The big, blank, white door on the alleyway garage that came with Torre Franz's new house in the city seemed to be calling out for something – to be covered by a giant photo of Frank Sinatra.
The idea came to Franz when he bought the place on West Tupper in the spring. He couldn't say why exactly … "I don't really listen to Frank Sinatra," said Franz, 24, whose iPod has indie and psychedelic rock of Guided by Voices and Magnetic Fields. "I didn't think anybody would be mad about me putting up Frank Sinatra."
So far it's true. The enormous garage door picture of the silken-voiced-Hoboken-boy-made-good has been the kind of dressed-up art surprise that people in his eclectic neighborhood on the edge of Allentown are appreciating. In the two months since it went up, they've been stopping at the bend in Keep Alley, between Virginia Street and Tupper, to talk, point, take pictures.
It is just the kind of big, provocative outdoor photo art that its creator, Max Collins, wants to do more of. More opportunities to make people smile. More opportunities to bring a down city up.
"I grew up feeling [the decline] and it pushed me away," said Collins, 24, who graduated two years ago from the University of Michigan. "Even my parents are surprised that I've come back."
He started to experiment with the big outdoor photo images after a visit to New Orleans when he was finishing his studies; with them he has fused his journalism and fine arts major. Empty sides of buildings, he says, are the canvases of the 21st century, and Buffalo has plenty.
Works in Collins' evolving collection include the meditating man on the side of a building at Elmwood and Delavan avenues. The photo of a friend with eyes closed and hands in prayer was intended to bring calm to a busy intersection – until he faded and was painted over by someone else this fall.
Last week Collins' contribution to what he calls the local "visual culture" was a close-up of an illustrator friend's questioning eyes on boards mounted on a rental apartment porch on Elmwood Avenue. Waiters from Pano's restaurant came outside to watch.
"If it can make you forget about your next meal, it's doing its job," Collins said, quoting a line that he likes for how it fits his art.
Now he's thinking of what else he can do with porches. "I want to start focusing on blocks and neighborhoods," said Collins. "Throughout a certain block you might start seeing eyes on houses."
His idiosyncratic projects have developed from conversations with friends. The Sinatra garage came up while he was watching football on TV at the end of the summer: Collins began to consider covering a wall in the apartment where they sat. ("I'm at a stage where I'm having a hard time getting permission for walls.")
Then Franz mentioned his idea, and a new mural frontier for garage door photos emerged. Franz's house had its old beauty obscured by dull-looking gray vinyl. His backyard, along the edge of the alley, ended with a plain white garage door that faced out, like a period that wanted to be an exclamation point.
Collins, an East Aurora native, finished another, novel commission last month. A member of the Jacobs family – and fellow East Auroran – acted on a suggestion from a friend's mother and Collins cover the walls of the riders lounge at the National Horse Show in Lexington, Ky., with giant photos of the Jacobs' horses.
Posting art for anyone on the street to see is a thrill.
"It makes art approachable," Collins said. "I think it's the underlying tone for the quality of life in a town. Public art is a great way of getting the public engaged."
Before the end of the year, he expects his next big thing to be overlooking Grant Street, near Lafayette: A 36-by-12-foot mural collaboration with two other artists, posted like a billboard on the front of the community center and headquarters for the housing nonprofit PUSH.
Collins' photo of two interlocking hands will have children, painted and colored by others, jumping off the knuckles.
This summer, he pasted up his portraits of bored-looking Springville teenagers on a boarded building the local arts center wants to convert into a café and gathering place. Teens have since added painted borders in rainbow of colors, and fundraising for the project is under way.
"It's kind of saying, ‘Hey your town's boring,' " he said. "It teaches people. How can we change the environment and make it more exciting or better?"
To do Sinatra, Collins had to Google a good old picture of him in a recording studio. He monkeyed with it in Photoshop and then went to the copy shop – "The people at Kinko's are like a second family" – to print out a mammoth version, one 36-inch strip at a time.
Then on a warm afternoon in September, he brought over three panels of Sinatra and, with some beer and a friend, he used urethane and glue to paste them on like wallpaper, while Tony Lombardo watched from the workshop in his garage on the other side of the alley.
"Oh, I love it!" said Lombardo, 57.
Sinatra, Dean Martin and Eddy Arnold are on his iPod and were his soundtrack in the 1960s when he was growing up.
Back then neighbors in this once Italian neighborhood felt like aunts and uncles. West Tupper is now home to all kinds. Lombardo says he loves the mix, but he doesn't know them all like he used to.
In a weird way, this fall, the sunny-looking Sinatra has been bringing them together.
Lombardo can see from his garage how people stop their cars with surprise. Not long ago, he took a woman who was new to the neighborhood to see it. "I tell everybody," said Lombardo, who wouldn't mind putting the rest of the Rat Pack on his garage. Or, maybe the Beatles.
To Franz and Collins, Sinatra is so iconic, his music is not the point. The late crooner has added something amusing, universal, surprising and good to the neighborhood Franz likes for its eclectic, ungentrified style.
"He was a big-time celebrity, but he was just a regular guy," said Franz, who studies psychology at the University at Buffalo and works at an appliance store.
He thought it was cool that a graffiti tagger noticed and referenced the garage, scrawling "Stormy Weather" – the heartbreak song Sinatra was known for – on the "No Parking" sign next to the door.
As the two young men stood there talking, a long old-style sedan pulled up. Collins nodded when an older man leaned out the window, and, in Spanish-accented English, asked who did it.
He said, "Nice," drove off and Collins smiled. That kind of random, subtle moment just makes him want to paste up more giant photos.
"We're just trying to make Buffalo look cool," Collins said.
"No More Talking: ?Photographic Portraits."
464 Gallery on Amherst Street, near Grant, is up through Nov. 28.