The masked man painting beneath the decrepit train tracks on 16th & Paulina is not a graffiti artist. In fact, he says with a laugh (and a wink?), “I don’t even know how to use the spray can. It hurts.” CHema Skandal, as the man identifies himself (that’s CHAY-mah), is working this morning with rollers and paint brushes, and–even more unusually–in broad daylight. If anyone were to walk by, they would see him right there, mask and paint and wall. But no one does.
The level of activity on this Pilsen backroad falls somewhere between quietly residential and abandoned. 18th Street runs parallel two blocks south, bursting with restaurants and thrift shops and galleries. CHema, a Mexico City native and current Lincoln Square resident, has been brought in to help transform the quietly derelict 16th into something more like its southern cousin as part of the 25th Ward’s Art in Public Places (AiPP) initiative. As Alderman Danny Solis reasons, “the gang bangers, the drug dealers–they don’t like to be in areas where there are a lot of people and a lot of activity, you know?”
Solis, who has at this point held his alderman seat for 17 years, is a father and a grandfather many times over. He is crinkle-eyed and congenial, and can’t seem to walk down the street without encountering a familiar face to offer a few words of rapid-fire Spanish. “Pilsen has always been a port of entry for immigrants,” he says. First came the Bohemians, who were replaced by Poles, who were in turn replaced by Italians before the Mexican immigrants began arriving in the 1960s. “Now it’s the hipsters,” laughs Solis, only half joking.
Today, the children of the original Mexican immigrants who had left Pilsen are moving back. “They like this area. They’re among the gentry. Some of the hipsters are Hispanic,” notes Solis. “I think it’s good to have a mixed community in any neighborhood of the city. Not just in terms of economics, but also in terms of ethnicity, of culture; it’s good to recognize the predominant ethnic constituency which is here, which is Mexican, but I don’t think you have to be afraid of other people coming in.”
Lauren Pacheco is special assistant to the alderman–the title is intentionally vague–and the binding link between Pilsen’s intermittently overlapping worlds of politics and art. She runs the Chicago Urban Art Society, a gallery space nestled within a warm brick-and-wood behemoth of a former factory in East Pilsen’s Creative Industry District.
Nick Marzullo is a chess fanatic, curator, gallery owner, and networking expert. When we met in his Humbolt Park studio space, he wore a black skull cap and hoodie and spoke of the fluid nature of his project, Pawn Works. “It’s kind of a play on actually having no identity,” he says of the name. “Like this is a pawn shop for art work.”
For the Art in Public Places project, Pacheco brings in local Chicago artists and Marzullo handles the outside talent. This summer, Marzullo snagged some of the biggest names on the international graffiti scene when he brought in Belgian artist ROA and RAE, a Bed-Stuy mainstay.
RAE was one of the first artists that Marzullo flew into Chicago, early this past July. For an artist accustomed to working illegally on the streets of Brooklyn, being given a paint stipend and a police sanction was a change of pace. “It feels a bit weird,” he says. “Sort of like a stray cat given a can of food and some water and taken in by a kind stranger. Â I’m picturing the cat scarfing down the food while she makes sure to keep one eye on the kind stranger, making sure he doesn’t stuff her in a burlap sack.”
Although RAE need not worry (the 25th Ward is most likely not staging some intricate bait-and-switch to identify and round up vandals), there is something strangely contradictory in bringing in established graffiti artists for a neighborhood amelioration initiative. Graffiti is a “selfish, stupid, destructive crime” in the words of former mayor Richard M. Daley, and the city has an established zero-tolerance stance. Spray paint is not sold within city limits. In 1993, Daley established the Graffiti Blasters, a removal crew with a yearly budget in the septuple digits. Earlier this month, Rahm Emanuel increased the crew by 25 percent. According to Marzullo, “the police are as adamant as ever. People are getting arrested in a big way.”
There is a distinction between street art and graffiti, but the exact definition is nebulous and terminologies change based on who’s talking. The street art aesthetic is enjoying something of a renaissance since it first reached the masses in the 90s. “You see it in ads for McDonalds, you see girls using graffiti in Tampax commercials, you see graffiti being used for Sour Patch Kids characters–it’s just a pop cultural thing,” shrugs Marzullo. “It’s this idea that it’s not allowed and carries this negative connotation, but that’s exactly why the masses are into it. It’s become hot. I’ve been collecting street art stickers for years, and I’m just now realizing that I’ve been involved in pop culture.”
Graffiti as a social practice, on the other hand, has some more ideological identifiers. “To have to try to determine how long it will stay up, and when the Graffiti Blasters are going to come: I think that’s graffiti.” says Pacheco. Perhaps the character of graffiti comes from its ephemerality. “The majority of the time, it’s abandonment. It’s old wood, and it’s brick, and it stays because it’s just abandonment. It would cost more to take down than the wall is worth. Artists know that,” says Marzullo. Perhaps graffiti is defined by the risk that artists take, and the commitment and urgency that risk reveals. RAE is clear with his distinctions: “What I was commissioned to do with Pawn Works and Alderman Solis was a mural that happen to be on the street. Real street art is pretty much done illegally.”
Is it possible to lay out some clear-cut difference between marking territory and beautifying it? Perhaps the answer is no, and that is precisely why the AiPP initiative actually makes a lot of sense. Street art is a declaration of ownership. It is a way to impose self and community onto a public space, whether that identity be “Pilsen resident” or “gang member.” A political buzzword currently in vogue isÂ “placemaking,” the process of taking a space and making it into a public arena, a physical area where people want to be and feel is part of their world. When the city takes a street with overgrown weeds and crumbling concrete and trims the trees, fixes the walls, and brings in murals, what is this but allowing a community to mark that space as its own?
ROA, the Belgian artist, painted a grotesquely detailed possum bisected into two sections, each oozing innards. From one angle the animal appears whole. With a change of perspective, it reveals a gapingly absent midsection. Some of the murals going up in Pilsen right now are bright and cartoonish, but many carry the grime or roughness of classic street art. Although the walls are not all flowers and sunshine, Marzullo puts it simply: “a lot of it is as straightforward as giving a talented person the time to go about and express themselves in the best way they can.”
As Pacheco says, Art in Public Places is about “taking this wall that has been a blight or an eyesore in the community and has really not been maintained by its property owners and looking at it as an asset.” This is not an idea without precedent. Open Walls Baltimore is the most recent project in a string of city-sponsored street art initiatives across the country, including Living Walls Atlanta and the Wynwood Walls in Miami. Pilsen itself has a long history of murals and public art. Solis plans to restore existing murals once AiPP becomes more established. Right now, the initiative’s distinguishing characteristic is its grassroots nature. “It’s this really simple way of approaching mural-making,” says Pacheco. “We’re all about shoestring budget, leveraging networks, offering supplies and budgets, and just generally being super friendly to people and respectful of their time. We buy them a taco and giving them a spot to hang out.”
So far funding for the project has come from Alderman Solis’ personal campaign chest– he’s about 21,000 dollars in, largely in supply stipends for the artists. Solis and Pacheco will be seeking financial support in the upcoming budget negotiations so that they can pay artists and work faster. Chicago’s new Cultural Plan makes this a promising possibility. The wall on 16th Street already has the voices of many communities and generations all shouting at once, and it will only get more varied– but that diversity is exactly the point. The murals are not all about Â Mexican pride, nor are they all youthful and hip. Some will even be from local public school students. “There are generational gaps that people are never going to understand, but that’s always the way that it is: in art, music, and literature.” Marzullo says. “Something like architecture spans time in a different way, but art captures moments of time. It stills eras.”
It’s a tired trope, often heaped with too much sugar–the visual arts arrive to save the people; flowers grow; children of various skin tones embrace. This narrative is repeated in political rhetoric with enough frequency to become meaningless. The thing is, this kind of placemaking can have concrete and immediate effects despite the fact that it often doesn’t. “This wall was painted white for two days earlier this week, and it wasn’t sprayed or tagged. Those three tags next to it went up in that time, but they didn’t touch the white wall.” Â This is CHema, the artist in the mask. “You know, a white wall is like an invitation.” One would think, but CHema’s untagged mural speaks for itself.