The man with
the red, red beard
How the whimsical street art of Kyle Brooks
made him a darling of corporate Atlanta.
Kyle Brooks' canvas was an old interior door, white wood veneer, hollow inside. The handle was removed but for the internal locking mechanisms still inside the circular hole. On one side, he painted an undercoat in shades of muted orange, bordered by gray dots. Atop that base, he stacked three emotive faces vertically down the facade. In all-caps down the right side he used a Sharpie to print: “The Bear & The Buffalo & The Man with the Red Red Beard.” At bottom right, he signed it simply, “Brooks.”
With the door complete, Kyle did what he’d done with most of his art since 2008; he took it out into the world and left it there. It was late in the evening when he finished installing the door in an alley across the street from the Krispy Kreme on Ponce de Leon, next to the half-painted monkey king made by some other artist.
Satisfied, Kyle opened the creaky door to his old Tacoma where his rat terrier Pup sat in the passenger seat. The pair made their way home to their condo in East Atlanta Village where his wife, Maria, was sleeping.
A half-mile away and a few hours later, Bryan Schroeder woke up at 4:30 a.m., dug a pair of sweatpants from the drawer and clipped a leash onto his golden retriever George. Together they slipped out the front door of his Midtown home, careful not to disturb Schroeder’s still-sleeping wife, as they headed out into the night for Central Park.
Bryan takes pleasure in nature; he is the senior director of development and marketing for the Georgia Conservancy. And he values loyalty; he has worked for the conservancy his entire career. He and George moved quietly through the hush of urban predawn darkness. The whole city was asleep when he spotted something strange leaning against an alley wall next to The Atlanta Eagle bar.
A closer inspection revealed three heads framed in polka dots, a muted orange undercoat. A painting on a door. What a strange and wonderful thing, he marveled.
Schroeder examined the work in the darkness and looked around.
How did this thing get here? he wondered. George sniffed the air. Neither was sure.
By the time he returned home, Bryan was resolute. He unclipped George from the leash, gathered his keys and drove back to the spot. It wasn’t quite dawn when he loaded the door into his trunk.
By dinnertime, it hung on his foyer wall.
Kyle Brooks woke up the following morning without knowledge of the slow-churning machinery that was silently set in motion in the night. And so he drank tea and blogged about his installation on Ponce that was already long gone.
Photo: Kyle paints during Parklife in Piedmont Park on Oct. 18, 2015. Photo by Branden Camp
Five years later, Kyle and I strolled into his favorite Thai restaurant where he greeted the waitress by name.
Tall and slim with extra-long arms, Kyle sat hunched forward as though he was perpetually cold. He wore white overalls covered in pastel paint splatters, a handkerchief tied around his neck like an ascot. At the next table, two muscular police officers sized us up. Perhaps it was Kyle’s colorful presence that caught their eyes, or maybe it was his epic beard, a bright red tumble of whiskers that ended at a point a foot below his chin.
“I was born in Columbus, Ohio,” he tells me between bites of his vegetarian basil and rice dish, “but the Brooks are a long line of Georgians.”
His family moved to Atlanta before Kyle was out of diapers. He attended Mt. Carmel Christian School in Stone Mountain from kindergarten until seventh grade. He spoke of those years with reverence. It was a good childhood.
That changed in eighth grade, when Brooks enrolled at Stockbridge Junior High. He likened his first days there to being “the newest convict in the prison yard.”
He was horrified at the way kids treated one another, and for the first time in his life he got into a fight.
Realizing the social stakes, Brooks conformed as much as he could. But he entertained himself by writing silly poems for friends and doodling strange beasts onto the backs of tests and quizzes. He loved to get a laugh. His imaginative flights of fancy helped him pass the time and eventually gained him social entrée. The girls loved his artful ways, and his chill demeanor won over most of the guys, even his would-be bullies.
But by his senior year, Kyle was lost. His parents assumed he would attend their alma mater Milligan College, a private Christian liberal arts college near Johnson City, Tenn., but Kyle didn’t want to go. Instead of talking about it with his parents, he quietly slipped unnoticed into June without applying.
When they found out, they were angry and disappointed. Family pressure redoubled, and Kyle eventually acquiesced. He didn’t have a better plan for his life, anyway. Hasty arrangements were made to get him in Milligan. Brooks lasted two years.
“Safe to say, no art got made,” Kyle said, as we left the restaurant.
Photo: Kyle started out by tacking paintings of bear heads on telephone poles in neighborhoods around Atlanta. Now his murals can be found around town, including this one called “The Pointy People” in Cabbagetown.
Directionless, Kyle packed up and headed west on a road trip to nowhere in particular.
“I bought a 66 GMC Handi-van from a man in East Tennessee named Virgil Ingram for $400 and drove it up the West coast and back before I sold it to some hippie kids for more than I’d paid.”
He returned for a time to Georgia, then moved to Tennessee for while. The timeline gets hard to pin down in those years. Brooks had no school to attend, no meaningful work to do, no plans to enact. He settled where he did. For a time he worked at a hotel restaurant in Johnson City, serving roast beef in the lobby on weekends. He married a local girl. It didn’t work out. Kyle doesn’t like to talk about it. Any of it.
“No art at all,” he said, staring at the ground and shaking his head.
Kyle was now divorced, living alone in a place he hated, surrounded by people he loathed, doing a job he resented. So he decided to get even more lost
“If you’re trying to be lost,” he reflected, “then there is no place better than Alaska. Everyone in Alaska is running from something.”
Brooks spent a summer washing dishes and playing guitar at the Denali Wilderness Lodge, and for the first time in a long time, he felt like he was in the right place at the right time. The people out there in the wilderness liked his music. He made friends with other creative people.
At the end of the summer, his seasonal job concluded. Brooks bounced around, hiking the Alaskan wild before making his way south to New Mexico then east to Nashville where he recorded a demo. But nothing really stuck. Weary and worn, but aware for the first time of the man he could become, Kyle set his course for Georgia.
Kyle returned to Atlanta in 2000 and got a day job driving a courier van in Fayetteville. He got his own place, and he spent his evenings at home playing music and drawing. Then he got a break. His boss knew Kyle was a doodler and recommended him to a client who needed a new graphic designer, minimal experience required.
He quickly found himself in their employ and began learning the ropes of graphic design. It was his first professional job in art. He immersed himself. And in his spare time, he took up painting, his earliest works poking fun at the religious iconography he’d been raised around. He painted a green baby Jesus, a Jesus with two left feet, a super good Jesus. Kyle was thriving in the world.
Eight years passed, during which time painting became his obsession. At night, Kyle painted so relentlessly, he soon had no more room in which to put new paintings. So he began to paint over the old ones. He’d look around his East Atlanta condo, identify a painting he didn’t want anymore, and two coats of white later, he had fresh canvas.
Birth of the bear
A recurring character began to appear in his re-paintings: the face of a bear with a wry smile and cartoon eyes. His sweet visage conveyed innocence, while his smirk gave him away.
“Those bears, they have some hidden issues,” Kyle said.
Kyle had an idea: What if he put his bear paintings in the public? People might get a kick out of it. He’d toss a couple bear heads into the truck, and on his commute to work he’d keep an eye out (and mostly up) around the neighborhood telephone poles for a nice, visible spot. When he found one, he’d make a mental note.
Later that day, or that week, or whenever the mood struck him, Kyle would return with his ladder, set it against the telephone pole and climb up. He’d take that bear head and nail it in.
“That was a rush, those early ones,” Kyle said. “Just doing stuff you aren’t supposed to got the blood going. When I got to feeling tired of a certain painting, I’d paint a bear head over the top. Eventually I started taking them out on weekends and at night, just to tuck away up some pol e… see ‘what if,’ I guess.”
Kyle was evolving into a street artist not as a way to express dissent in the world but simply because he was a dude with too many paintings of bears cluttering his apartment. A dude with a penchant for harmless pranks. A dude with a ladder.
When the Great Recession hit in 2008, a lot of people lost their jobs, including Kyle. He got a temp job and turned his mind to drumming up some publicity for his art. His street art name, BlackCatTips, came to him as he sat, browser open to a GoDaddy.com URL purchase page, cursor blinking in the blank field marked “Your URL.” He took a sheet of paper with dozens of words he’d written in neat columns, selected three, and BlackCatTips was born.
“I might’ve given it a little extra thought if I’d known it would stick,” he says now.
Kyle didn’t know what was coming. It wouldn’t be until he met Maria that he would see.
Yin and yang
By 2009, Kyle’s bears were becoming a common sight around Atlanta’s intown neighborhoods. He also had taken to writing three or four words on scrap wood and hanging them around town in a similar fashion. He called them street poems.
Then one day he walked into his temp job and there sat Maria. She was the new designer at work. Kyle was supposed to train her, but he was immediately transfixed. They started dating during her first week. The couple later married in her family’s native Puerto Rico.
Kyle and Maria are at once alike and opposite. The ways they are the same, they are so very similar. The ways they are different, each replaces in form where the other diminishes.
Maria is structured; Kyle is loose. Maria likes routine; Kyle prefers spontaneity. Kyle laughs often; Maria doesn’t smile easily. But they share a silly, absurdist sensibility. Her Instagram account is @whitecattips.
Above all else, Maria is Kyle’s champion. When they began to date, she pushed him. She prodded him. She got him to do things he would not have otherwise done.
You’ve just got to do something with these paintings, Maria told him.
So he rented a booth in the artists market at the East Atlanta Strut in 2010. He spent the week leading up to it in a whirlwind of paint. When people from the neighborhood strolled into the booth, they were excited to meet the guy who made the bear heads. His first fans.
“The things folks seemed to like the most were the bears,” said Kyle, “which is funny because I was usually just cannibalizing my old art to make them.”
Kyle did other neighborhood festivals for a while but eventually quit because it wasn’t paying off financially. He even lost money a time or two.
Photo: Kyle poses with "Faces", his mural on Eastside Trail under North Highland Ave. in June 2015. Photo by Jenni Girtman.
Today Kyle and Maria live in a house in Lithonia; his studio is in the detached garage. Most of his work these days are commissioned paintings for major corporations.
“Here lately, I’ve been doing mostly corporate work, which has its benefits,” he said. “Like when I painted some stuff at the Shaky Knees Festival and they gave me these fancy VIP tickets, and I got to eat with famous people. That was kind of fun.”
Kyle came to work with so many of Atlanta’s high-profile organizations because he did a job for free, for the Atlanta Resource Foundation. That work led to other commissions, including one for the Atlanta Falcons.
“I was painting a big, long wall with animals and things. Then this big bus shows up with some of the team,” Kyle recalled. “Mike Smith, who was coaching then, came in and he was painting with me, and I had him up on a ladder. And then, lo and behold, here comes Arthur Blank. And then I was embarrassed because I had bought my paint from Lowe’s that day and here’s the guy that owned Home Depot. I think Maria covered up all the labels with paint.”
Much of the corporate work he’s done “daisy-chained like that,” he said. One organization connecting him to another. Nowhere is the daisy chain more visible in Kyle’s life than the one connecting him to the man who snatched up his painting on Ponce de Leon Avenue, Bryan Schroeder with the Georgia Conservancy.
Bryan eventually discovered who painted the door. He found Kyle’s website and read the post about the door on his blog.
“I was so wracked with guilt about it, I don’t think I reached out to Kyle about it for a year or two,” Bryan recalled.
When the two eventually did connect, Bryan knew he wanted Kyle involved with Georgia Conservancy. One of the things Bryan did for the nonprofit was develop a robust program of trips designed to expose people to the state’s natural beauty. So he took Kyle on a couple of trips and invited him to create artwork for Firelight, the organization’s largest fund-raising event for the trips program.
The Firelight commission led to a commission for Sweetwater Brewery, which led to a commission for Xerox, which brought him to the attention of the Bitter Southerner online magazine. The Bitter Southerner made a video about Kyle, and that resulted in commissions at the Weather Channel and MailChimp, which introduced him to a half-dozen advertising agencies.
All of that and more came about because Bryan Schroeder saw a painting on a door in an alley and just had to have it.
Kyle might have been lost until he was nearly 30 years old, but by embracing his passion and putting his work out in the world when the time felt right, he has made a name for himself he couldn’t have imagined the day he first tacked a bear head to a telephone pole.
“Nowadays the thing is, I can’t always say yes,” Kyle said about his growing work load. “It’s funny to turn work down, because if you had told me five years later I’d be sitting here talking for this story in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, man…” Kyle trailed off before regaining his thought. “I guess the moral of the story is just to go for it. Try some stuff. The world will work it out with you.”
ABOUT THE STORY
Anyone familiar with Atlanta’s intown neighborhoods has probably seen Kyle Brooks’ bear heads and street poems tacked up on telephone poles and other unexpected places. Now his work is on display at the World of Coca-Cola musem and the corporate offices of Xerox and MailChimp, among others. His journey takes a quirky route, appropriate to the quirky artist, that confirms the belief that following one’s passion can pave the way to success.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Adam Kincaid is a freelance writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Bitter Southerner and others. He wants a good literary agent and a verified twitter badge @adamjkincaid.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.
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