Lakewood resident finds artistic career in spray paint

Photo by Benjamin Hager

Alexander Gustave Tollen of Lakewood is an asset manager and something of a do-it-yourselfer. Many years ago, his wife saw a painting she liked in Architectural Digest. He thought it looked simple enough to copy. “It turned out pretty terrible,” he says of his copycat efforts. “I mean it wasn’t that bad, but it was not great, either.” That subpar painting, however, sparked Tollen’s artistic career. In the following years, he took a few classes, and he practiced making art as much as possible. About four years ago, he started working with spray paint and stencils, inspired by graffiti artists. It took about three years, but he eventually perfected a process with consistent results. Now Tollen specializes in dog portraits, working under the name Gustave. His portraits are known as Gustave’s dogs. And they’re wildly popular. One recently sold for $600 at an auction benefitting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Tollen works from pictures, but he likes to spend time with the dog in person as well. “They’re very representative of the dog,” he says of the portraits. “When your dog will do a certain thing — turn its ear or have its ears back or something that the dog does — that’s what I’m trying to capture.” He puts a base layer of several coats of spray paint on the canvas and then he uses a hand-cut stencil to create the image of the dog. So far, all of the work Tollen does for commissions has been dog portraits. But he also makes art for himself, stencils based on photographs of architecture, train platforms and flowers, among other subject matter. He often hangs his artwork in Times Ten Cellars, whose owners are friends. He currently is working on an architectural painting that is all in gray scale, which means he is using about 13 shades of gray spray paint to get the look he wants. Tollen never had formal art training until a few years ago, and the first drawing class he ever took was at Michael’s, the craft store. Later, he took an art class at Brookhaven College and a photography class at Richland College. “I’ve used the community college structure a lot because you can get a lot of bang for your buck,” he says.

• Contact Tollen at

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