Italian sculptor Maurizio Cattelan made headlines in 2019 when his piece Comedian sold for US$120,000, a jaw-dropping price tag for what basically amounted to a storebought banana, bruised at that, stuck to a wall with a strip of grey duct tape.
"Every aspect of the work was carefully considered," a museum curator commented, defending Comedian against critics who labelled it an out-and-out joke. "From the shape of the fruit, to the angle it’s been affixed with duct tape to the wall, to its placement… on a large wall that could have easily fit a much larger painting."
Closer to home, Levi Sobering is the founder of Duct Tape Dynasty, a custom-order business that turns out commissioned images crafted entirely out of duct tape, be it a portrait of a family pet, replica of a favourite album cover or likeness of an admired film or sports star. After being informed of Cattelan’s fruitful exercise, the 30-year-old high school teacher makes a scribe a proposition.
"Pineapples are pretty cool. Maybe I’ll tape one to a wall and see what happens. We can go 50/50 on it since you showed me the idea." (Deal!)
At the beginning of every school year Sobering, who teaches photography, graphics and metals at Glenlawn Collegiate, engages students in a getting-to-know-you game that requires them to answer a series of multiple-choice questions on their phone, one of which asks what his "side hustle" is. He gives them a list of options and to date, nobody has chosen "duct-tape artist," he says with a chuckle, seated in the backyard of the Windsor Park bungalow he shares with his fiancée Jessica and their newborn son Eli.
Sobering, a Glenlawn alumnus himself, first heard about what’s come to be known as "tape art" during his senior year of high school. His Grade 12 visual arts teacher introduced the medium to the class as a group project during the second semester. One problem: because Sobering took art from September to December that year, as cool as it sounded, he wasn’t afforded the opportunity to give it a shot.
In 2016 Sobering was enrolled at Red River College, studying to be an industrial arts instructor. One of his final assignments was to conjure a non-existent program that could be implemented in a school setting, along with a detailed curriculum. Hmm, he thought, what if he took his old high school teacher’s idea a couple steps further, by developing a course wholly devoted to making things out of duct tape?
The first thing Sobering did was pay a return visit to Glenlawn, to pick his ex-teacher’s brain. Next he dropped by an arts-and-crafts store, to scoop up a prescribed list of supplies, most important of which was roll upon roll of coloured duct tape. (We’re not sure why, but in addition to yellow, burgundy and fluorescent pink, a commercial brand called Duck Tape, available at retailers such as Michael’s, also markets 9.1-metre rolls resembling strips of fried bacon.)
Figuring it wouldn’t be enough to simply explain what a duct-tape class would entail, he fashioned a painting or drawing or whatever you want to call it out of duct tape as a demonstration model. He was proud of his effort, which mimicked a character from Dragon Ball Z, an anime TV series he enjoys, and posted a shot of the finished product on Instagram.
Within hours he was inundated with messages along the line of, "This is badass," "Wow, amazing talent," and "Give me."
Better still, random strangers began reaching out to him, inquiring if he could make them this, that or another thing out of duct tape. Weeks later, Duct Tape Dynasty, a tag suggested to him by a buddy, was born.
It’s a sticky subject, but Manitoba native Todd Scott, not Possum Lodge’s Red Green, is generally credited as being the world’s first bona fide duct-tape artist. In 2002, six years after he made a duct tape rose for a friend’s wife as a gift, Scott was hired by an American adhesive manufacturer to construct a replica of the Stars and Stripes out of duct tape, the catch being they wanted the imitation flag to be the size of a football field. (In a 2003 interview Scott was asked how much that particular job paid; enough to afford him a good living, he responded.)
Since then numerous duct tape artists have made names for themselves. The Netherlands’ Max Zorn, who affixes brown packing tape to acrylic glass to create translucent images, has been profiled on the CBS news program Sunday Morning. Pennsylvanian Kerry Mott earned entry into the Guinness Book of World Records for "largest duct tape artwork," a 16-foot-by-8-foot canvas depicting a volcanic eruption, made with an estimated 300,000 strips of tape.
Methodology varies. Some snip individual fragments of tape and build a scene that way, piece by piece. Without giving away too many secrets, Sobering says he prefers a layered approach; that is, he completely blankets a backing piece of wood paneling with white tape, then covers the white tape with grey, the grey with black and so on and so forth. (He generally works with three colours but has turned out pictures with as many as seven.)
Next, he sketches the chosen image on the surface layer, first in pencil then with a fine-tip, black felt pen. Once the outline is finished it becomes a bit like paint-by-numbers in reverse, he explains. He uses an X-Acto crafting knife to ever so carefully slice through the coats of tape until he reaches the colour he’s after for that section of the picture. He peels back the tape he’s cut through, removing it with the help of his knife to create a two-dimensional look.
It’s painstaking work — a recent assignment depicting an epic battle between Superman and the Incredible Hulk took more than 20 hours to complete — but it’s worth it, he says, to see the look on a satisfied customer’s face during the "big reveal."
"If I’m making something for a person for the first time, I usually send them a few work-in-progress photos," he says, showing off his "office," a drafting table situated in one corner of the rec room. "But if it’s somebody who’s hired me previously, they’re usually like, ‘That’s OK; I don’t need to see it ‘til it’s done.’"
Besides Winnipeg clients, he has shipped pieces as far north as Thompson and as far south as Texas; a person from the Lone Star State who discovered him on Instagram owns a fireworks company and hired him to do his logo out of duct tape.
Prices start at around $60 and go up from there, depending mainly on size and number of colours requested; he recently did a piece capturing the famous, Game 7 buzzer beater by Kawhi Leonard that fuelled the Toronto Raptors’ 2019 championship run. As he was getting close to completion, his client asked if he could add a touch of blue to Leonard’s jersey and also, could he make the basketball orange. "No problem, but it’s going to cost you," he replied with a chuckle.
Sobering smiles when asked the million-dollar question, or rather $250, the amount he recently charged for a memorial portrait of a family’s pet that had been euthanized; why would people want something so personal to be made out of a pedestrian product such as duct tape?
"I agree getting somebody to paint you a picture or blowing up a photograph would probably be an easier way to go, especially because I only work with solid colours," he says, shooing his cat away from a black-and-white reproduction of a gun-toting Marilyn Monroe. "I’ve been told it’s the uniqueness of it all that’s most appealing. One person commented about hers being a conversation starter, that anybody who sees it in the living room immediately wants to know all about it, where she got it, how long it took to make, etc. etc."
All right, if that’s the case, why aren’t we spotting any duct-tape masterpieces adorning the walls of Sobering’s abode?
"Ha, I’ve probably made over 300 by now and haven’t kept a single one for myself," he says. "That’s not to say there haven’t been occasions when I thought, ‘Man, this is so cool, I don’t want to sell it,’ only that wouldn’t be too productive from a business standpoint, right? I am a big Eminem fan, though, so maybe when our son is a bit older I’ll teach him how it’s done and he can make one for me for Father’s Day or something."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.