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A story on tifo-making, supporting the Crew and ghosts

Have you ever wondered, “How do those big works of art at Crew games get made?” Me too.

MLS: Eastern Conference Championship-Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

At the ripe age of four, I first got my mouth washed out with soap and it was all Dana Barrett’s fault. Well, really it wasn’t all her fault. She did have her son taken from her by the return of a 16th century tyrant sorcerer. Her insulting shout will not be repeated in this article, but it started with the letter B and didn’t rhyme with witch.

For the cinematically uneducated, this is one of the final scenes from the movie Ghostbusters II. Barrett, played by Sigourney Weaver, was part of a historic cast of comedians that included Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis and the grossly under-appreciated Ernie Hudson. It’s now 31 years later, and Ghostbusters II still resonates with me. It’s become more of a family tradition than a movie. My only sibling and I exchanged Ghostbusters II gifts for Christmas two years ago, not knowing what the other one was up to before ripping open the wrapping paper.

So why on earth is a story about homemade tifos starting by discussing a sequel that is equally as great as its original? Because in Dec. of 2019, three things happened: the Columbus Crew signed defender Vito Wormgoor, my sister opened a custom coffee mug with Vigo the Carpathian gracing its exterior and I wanted to paint a Vito the Defensemen tifo.

For those unfamiliar with tifos, they are supporter-created signs at soccer stadiums across the world that range in size from a piece of paper to ones that expand across entire lengths of stadiums. Fans hold them, hang them, suspend them or display their designs with pride to support their team.

A quick rewind to the relevance of Vigo. He’s the big bad sorcerer that steals Oscar (Barrett’s infant son) and is the main villain of the second Ghostbusters. If you haven’t seen the movie before, you’ve likely still seen the painting of Vigo. There’s even one in a local pizza shop in downtown Columbus. My goal was to replace Vigo’s grimacing face with that of the Black & Gold’s new Dutch center back and display it at Crew games.

There were some problems with wanting this plan. First, a lack of artistic capability. Second, COVID-19 happened and supporters weren’t allowed in the stands any more when Major League Soccer resumed play. Third, unfortunately for Wormgoor, the defender suffered an injury 17 minutes into the first MLS is Back Tournament match against FC Cincinnati on July 11, missing the remainder of the 2020 MLS Cup championship season.

The start of 2021 brought a renewed sense of purpose, which included bringing this tifo to life. Wormgoor is returning to the field this season, there’s a COVID-19 vaccine and along with it hopes of full stands at some point. I decided to enlist the help of some tifo veterans to help me make this dream a reality, one that creates her works of art from home and the other working on and coordinating tifos stretched across entire sections of the Nordecke, the Crew supporters’ section.

Amy Gray is a librarian by trade and a Crew supporter by passion. Gray and her family live in Northern Ohio, on Lake Erie. Even though she lives over two hours from Columbus, it doesn’t stop her from traveling to matches, being an engaged member of the Crew social media family and designing, building and displaying tifos called two-sticks. A two-stick is a specific type of tifo that’s held up by two hollow, plastic, PVC pipes. Her first was an idea involving former Columbus center back Gaston Sauro.

“The tie-in with the Disney character was obvious,” said Gray comparing Sauro to Gaston, the villain from the Beauty and the Beast movies. “I had been kinda waiting to see if someone else was going to make one.”

She waited until May of 2019 when she decided it was time to try it out for herself, but she had a similar problem.

Amy Gray’s first two-stick
Amy Gray

“I am not an artist. I cannot draw to save my life.” Instead of literally taking the design into her own hands, she paid an artist online to create her vision. Like trying anything for the first time, she made some mistakes like sewing the area for the pipe too small and covering her sunroom floor with newspaper to paint on top of. “It stuck to the back of the tifo.”

That first tifo snowballed into many more. The next coming in August for the first MLS match of the Hell is Real Derby against Cincinnati. Using free online clip art, Gray depicted a devil holding both team’s logos on a backdrop of fire. This was displayed prominently in the Nordecke for the 2-2 come-from-behind draw from Columbus.

Gray’s second two-stick for the first Columbus edition of the Hell is Real rivalry
Amy Gray

Even into the pandemic, Gray continued to create. In 2020 alone, she made three tifos, one for Crew offensive stars Gyasi Zardes and Lucas Zelarayan, a Hamilton-inspired two-stick of goalkeeper Eloy Room as Aaron Burr and defender Harrison Afful as a Harry Potter-esque wizard.

For Gray, it goes beyond making art.

“I’m never going to be able to help with Tifosweat,” she said. “Being able to do it at home is a way to connect my fandom.”

The 2020 work of Amy Gray
Amy Gray

Tifosweat is the group responsible for the pre-match tifos that sometimes stretch the length of the northeast corner of historic Crew Stadium. Images connected to the history of the venue like the Red, White and Blue eagle declaring Columbus the home of the United States Men’s National Team, giving supporters Goosebumps before a rivalry match or urging the league to respect their roots. Each the product of a loyal group of fans that share their love for the team on large pieces of fabric.

September 10, 2013 2-0 victory featured a Columbus built tifo for the match.
USA Today Sports

Ethan McKinley has a lot of titles. He’s a founding member of the Greater Columbus Golden Boys and Girls (GCGBAG) supporters’ group, creative director of the Nordecke and most fondly known as the tifo czar. Supporters may also know him as the man that vowed to not shave his beard until the Crew was saved. McKinley didn’t strive to become the person that helps organize and create gigantic tifos. It started because of a former teammate turned Crew goalkeeper.

“I started making them during Matt Lampson’s rookie season,” said McKinley, who went to high school with Lampson. “I’d seen a bunch of two-sticks and tifos but didn’t know who made them or what.”

What came out of it was a sign that said “You’ll Never Beat Matt Lampson.” After his first, just like Gray, McKinley kept making them.

Ethan McKinley’s jump into the world of creating supporter art
Ethan McKinley

His intersection with Tifosweat came in October of 2017 when he worked on his first large form tifo. Featured was Crew legend Frederico Higuain. McKinley learned a lot about the process during that first experience and made his first big mistake.

“There’s a huge spot on his neck that was supposed to stay white but I filled it in with black,” said McKinley. “You’d never know unless you saw what it was supposed to look like.”

This is linked to his first big piece of advice for a first-time tifo makers like me. “You can mess up and people won’t notice. As long as you don’t mess up too bad it’ll be alright.”

Tifosweat’s tribute to Frederico Hiquain aka Pipa
Sam Fahmi - Massive Report

Crew history forever changed nine days after the Pipa tifo. That’s when Grant Wahl tweeted that Anthony Precourt planned on moving the club to Austin. The supporter-led works of art then only increased. Along with then Tifosweat organizer Morgan Hughes, creating banners turned global.

“I was the one that made thousands of banners that we sent all around the world,” said McKinley. “I was in my garage, in my apartment, spray painting for four to five hours a night and getting those shipped out.”

What they were shipping were yellow and white signs displaying the Save The Crew logo. It was that partnership that saw the torch, or paintbrush, passed from Hughes to McKinley.

The first McKinley-led tifo came in May of 2019. It was an over thirty-piece design that read “You Fight For Us. We Fight For You. Together. We Save The Crew,” surrounded by an individual two-stick for each and every player on the Crew roster. The day it was unfurled has a lot of memories for the tifo czar.

McKinley’s first tifo in charge of Tifosweat
Twitter / @Save_The_Crew

“That’s one of the most memorable ones. I was so proud of how that worked out,” said McKinley. “That was the same day my JV lacrosse team won the state championship with me as the coach. We won, I won, Save the Crew won. I look back and it was really special.”

Job titles aside, McKinley stresses that Tifosweat and the Nordecke is a group effort. Anybody can be part of it, join the Nordecke and Tifosweat Slack channel and contribute ideas. That’s where people discuss what they think should be made, and certain ideas grab momentum. Once it hits a tipping point, McKinley and Tifosweat move forward. The design comes from one of the many talented artists within the Crew supporter ranks. He stresses this point.

“I’m not a graphic designer. I have no artistic ability whatsoever; I just trace lines really well,” he said.

Supporters are also encouraged to share their creations with the Nordecke. You don’t have to sit in a supporters’ section, be part of the Nordecke or even go to any matches in person. If you create something for the team, there’s a great chance that you’ll get it in the stadium. Its for anyone and everyone.

Tifos will take on an even bigger role in the Crew’s new downtown stadium.

An under-discussed part of Tuesday’s unveiling of the team’s new Stadium Kit, was how Columbus displayed it, through a multi-tiered pulley system. Outside of the occasional World Cup, tifos in historic Crew Stadium were contained to the section in which it was displayed. The new stadium will feature a way to display larger tifos, attached directly to the roof of the stadium and draping straight down onto the ground below, similar to famous stadiums around the world.

To McKinley, it will take Tifosweat to a whole new level.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC-Kit Unveil Press Conference
The new tifo system at the Downtown Columbus stadium has Tifosweat ready for 2021
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

“The new rigging looks amazing and I can’t wait to get a closer look at it to start figuring out how we can use it,” said McKinley. “Can’t wait to get to work and have something massive ready to go for our first game in our new home.”

I took advantage of my time with Gray and McKinley for advice on my own project, and what I learned resonates with anyone in my shoes.

First, stretch the term art to its limits. If you connect something to your favorite player, coach, opponent or the team overall, go for it. Personally, I subdued my original plan of Vito as a 16th century Carpathian ruler but kept it within my lifelong love of an 80’s ghost comedy.

Second, don’t try to recreate the wheel. Gray used a website created by a part of the Timbers Army to help her with dimensions, types of fabric and other tips. McKinley and GCGBAG also created a video that supporters can use on making a tifo of your own. These are both great resources that helped me in my journey too.

Lastly, I admit that I’m way too hard on myself when it comes to making anything. McKinley had advice that I kept going back and reading.

“If you like it, who cares what anyone else thinks,” he said. “The experience of making it is what it's all about. You’re doing it for the team that you love; that’s why you’re doing it.”

Who ya gonna call?
Thomas Costello - Massive Report

My first experience creating a two-stick was chock-full of lessons. For example, learn the lingo of the craft store. Purchasing and getting fabric cut in one swoop was a new experience for me. Also, if you don’t have a sewing machine, just use fabric glue. The amount of sore I felt after spending hours hand-sewing on the floor of my garage extended my project an entire day because of the rest I threw into the middle of it. Finally, as Gray and many others know, the library is an awesome resource. I took a projector out for free, and after some rigging in my garage was able to trace everything.

It’s easy to look at tifos, banners and two-sticks from the stands and dismiss them. It’s become such a big part of supporter culture, and I probably fell into that category from time to time. Creating one, and more importantly, speaking to those that have done it themselves, has built respect and admiration towards the craft.

Creating a banner, tifo, two-stick, piece of art or whatever you want to call it is a right of passage for any supporter. Just don’t take it from me, I’m not an artist.