Watch your step! Russell Muits makes art out of ordinary manhole covers
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Flat circles of iron dot city streets and sidewalks. They help cars roll smoothly along the road and seal entrances to underground tunnels. From these manhole covers, Russell Muits has made a new kind of street art.
The 38-year-old New Jersey artist travels across the United States looking for unusual manhole covers. He finds interesting covers, then uses ink to make prints from them. People sometimes ask Muits why he is rolling paint onto public property, but then he pulls them into conversations about time, place, history and art. “I didn’t expect to love it so much,” Muits says.
Art Can Get Underfoot
Manhole covers are not just found chunks of metal used to keep people from falling into underground tunnels. Muits says that they open windows onto cities, and the best of them are artistic.
For example, an image that looks like a Buddhist symbol for the universe is on manhole covers in Louisville, Kentucky. In Chicago, Illinois, some manhole covers show a small fish. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has lightning bolts. Speedway, Indiana, has a checkered flag, and Salem, Massachusetts, covers show a tall sailing ship.
Muits has been to all of those towns on with his fiance, Yolanda Magpantay. “Some people probably think it’s a little out there," she says. “Everyone sees art in their own way. We see it in the streets.”
Far below the I-95 highway in a skate park, Muits has hung a dozen prints.
Studio In A Subaru: Going Mobile
Occasionally he sets out groups of pictures to test the play of color, shape and light. At the park on Thursday he got an idea: pop-up art shows to be held whenever he lands in a new town and pulls a few prints. A show could last a day.
His Subaru has become a mobile studio, complete with a drying rack. So far, he has created about 80 prints in 30 cities, and his goal is to make at least one print in every state.
Is it art? Is it illustration? Is it a kind of craftsmanship? Does it matter?
“This kind of hearkens back to a rubbing,” said Heather Ujiie, who teaches at the Moore College of Art and Design in Pennsylvania. A rubbing is made by placing paper over a surface and rubbing it with a pencil or crayon.
History Of Manhole Covers
Manhole covers date back more than 2,000 years to ancient Rome, where they were made of stone. Beginning in the 1800s, covers were made out of iron, which was strong, cheap, and too heavy to steal. Today manhole covers have gained a certain popularity. Internet sites show their beauty, and there is at least one book about Japanese manhole covers.
Muits' interest in manhole covers began in 2007, when he worked as an art director in Seattle, Washington. The city government had hired artists to design manhole covers with images that represented Seattle. The artists came up with manhole covers with pictures of fish, flowers, whales and water. One cover was outside Muits’ office, and showed a map of city streets. He admired it for weeks before he and a friend decided to make a print of the cover. They picked up rollers, paint and paper at an art store and made the first print.
Sometimes Muits will arrive in a city and find interesting manhole covers by chance. Other times, he will see a photo of a striking cover on the Internet and call the city to try to learn where it is.
Getting Down With Manhole Covers
Every image is different, but the process is always the same. First, Muits gets down on his hands and knees and scrubs the metal clean. When the cover dries, he rolls paint across the surface. Often this is when the police show up, but Muits says that after he explains the project, they usually calm down. Next, he places a piece of cloth on the manhole cover and presses down with his hands. Then Muits lifts the fabric, attaches it to a sheet of plywood, and puts it in his car to dry. Finally, he goes back and cleans off the paint that is stuck to the manhole cover.
In the future, Muits would like to do an art show and maybe write a book. He might even open an online shop where people could buy T-shirts, photos or prints of his manhole cover art. He would like to take a print from every state and create a giant, manhole-cover map of the United States.
After that, who knows?