gallery show, thousands of people will see their art every day.”
He also credits social media—Instagram in particular, where his @Eyez account has more than ten thousand followers—with helping spread his art around the globe while he lives a comfortable life in St. Louis.
“I own my home here, and I’m raising three kids here,” he says. “I have probably one of the best studios in America, and I pay very little for it. It’s also allowed me to buy equipment and launch a clothing line from right here.”
The Eyez line of leggings is handmade in Peat’s studio. Right now, local crafts person Kristen Johnson does all the sewing, but they hope to provide jobs to the community by training local youth to do the job in the future. The bright, patterned leggings have caught the attention of large retailers, but Peat refuses to compromise his principles for a buck. He says he recently turned down an offer from a national retail chain to put them in every store because they wanted to produce his designs in Malaysia.
“I thought, ‘How hypocritical am I if I’m painting murals about peace and unity and then I’ve got some kid in a sweatshop in Malaysia making my clothes?’ ” he says.
In addition to his work in St. Louis, Peat has created projects in New York, Chicago, Indianapolis, and other cities. One of Peat’s first murals was of his idol, the late Keith Haring, for his fiftieth birthday. He says Haring, who passed away from AIDS in 1990, has been like an art angel for him. Peat still advocates for the late artist’s work.
In fact, the Keith Haring Foundation invited Peat to visit its offices in Haring’s extremely private former studio because he helped to preserve a Haring mural on a building slated for demolition in Melbourne, Australia.
“I was in Mecca,” he says.
To learn more about Peat Wollaeger’s work and to purchase artwork, T-shirts, or leggings, visit EyezBrand.com.