The clock is ticking toward dinnertime, and Shane Pierce is going on hour nine of his gig painting a gigantic mural in a Charlotte middle school hallway, fueled only by Red Bull and passion.
He wields his spray cans like a dancer moves his limbs: making smooth, bold strokes, without hesitation, in bright orange and inky black. He adds lines to thicken a cougar’s downy fur, then steps back to assess. The area above the eyes needs shadowing. He adds black to give some depth.
There’s no obvious sign that tells Pierce when his work is complete, but he’ll know when it’s done.
It’s a sense that he gets: of satisfaction, of peace, of contentment that things just seem right.
And for the first time since he can remember, his whole life feels that way.
A fast following
Pierce, who paints under the art name Abstract Dissent, became a public player in the Carolinas art scene only about a year ago, when an employee in the air duct cleaning business he owns told him about a graffiti park in Salisbury.
Pierce, 40, a tradesman by career and a lifelong artist by hobby, had been in a painting streak for months, filling his Pineville apartment with giant oil paintings he’d create on the weekends and after long days cleaning air ducts.
The outdoors as a canvas? The idea intrigued him.
He loaded his truck with graffiti supplies and drove to Salisbury one day. He was painting a petition-style interactive piece, with the words “I need more art in my area” and Sharpees hanging below it for the public to sign, when Elysia and Tim Demers of Grievous Gallery in downtown Salisbury passed by. The petition — and the ambition — were impossible to ignore, Elysia Demers recalls.
Within the hour, Pierce came strolling through the doors of Grievous Gallery (it’s both an art gallery and a place where the public can pay to destroy things as a way of releasing anger and tension) and wound up staying for hours. He came back up the next week and offered to paint a mural on one of the gallery’s blank walls. The Demers lamented that they didn’t have money to pay him; he did it anyway.
Other projects around Salisbury followed fast. He got to know the owner of a nonprofit called the Pedal Factory, that makes bikes accessible to low-income residents, and painted murals on the walls there for free. When vandals smashed the front glass of a downtown farm-to-fork restaurant, he spray painted such a vibrant piece on the plywood panel that covered the hole, it looked more like a makeover than a temporary repair.
Several Rowan County schools commissioned murals and hailed Pierce as a hero when they were completed — a concept that made him teary because of all the trouble he caused in school growing up.
Pierce had moved to Pineville from his native Cleveland three years earlier, but struggled to find friends or plant roots. In Salisbury, he connected with the arts scene. On his days off, he pointed his truck north, the bed inevitably loaded with cans of spray paint.
Last October, Pierce was painting a mural at Concord Middle School when he heard news of a fatal shooting at Butler High School.
He called the school the next day. “Can I come paint a mural, before the students return to class?”
Principal John LeGrand scrolled through Pierce’s photos online and answered: “How quickly can you do this?”
Pierce showed up the next day and knocked out a 60-foot mural in the cafeteria with the school’s 2018-19 motto that seemed to foreshadow the events that would lay ahead: “We are Butler.” It was dry by the time the students returned to school the next day.
“He stepped in, literally, at the school’s darkest hour and was able to produce something to help us start to heal,” LeGrand said.
“It kind of marked a new beginning, new hope and new unity,” he said. “If we’re going to get through this, we’re all going to have to come together. That’s what it represented.”
Pierce says he didn’t do the Butler mural for the notoriety, but the public took notice.
And Charlotte started calling.
The ‘Walmart of street artists?’
Street art was once a subculture dominated by work-in-the-night graffiti artists. Now, it is mainstream and big money, and is popping up all over Charlotte.
Charlotte street artists Alex DeLarge and Dustin Moates formed the Southern Tiger Collective in 2017 with the goal of supporting local street artists and hosting events to introduce the community to their work. And you see the work everywhere: the NoDa neighborhood has its own street art mural tour. It blankets light rail stations and the sides of buildings from Plaza Midwood to South End.
Some Charlotte street artists score five-figure commissions for large installations in chic new apartment buildings or commercial spaces.
Pierce says he wants none of that.
What’s meaningful to him are the schools, where kids can see that graffiti-style writing and spray painted murals are legitimate art forms. (He’s done work in more than a dozen schools, including Rocky River High School, North Rowan Elementary, Concord High School and Carmel Middle School.) Or the nonprofits, like two addiction recovery centers, where he’s painted murals to offer hope. Some jobs he gets paid for; others he only charges for materials. Some he does for free.
Other artists “are doing high-profile apartment complexes, … and I’m over here in East Spencer where the poverty level is through the roof. They can’t afford to pay me $10,000 to do a mural,” Pierce says. “I’m reasonable and I’m quick and I make it affordable. … I’m like the Walmart of street artists.”
Except that he’s not about the bottom line.
The owners of an apartment complex in Raleigh called the other day, he says. “I told them it was ‘off-brand,’ ” he laughs.
“The whole time, I would feel like I was selling out. All of these apartments going up? I feel like they may be part of the problem. I would much rather be painting in a poverty-stricken neighborhood, where people really appreciate this art and connect with it, and it means more to me and it means more to them.
“There’s more power to it. That’s what art means to me,” he says. “If I did a six-story building I would probably get more attention, but that’s not why I got into this.”
Painting as healing
He got into this, he says, because it just felt right. He needed a release valve from a life of heartache.
Pierce watched his mom struggle to raise him and his two brothers while working a backbreaking job as a machinist in a rural town outside of Cleveland and relying on welfare to get by.
His knack for art came early, and teachers noticed. Early in high school, he entered an art contest and was offered a spot at an exclusive— and expensive — art school. His mom offered to send him, but he knew it would bankrupt her. He says he spent years resenting art because of it.
He hated the book-learning part of school, and bounced between vocational programs before finally dropping out.
But he was good with his hands and a fast learner. He got his GED and started working as a carpenter doing fine interior woodwork. (By the time he would leave Cleveland for Charlotte, he was remodeling historic luxury homes in some of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Cleveland.)
But he struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol.
One day 13 years ago, he realized the highs weren’t high enough anymore. And he could see his younger brother, Thomas, heading down the same path of addiction. Pierce quit cold turkey and says he hasn’t gotten drunk or high since.
Thomas took a different road, one that killed him two-and-a-half years ago. Pierce is still working through the grief.
“It’s really a miracle I’m alive,” he says. “I question why did I get to stay? Why did my little brother die? Why was it him instead of me? Why am I the one that got lucky?”
The first mural he ever did for Grievous Gallery was of a giant eye partly hidden behind a brick wall. He painted it on Thomas’ birthday, and as he painted, the grief swelled inside him. The eye was autobiographical — looking out and interested, but also hiding his pain from the world.
But he found that as he painted, he felt better. He connected with followers by posting long captions on his Instagram account, sharing the motivation and back stories behind his work. He’s taken a young Salisbury graffiti artist under his wing and is showing him the ropes of creating a street art business. He advises other Charlotte-area artists how to spray paint.
“He’s an example that you can come from a single-parent household, a low-income area, you can have drugs and violence around you and go through addiction and not have a formal education — and you can still get out there and not only be passionate, but be influential,” Elysia Demers says.
“It’s not about having a sack of money in your back pocket,” she says. “If you have a God-given talent to paint, you paint.”
Shane Pierce doesn’t know where all this is headed.
For now, that doesn’t seem to matter.
He knows students’ eyes light up when they see his murals on the wall. He wonders what it would have felt like when he was the troubled and struggling kid-Shane, to meet someone like him who made the art he loved feel OK.
But today, even when the middle school cougar is suddenly complete, there’s no time to wax nostalgic.
There are posts to upload, sketches to finish. And bare walls, somewhere, that need painting.
Want to meet Shane Pierce? He’ll be at the Fried Chicken Art Party, an evening of regional artwork, music and fried chicken, on March 22 from 8-11 p.m. at Oso Skate Park, 933 Louise Ave., Charlotte. Follow him @abstractdissent on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or his website abstractdissent.com.
This article originally appeared in The Charlotte Observer.