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Local artist feature from UICA: Dave Battjes

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Dave Battjes is a husband, dad, creative letterer, nature enthusiast and avid high fiver. Battjes’ creative practice, a never ending study of letters, has him creating large-scale murals and gorgeously crafted messages of positivity.
Mural by Dave Battjes

Mural by Dave Battjes /Courtesy of UICA

Underwriting support from:
Dave Battjes

Dave Battjes /Courtesy of UICA

Art by Dave Battjes

Art by Dave Battjes /Courtesy of UICA

Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts invites you to learn more about West Michigan's creative workforce, neighboring cultural organizations, and about ways to engage with Grand Rapids' art-scene with interviews and guest features highlighting our local and regional community members. Visit for monthly interviews.

Give us a short bio.

I'm a husband, dad, creative letterer, nature enthusiast and avid high fiver. I grew up in the Grand Rapids area and spent five years living in Seattle, WA. 

How would you describe your work?
A never ending study of letters, focused on positivity and the outdoors.

How did you start your career as an artist?

I've been drawing since I was a little kid. I was illustrating books with my friends in first grade and I always sought out the other artsy kids. Growing up, I thought that a career in art would be a dream come true! In high school I was kicked out of a graphic design program because I was a bit rebellious.

I was exposed to a lot of people trying to reality check me: "What are you going to do when you don't make any money?" "How do you think you'll live on art?" It was, of course, really discouraging. I was young and stubborn but it did wear me down and I started thinking about what I "had" to do to make a living. I went to several schools but never found anything that felt right. I would have gone to art school but I was afraid to put myself out there. The idea of exposing my art to people who I believed were more creative than I was made me really uncomfortable. I was so afraid of being thought of as an amateur or finding out that I had no future in art.

Who or what has been the biggest single influence on your way of thinking?

If it weren't for an article I read about the graffiti artist, Stash, I wouldn't have found my creative niche as quickly as I did. Like I said before, I've always been drawing but there were times in my life when I would definitely draw less. Once I saw his work my eyes were opened up to the freedom of graffiti and street art.

I was so energized to flex my creative muscles. Street art helped loosen me up because it was so free. It taught me the power of repetition and that art could be whatever I wanted it to be. I would construct my own tools and practice the same words for hours. It helped me develop my style and skills in a way I wasn't expecting. I craved more creativity but I wanted something I could pay my bills with. With my newfound confidence, I decided to try graphic design again. I went to school in Seattle and found it easy to express my personality through design. The cities proximity to the wilderness allowed me explore the great outdoors and connect with who I was. My wife helped me stay focused and positive through school and life. A lot of my current work is messages of positivity and she is why.

Do you have a piece of work or a project that stands out in your mind as something you are exceptionally proud of or that is particularly important to you?

Every new project, personal or client based, comes with it's own challenges and rewards. I've never had a project that I feel defines me or has changed the way I did things forever. Once one job is done, I'm so ready for the next one. You learn and grow from each experience. So... I guess the most important project is always whatever's next! I did just finish a mural here in Grand Rapids (at 368 Diamond) which I'm feeling pretty good about though!

What new projects do you have on the horizon?

I have a few projects in the works and a never ending list of ideas that I would love to make a reality!! Life is short and I want to make the most of it. Right now, I'm searching for mural based lettering work and sign painting projects.

What do you want others outside of the creative workforce to understand about careers within the arts?

Creativity has economic value.. but many people don't see it that way. They see someone who is doing what they love and there's a misguided assumption that since they love it so much they should be grateful for any work, even unpaid.

If a lawyer was asked to take a case for free because they would get great exposure from a blog or high traffic social media account, it is very unlikely that they would. Most creatives suck at business. We have an ability to generate new ideas and think beyond the scope of what's normal.
In my experience, this means that we get asked to take on a lot of projects because we're good at finding solutions.

We usually work twice as hard for a lot less and we often believe that we should only be paid what the client can afford, not what we're worth. I struggle with this daily. (I'm not saying you shouldn't shop around but just remember, time is never free and you absolutely get what you pay for.)

All I wanted to do was to explore new places and create things but I needed a push. In 2005 I moved out to Seattle with my wife (who was my girlfriend at the time) and we lived on almost nothing for a year. The experience helped set the course for my life up to this point. I knew I needed to work toward a career in art but I wouldn't figure out what that would be until much later. 

Letters became my passion after a 3 year stint with street art, two and a half years of graphic design school (in Seattle) and one year at Dumb Eyes design studio. My wife, son and I moved back to Grand Rapids and I started obsessively drawing letters. Lettering is the perfect blend of art and design. I get to combine my technical side with fluid freedom. With art, you're free to interpret the world as you see fit, there are no rules. With design, you have nothing but rules to follow. I never felt like I made a good artist because I had such a hard time letting go of restriction and being free in the moment. I am a reluctant perfectionist. With letters, the most important guideline is legibility. The rest is open for interpretation. I get to follow the rules, break them, and shove myself out of my comfort zone. It's perfect!

What are you passionate about besides your work?

I love spending time with my wife and sons. I am happiest when I am hiking or camping. I am hoping to bike around lake Michigan next summer as a sort of conservation passion project! 

What’s the best piece of advice you have heard and repeat to others?

Stop being so adult and have some damn fun!

Where can we learn more about you?

You can follow me on Instagram @davebattjes or visit my website at


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