What do crocodiles and cocktail napkins have in common? I’m not joking. The answer is Robert S. Greenberg’s art. Greenberg doesn’t go anywhere without his pilot razor point pen and a stack of 5×5 cocktail napkins. You can catch him inside his favorite New Haven haunts, like BAR and Ordinary, hunched over a napkin, meticulously sketching out his signature style—affectionately dubbed “Croctails.”
Most of Greenberg’s Croctails depict scenes around him, but instead of people, he draws in crocodiles. He started doing this, he explains, because he wanted to create a character that he saw represented perfect blend of rich culture and ethnicity within the city. “Everyone was distilled into this one green androgynous creature, and everyone loved it,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg, a New Haven native, said he chose the crocodile deliberately. Unlike the alligator, for which the animal is often confused, the crocodile not found anywhere in the U.S. By choosing a strange, foreign animal, he wants to make it relatable without pigeon-holing a particular group.
When Greenberg first started drawing the crocodiles, he was a fresh out of Rhode Island School of Design and he wanted to draw tourists in NYC. On an innocuous night at Hard Rock Café on 57th street (a favorite locale), he said he was inspired by the diversity around him. On a whim, he picked up his pen and sketched a crocodile. The owner of the bar saw the drawing and loved it so much that he turned it into the Hard Rock’s first special edition shirt. The Croctails were an immediate hit. Soon, Greenberg was invited to sit inside famous New York hangouts like the China Club to draw visiting celebrities—in crocodile form. Among the notables that Greenberg has met and drawn are Eddie Murphy, Donald Trump, Elton John, and Robert Downey Jr. “It’s fun to meet people through it,” Greenberg said.
“Croctails” aren’t Geenberg’s sole accomplishment. He worked for Spin, MTV, in addition to many other NYCart departments, and also designed the dollar bills that rained onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange when the Hard Rock went public. But now, Greenberg has returned to his hometown of New Haven, with cargo full of zip-locked Croctails.
Greenberg is a purist. He tells me that even today he uses only that same exact type of pilot razor point pen and same five-by-five napkin that he started with. In the face of constantly changing technology, though, Greenberg has had to adapt. At one point the Design Markers changed its ink formula to decrease toxicity, which caused weaker colors. Greenberg recalls having to go through several trial drawings before he was able to figure out how the pen weight translated. Greenberg tells me that the pilot razor point pen has also been somewhat discontinued, and he’s had to buy them in bulk.
His medium comes with other hazards. Because he often works in bars, Greenberg stands to lose his work in the blink of an eye—or at the flick of a hand. “I must always keep my hand on it otherwise people will use it or put their drink on it,” explained Greenberg. “That’s happened many, many times.”
So why not switch to paper? Greenberg says there’s something about cocktail napkins and a black pen that uniquely captures the essence and expression of a place. More than just getting down the colors or people in a scene, Greenberg captures the ambiance, the sounds, and the feelings through his medium. Even when Greenberg translates some of his drawings into larger canvas paintings—which he has done, since his original success—he preserves the jagged lines from the original drawings. Even on a large scale, he tries to stay true to the nature of cocktail napkin scribbling.
Greenberg had lived in New York since graduation, and ultimately decided to move back to New Haven to contribute to the changing dynamic of the Elm City. He said he admits to fearing he might lose something by returning to his smaller, less vibrant hometown. Greenberg remembers his grandfather teaching him the city’s history as a child, and he now helps to preserve that history with his art. “I use my art as my bullhorn,” Greenberg said.
Part of that history was expressed Greenberg’s rendering of the Anchor Bar, one of his favorite drawings. The bar, which closed its doors in January, was an integral feature of New Haven, Greenberg said, and that his drawing helped preserve it as well as promote efforts to save other places like it.
Being back in New Haven, he explained, is his chance to contribute to the growing art scene. You once could have caught his work framed at the Richter’s Bar—now Ordinary, where they do not hang artwork. You can still find him drawing at Ordinary, though, or other of his favorite locations, including Firehouse12, Café 9, 116 Crown, the 9th Note, and Barcelona. Approach him and ask him questions, Greenberg insists. Just don’t try to use that napkin as a coaster.