Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Taking it to the streets

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It’s not often that a Madison police officer has to ask a street artist to downsize his crowds because they’re blocking traffic.

This is not an unusual request, however, when spray painter Travis Knapp takes to the 100 or 400 blocks of State Street. On a typical weekend, Knapp’s audience averages 50 to 75 people, but that can swell to more than 150 during festivals like Art Fair on the Square and Taste of Madison.


Not only is he popular, but he sells. Sitting down with The Badger Herald last weekend, the laid-back 32-year-old admitted with a laugh, “I actually make more money doing this than at my real job.”

And it shows. Although Knapp spends his 9-to-5 doing interior and exterior painting for a small Madison company, it is clear that his passion lies with his weekend gig.

In layman’s terms, Knapp is a speed painter whose artistic tools are few and nontraditional. Armed with merely a number of spray paint cans in bold hues, a few bottle lids of varying diameter, paper scraps, one 1/2-inch palette knife and blank poster board, Knapp produces multilayered pictures depicting awe-inducing scenes of the cosmos, all in about five minutes’ time.

But he’s done faster.

“I did one with a New York City skyline with the American flag on it with an earth in the background, and I had somebody ask me how fast I could do it,” Knapp said. “They timed me, and I did it in 3:45.”

The style of spray painting that Knapp works in originated in Mexico and is based on several techniques of layering and pulling layers away. Some parts of a completed picture can see up to 10 layers of paint, though five is more common. Knapp uses paper, like pages torn from a magazine, to press onto an area of fresh paint then pull it away to create a marbled effect, which creates features such as waterfalls, clouds and mountain ranges.

Knapp picked up the tricks of the trade from a friend 14 years ago when he was living in San Diego after dropping out of school for massage therapy (“It wasn’t the right fit” were the only words he had on that decision). After spending his winters traveling cross-country and living in Key West, Fla., for a spell, the artist relocated to Madison six years ago on a whim.

“The art scene here, compared to other towns I’ve been in, is really open-minded,” said Knapp, who is thinking about finally settling down here. “You’ll see everything from high-dollar, really fantastic oils and acrylics to somebody sketching, and they all get a real appreciation in this town.”

Owning a small gallery in Madison may also be on the horizon one day for Knapp, who said he would love the ability to produce higher-quality works that he can spend more time perfecting. However, he fears for such a gallery’s success.

“The fact of the matter is that this style of art doesn’t sell hanging on the wall, it sells when people see it done,” he explained. “But like all art, if it doesn’t evolve … you get frustrated and bored and you just don’t get as creative.”

Still, Knapp said is he quite content with where his art is at for the time being. In addition to setting up on State Street on the weekends, Knapp frequently enters national painting competitions. At a spray paint competition in New Orleans in 2002 he took 2nd place. The artist has also been requested to paint various odd items. This ranges from murals in apartments and businesses to designs on beer pong tables, skateboards and Guitar Hero guitars.

Walking down State Street, one can see such a mural outside of Yellow Jersey. For this project, Knapp collaborated with fellow Madison artist Crystal Smith. The mural shows a colorful, abstract representation of State Street and the state Capitol building, for which Knapp executed the landscape and the planets, and then Smith came in with a brush to add the finer detail of trees of Skittles and silhouettes of people. The artist himself is actually depicted on the bottom left of the frame on his bicycle, and Smith included herself on the bottom right holding a painter’s palette.

Despite this local notoriety, having an urban sidewalk as his office can come with certain misconceptions.

“See, a lot of people get confused,” Knapp said. “They think that because I’m painting on the street means I’m homeless, and I’m not making any money. That’s totally the wrong idea.”

On the contrary, Knapp’s pictures typically sell rather quickly.

“The first two or three paintings that I do, nobody really buys anything. Then as soon as somebody buys one, they all start to sell,” Knapp said. “It’s like, once people realize you can just roll them up and take them with you like a poster then people realize it’s a lot easier to take.”

The artist prefers buyers to make an offer for what they feel the finished work is worth, which is usually upward of $20 to $30. On a good Saturday, Knapp said, he sells between 30 and 40 paintings.

For this self-described “funky” artist, summers in Madison bring a fresh palette of opportunity. Those who have seen Knapp in action will notice that he has about 40 designs which he recycles, but this year he has created a number of new images that he is looking forward to putting out.

“I like to break it down and make [the process] as entertaining as possible,” Knapp said.

The exclamations of wonderment common in this artist’s crowds are just a testament to the pure fun had by all who watch him at work.

To view a slide show of Travis Knapp’s spray paintings, visit

Correction: This story originally referred to a mural outside Yellow Bicycle. It should have said Yellow Jersey. We regret the error.

Local speed painter showcases work

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