Graffiti Graduates

Graffiti writing is by nature eye-catching, designed to capture the fickle attention of the passersby. “Has Beens & Wannabes” at the Zhou B Art Center certainly bears the imprint of this heritage. The show, curated by Mario Gonzalez Jr., brings together 21 Chicagoland artists with backgrounds in graffiti writing and the street art movement of the ’80s and ’90s.

Asked about the title of the exhibit, Gonzalez said, “Well, it’s very simple. We’re used to being graffiti writers, and now we’re artists, painters, sculptors, directors, producers, musicians, carpenters,” the list went on, and Gonzalez grew visibly excited each time he found another example of the diverse forms and media present. Though the opening of his own show, “Style Bombing,” was occurring simultaneously in an adjacent gallery, Gonzalez seemed just as enthused by the achievements of the other artists, some of whom he’s known since high school.

The ongoing exhibit features a limestone statuette, a colorful Styrofoam couch hanging at a 45 degree angle from the wall, an unsettling goblin-like creature in multiple layers of wood and bright acrylics, and an installation that includes an old photograph of an American solider, a twenty-dollar bill folded to read “Tits of America,” and a larger than life image of a woman in a bikini with a skull for a face under the words “Drug King.” To her left, in a tiny pencil scrawl à la bathroom stall graffiti, someone had written “Jenny” followed by a phone number. Below, in pen, was the word “hoe” with an arrow looping up to Jenny. In the front room, a short film cycled through clips of two women dancing in short-shorts, a young boy struggling to build a fort in the snow, and skateboarders ollieing unsettling numbers of stairs, all overlaid with pulsing static and an electronic chirping noise.

Artist Tyrone Whiteside’s ethereal, swirling pieces in marker and spray paint on poster board capture the energy of tagging tempered by the elegance of calligraphy. Whiteside was ebullient on the subject of the place of graffiti writing in art, and sees a clear connection between the form and the “information age,” as the presence of writing within allows his art to have “a direct message rather than a cryptic one.” Although he admits that “some people say they lose the feel for it [their art] when they start to work on canvas in a studio,” Whiteside was grateful for the opportunity to expand his work into different media and environments.

On the other hand, self-described abstract painter Victor Lopez marks a clear division between graffiti writing and the work he does now. “Graffiti writing and art,” he said, “they’re totally different things.” Still, though he now works in acrylic on canvas, his paintings are at least part of graffiti’s extended family. He described what he does now as “mark making.” There’s an urgency in the way the colorful markings twist and wrap around one another, and Lopez admits that his paintings comes from “the same urges” as his tagging and graffiti writing.

Asked why he ultimately moved towards more traditional tools, Felix Maldando–the man responsible for two prominent portraits of fellow artists “Trixer” (Whitefield) and “Denz, the largest and most striking pieces in the room–has a simple answer. “I’m forty-two years old,” he said. “Graffiti is a good thing, but I think as an artist you need to graduate from it. That’s how I think of graffiti: it’s a school of thought that I graduated from.”

Now, Maldonado is focused on telling the history of graffiti. “I’m trying to document the lives of graffiti artists. I’m trying to teach a history lesson.” Maldonado uses what he describes as “splatters and stokes” in vibrant spray enamel on canvas to capture the “auras” of the artists he’s painting. “I’m like, ‘Sorry, man, you’ve got green skin,” he says of the portrait of Whitefield. “That’s just how I see you.”

Zhou B Art Center, 1029 W. 35th St. Through February 9. Monday-Friday, 10am-5pm. (773)523-0200. zhoubartcenter.com