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Finding his bliss with a spray can

Oxford resident Larry “Sinister” Stephens paints a circus-themed mural around the rear entrance to downtown’s ArtCapsule Gallery & Frame (5 S. Washington St.) Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
August 31, 2011 - A 43-year-old Oxford man was spotted last week spray-painting the back of a downtown building.

But the village police weren't called because this graffiti artist was hired to beautify the building, not deface it.

"I come from a long line of artists, so I've always had an artistic bone in me to create things," explained Larry "Sinister" Stephens as he painted a circus-themed mural around the rear entrance to the ArtCapsule Gallery & Frame, located at 5 S. Washington St.

The mural – which features a clown, a trick rider, dogs and a tiger – will be used as part of the Detroit Institute of Art's Inside/Out project (see story below).

Stephens, a 1986 Oxford High School graduate, got his start as an artist about 25 years ago, spray-painting abandoned buildings in Pontiac and Detroit with his friends.

"We'd all hop in the car and go down there," he said, noting back then, graffiti was an outlet for his "teenage aggression."

It wasn't until 2004 that Stephens started turning his natural artistic ability into cash to help supplement his income. That's when he began selling paintings on the internet.

He became a full-time artist in 2009 when Steel Master Transfer, a local automotive supplier, laid him off after close to 20 years of working there.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," Stephens said. "The stress is gone. I dreaded going into work everyday at that place, making someone else rich. I didn't even want to wake up.

"That weight is off my chest now . . . I'm living the dream, finally doing what I want to do for a living – creating."

In addition to spray cans and walls, Stephens paints on canvas with oils and acrylics. He also does some sculpture and screen printing on t-shirts.

"I do anything to make a buck, to survive in this day and age," he said.

Stephens described most of his art as involving "dark humor."

"It's creepy, but it's kind of funny," he said. "I'm not one of these dark, tortured-soul artists. I'm just an artist that likes to make cool images. I make the art that I would like to hang on my wall. That's all I do. There's no big meanings behind my art. It's all about the image to me."

Stephens' artistic talent is all natural. He's had to no formal training and no art classes – just good genes.

"My mother was an artist. My brother's pretty well-known in Detroit and had art shows in China. He was my biggest influence," he said.

His brother was artist Greg Stephens. He died in 2008.

These days, Stephens' artistic talent is definitely in demand and quite profitable.

"I'm making more doing this than when I was working in the automotive industry," Stephens explained. "I've sold probably close to 900 paintings on-line. I'm putting my daughter through college and keeping my bills paid with my art."

Through his business Subversive Gallery, he's even sold art to the ABC television network. "My art was featured on five episodes of Detroit 1-8-7," Stephens said.

In one episode of Detroit 1-8-7, a police drama that was cancelled following its first season, Stephens' graffiti art was prominently featured on abandoned buildings in downtown Detroit. The episode, which was entitled "Motor City Blues" and was originally aired March 15, 2011, was about a graffiti artist who gets murdered.

"That was all my art in that episode," he said proudly. "I painted outside in 11-degree temperatures down there in Detroit. They were the most horrible conditions I've ever worked in in my entire life, but it was great money."

ABC liked Stephens work so much, the network bought 17 of his paintings to use as part of sets for various television shows. He recently did some artwork for the 90210 series on the CW network.

Someone he met through Detroit 1-8-7 has been urging Stephens to relocate to Los Angeles. "He says he could have me working seven days a week out there in the movie business," Stephens said. "They really liked my work ethic and that I wasn't one of those fruity artists they had to deal with all the time.

"People from LA are coming to Detroit because Detroit is what's happening right now in the art world. It's the up and coming place. People from here want to go out to LA and people from LA want to come here. It's a weird thing."

Despite the lure of Hollywood, Stephens indicated he currently has no plans to relocate to the West Coast.

"I want to stay in Michigan as much as I can, but if I get an offer I can't refuse, I've got to go where the money is," he noted.

Although Stephens still enjoys expressing himself with spray-paint on a blank wall, he doesn't do it for fun anymore on the inner city's abandoned buildings.

"I got shot at down in Detroit in the 1990s," he said. "A bunch of bullets hit right above me. My insurance isn't going to cover that, so I said to heck with it."

To view Stephens' art, visit www.winkingzombie.com.

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