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Moving beyond graffiti

We are part of The Trust Project.

‘I call it aerosol art’

By Tom Uhlenbrock

McClatchy Newspapers

WATERLOO, Iowa — The ballot is in, the vote has been counted and the winner is — Paco Rosic, a Bosnian refugee and reformed graffiti artist who used 5,000 cans of spray paint to re-create the Sistine Chapel ceiling at his family’s restaurant in Waterloo.

Rosic edged out Patrick Acton, a college counselor who has built incredibly detailed models with wooden matchsticks, including a 12-foot-long model of the U.S. Capitol that took 478,000 matchsticks and looks like it should have ant-sized politicians sitting inside.


While Iowa’s early presidential primary gets all the attention, I held a contest of my own with a 1,100-mile, looping road trip in search of the weirdest, wackiest, most amazing attractions the Hawkeye State had to offer.

Iowa was too big to cover in just five days. I wanted to see where the music died, but the farm field near Clear Lake where a plane crashed in 1959 carrying Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens would have meant a half-day detour.

Instead, I strolled through picture-perfect towns such as Pella, ate a banana split for breakfast at the ice cream capital of the world in Le Mars and watched a young businessman from Cincinnati knock my hanging curveball into the corn stubble beyond the Field of Dreams in Dyersville.

I met Paco Rosic one rainy morning in downtown Waterloo at his restaurant, appropriately called Galleria de Paco. Above the plush tables set for dinner was a ceiling covered in a glowing version of the Sistine Chapel ceiling that would have made Michelangelo proud.

Rosic, 27, explained that he was born in Sarajevo, but his family fled the Bosnian War in 1991 and settled in Germany, where he became a graffiti artist, or tagger, as a teenager. When his family immigrated to the United States in 1997, he wanted to elevate his artistic skills using the same medium.

Rosic saw the Sistine Chapel in an art book at the age of 6 and was hooked. When his parents turned a dilapidated antique store in Iowa into a gourmet restaurant, the barrel ceiling became his canvas. "I flew to Rome. I had to see it with my own eyes," Rosic said. "I walked into the Sistine Chapel, and it blew me away. I stood there for hours and hours."

Returning home, he worked as long as 15 hours a day on his project, lying on an industrial scaffolding 12 feet above the ground. It took more than four months to re-create the biblical scenes with 384 characters on the restaurant ceiling. Because of the spectacular results, Rosic, now a U.S. citizen, has been commissioned for similar projects, including one in Las Vegas.

"I wanted to prove you can do something positive with a can of spray paint — I call it aerosol art," he said. "To me, this is the greatest country. America is the only place you can do this."


Out-of-the-way Iowa

• The German founders of Burlington built Snake Alley, which Ripley’s says is the world’s crookedest street, in 1894 to get their wagons and carriages from the top of Heritage Hill down to the city’s business district. I was admiring its seven curves over 275 feet when Jackson Collins walked up.

"When I was a kid we used to drive down it one way, and then we backed up it the other — in 1948, in a ‘39 Ford," Collins said. "They won’t let you do that kind of BS anymore." The street attracts scofflaws. Moments later, a young man in a red sports car with the top down sped up the one-way street, the wrong way.

• Fifty miles to the west, Fairfield had the only city guide in America that provided a pronunciation key and definition for the word "maharishi." More than 30 years ago, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who became world famous as the guru to the Beatles, was looking for a place to set up a school for his followers of Transcendental Meditation when he purchased the old Parsons College in Fairfield.

This little farm town was flooded with hundreds of hippies from both coasts who were seeking a blissful life and world peace amid the cornfields of Iowa. The maharishi now lives in Holland, but nearly 1,000 of his followers still attend his Maharishi University of Management, where they meet at 5 each evening to meditate.

After some early friction, the TM followers and the farmers have melded into a mellow community that has a thriving art scene, a world-class spa and hotel that recently hosted the Beach Boys, and gourmet shops and restaurants befitting a big city. Even the mayor meditates.

• Eldon was a short ride from Fairfield, and a must stop because it is home to the modest white cottage Grant Wood used in his "American Gothic" painting of a somber-faced farm couple with a pitchfork. There was no one in sight except two construction workers building a visitors center across the street. Joe Miranda and Juan Ochoa agreed to pose with their ladder.

If you go:


Best breakfast: Bacon, ham, sausage, eggs, hash brown casserole and cinnamon bun at the Machine Shed in Davenport.

Best lunch: Breaded pork tenderloin sandwich at Town House Super Club in Wellsburg.

Best dinner: Aged New York strip steak covered in Maytag Blue at Archie’s Wayside Diner in Le Mars.

Prettiest church: St. Francis Xavier Basilica in Dyersville.

Best high school nickname: Storm Lake Tornadoes.

Best town name: Early, Iowa, "The Crossroads to the Nation."

Best river name: Skunk River.

Best museum: Matchstick Marvels in Gladbrook.

Best place to have a beer: Breitbach’s in Balltown.

For more information, go to


For more on Iowa: 1-800-345-4692 and www.traveliowa.com.

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