Photography: Casey Rearick
A grilled cheese sandwich is not a typical source of inspiration for an artist. John G is not your typical artist.
If you’ve lived in Cleveland in the past decade, you’ve seen John’s work. Even locals who don’t know his name have likely spotted one of the 250-plus posters he’s created for Melt Bar & Grilled in the past nine years.
“John’s art has become synonymous with what Melt is now,” says Melt owner Matt Fish. “He’s so ingrained in what we do. His art is a part of the culture at Melt.”
John’s Melt work has been so popular that some patrons pilfer his posters and pin them to the walls of their homes. For those who don’t want to resort to larceny, 1984 Publishing released Sandwich Anarchy: The Cult Culinary Posters of Melt Bar & Grilled this past Halloween, a hardbound collection of his grilled cheese-inspired works.
While there are Clevelanders who may only know John from his Melt masterpieces, to paint him as only a sketcher of sandwiches is to ignore the rest of his gritty, highly-detailed oeuvre. Since the early 2000s, John has treated Cleveland to hundreds of show posters, multiple zines, and plenty of freelance illustrations. No matter the project, John has a knack for turning sheets of paper into fully-developed worlds.
“His detail work is unbelievable,” says Matthew Chojnacki, owner of 1984 Publishing. “Some of his work is so detailed that it’s like a Highlights magazine for adults.”
While Chojnacki was one of the main drivers behind Sandwich Anarchy, his first introduction to John’s work was The Lake Erie Monster, an ongoing horror anthology comic that John creates along with fellow Cleveland illustrator Jake Kelly. Chojnacki eventually met John at Genghis Con, an annual underground comic and zine convention that John runs. Once Chojnacki got to know John, he gained an even greater appreciation for the illustrator.
“I had cancer a year ago and I’m compelled now by anybody who has a story,” Chojnacki explains. “Everyone’s got one. John’s story that he used to draw as a kid, got injured, and had to relearn how to draw, even though he can’t feel the pen, is really intriguing to me.”
The story of John’s injury has been told a few times, but it still comes as a surprise to some of those familiar with John’s work. Before the injury, John Greiner was a typical kid who loved to draw. He was quickly drawn to comics at a young age, but the first artist that he knew distinctly was Vincent van Gogh.
“As a little kid, I remember seeing his work and understanding how he did it and trying to draw the way that he painted with crayons, using those bright colors and strokes,” John explains, hands digging into the pockets of his blue Carhartt hoodie as he plumbs his memory banks.
While van Gogh made an early impact on John, it wasn’t long before comic book artists began to inspire him during middle school. He remembers walking into B&L Comics as a kid and being wowed by the old ‘60s X-Men comics hanging on the wall. He eventually grew an appreciation for artists like Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and how he used his art to tell stories.
John always maintained an affinity for comics, but his teenage self was also drawn to punk rock and BMX riding. His family eventually moved to Fairview Park at the end of 1994. On May 13, 1995, he injured his spine in a BMX accident and ended up in the intensive care unit at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital.
The injury initially left John paralyzed from his mid-back on down. He eventually lost the ability to feel his hands and move his arms after undergoing spinal fusion surgery. By the end of the night, he was completely paralyzed from the neck down.
John spent another few weeks in the ICU, unable to move and with nothing to do other than try—and fail—to move his limbs before he was transferred to MetroHealth. His first night there, his dad was around to hang out and watch TV when John was finally able to get his body to react.
“I was lying on my side and my right arm kicked in and flexed my right bicep,” John recalls. “I punched myself in the nose and I started laughing. My dad was like ‘Why are you laughing? This isn’t funny, this is Law & Order.’ I’m like ‘No, no, no, straighten out my arm. My hand is in my face.’ He would just straighten it out and I would flex it over and over and over again because I could.”
While John could move his arms again, he remained paralyzed from the mid-back down and he never fully regained feeling in his hands. There is some sense of feeling in his thumbs and pointer fingers, but it’s muted to the point that he can’t feel if something is hot or wet. In addition to having to reteach himself how to write and draw again, John had to adapt to life in a wheelchair. However, he was more than up to what he saw as a new challenge.
“[The nurses] can show you how to live your life, but the one crucial person who can get you out of that hospital or back to being yourself again is you. It’s 100 percent on you.” – John G
“You sort of have to reconcile when you’re put in that position,” he adds. “[The nurses] can show you how to live your life, but the one crucial person who can get you out of that hospital or back to being yourself again is you. It’s 100 percent on you. There’s no cheat, there’s no way around, you can’t ask someone to make that decision for you. I don’t know if I intrinsically knew that or if I had such a giant chip on my shoulder from being a teenager that I was like, ‘Fuck you, I’m going do this.’”
Just over three months after the accident, John was released in time for the first day of school. After high school, he started really putting together the set of skills needed to make comics on a regular basis. He gave himself deadlines and started taking a drawing class at Cuyahoga Community College, where he made his first mini comic.
From there, he held various day jobs. On the side, he made the occasional band poster and put out various comics and zines under the name John G, a moniker he’d earned during his high school job at Bobson Hardware because there were several “Johns” already working there. In 2004, he got so sick that he was out of commission for months and lost his job at a Kinko’s. Still, John’s drive to overcome yet another obstacle led him to keep looking for more freelance opportunities.
“Most people aren’t ready or willing [to do this for a living],” Jake Kelly says. “The ‘able’ part is mostly taken care of. You can draw pretty well, you can draw hands, which is crucial, and you’re good to go. The ‘ready and willing’ part—You’re pretty much going to have to be alone all of the time. If you want to make a living at it, you’re going to have to cut some things out of your life.”
Of all the local artists, Kelly may be the closest person to John’s aesthetic, to the point of where both Kelly and John say that people compliment them on work that the other did. Kelly even has his own Melt connection, having done the murals in the business’ multiple locations. While John was pumping out show posters, Kelly was churning out flyers right along with him. Because of this, Kelly is well aware of the bumpy road an illustrator can face.
“You have to put your time in to do this and practice to get really good, but then there are also points where you just have to get stupidly lucky,” he explains.
John started catching a few of those breaks in the mid 2000s. Realizing he needed to make more money in order to make a true living off of his art, he raised his rates. Some jobs started falling into his lap right when he needed work. He went to shows and met people who needed posters. One of those people was John Delzoppo, a musician who John met after punching him in an aggressive mosh pit at the old Grog Shop. Delzoppo had access to some color printers, which added another dimension to John’s work.
“At this point, there’s nobody who doesn’t know who he is,” Delzoppo says. “If there’s somebody in Cleveland who’s in the music scene and doesn’t know who John is, either they’re new in town or they haven’t paid attention at all because his stuff has been everywhere for the last 10-plus years.”
While he was doing well in the music scene, John recognized that he needed to find additional work elsewhere.
“I needed to start branching out and making more money doing this stuff. I didn’t mind eating frozen burritos every day, but I would have loved to eat a non-frozen burrito, like a fresh burrito.”
John started a “Month of Posters” project in 2009 to help expand his portfolio. He contacted several local organizations in the process. When Matt Fish responded, he pitched him an idea to create a poster for the Reuben Melt, their upcoming March sandwich special. It was a hit and started a series of posters that have been seen everywhere from Lakewood to the Food Network.
John has no shortage of projects these days. In the past few months alone, he’s worked on an autobiographical comic titled Tales to Demystify, a residency for the Gordon Square Arts District, Sandwich Anarchy, Genghis Con, and various freelance work. The last four months of the year is his busy season, which can mean work nights that extend past 4 a.m. when deadlines are due. He does force himself to takes breaks to hang out at Superelectric Pinball Parlor or grab a juice and flirt with the girls at Daily Press, but he’s come to accept that a hectic schedule is pretty normal for him.
“One of the ways I’m most comfortable working is in crisis mode,” John says. “There’s no time to really second guess yourself and you have to edit on the fly. You’re tumbling down a mountain in front of an avalanche and if you stop to fuck around, you will get demolished by what’s behind you.”
While John’s career has grown over the years, that mindset of moving forward and getting work done has been with him for decades. Delzoppo recalls a time when John drove back and forth between the East and West Side during a blizzard after forgetting his Zip disk, all to make sure he’d finish a project on time.
“One of his most admirable qualities and something that makes his work shine is the fact that he won’t let anything hold him back,” Delzoppo says. “That just goes for his whole life. Where a lot of people would either make excuses or put things off or for whatever reason not get things done, he has this drive where he’ll get through any situation just to get the job done or better hone his craft.”
This should come as no surprise to people who know John. He’s someone who won’t be held back and continues to create artwork with the same sense of loving detail and personality since he re-taught himself how to draw. No matter what challenges lie in the road ahead, he’ll be ready to take them on and live to draw the tale.
John G’s Favorite Posters
John G has made more than 250 posters over the years. Since we’re cruel people, we made him choose among his various Melt posters and share some insight behind his favorite pieces in Sandwich Anarchy.
“I really love Cheers; there’s something about that show that makes me super happy. The Lakewood Melt was like Cheers. I used to go there all the time and I knew everyone who worked there. I knew a bunch of regulars and would see people I knew all the time. I wanted to represent that. That opening sequence is one of the best opening sequences in all of TV. It was the sort of natural one to put at the beginning [of Sandwich Anarchy] to compliment the title page.”
“This one I’m really, really proud of. It’s a study of a classical painting of Vulcan and Venus. Vulcan was this Greek god who was born crippled, with malformed legs or something. Hera throws him in the ocean because she’s like, ‘Fuck this crippled baby. I don’t want this kid.’ He’s raised by mermaids to become an artist where he’s making jewelry out of seashells and stuff off of the bottom of the ocean. She sees it eventually and asks where people got it from and they say that there’s this crippled god and he’s really good at this stuff and she’s like, ‘That’s my son!’”
“When they were filming Winter Soldier here, they stopped traffic on the Shoreway, so all this traffic was going down Detroit Road and my neighborhood was just congested as hell. This was going on while I was drawing the Firecracker Chicken. I made these Nazi guys the Agents of F.A.S.T. F.O.O.D.”
“This is a character I developed and then just brought back over and over and over again—this wolf guy. I started making this sandwich poster look like ‘70s crime neo-noir movies and just sat this pig lady in a muscle car.”