The City of Chicago caused an uproar in 2018 when city crews painted over a commissioned mural near the Paulina Brown Line stop by local artist JC Rivera days after it was completed. Backlash from the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce, which had paid for the mural, as well as continued instances of artist’s work having been painted over by Department of Streets and Sanitation workers, led to the creation of a city registry that has registered over 200 murals.
But the registry doesn’t mean there isn’t still a cultural clash over what is considered art and what some consider vandalism. Block Club Chicago reported last year on the growth of the mural registry and interviewed celebrated artist Rahmaan Statik, who told a story about painting in a Pilsen junkyard owned by his friend’s uncle. Even though he and his friend had permission to paint there, city workers trespassed on the privately owned lot to paint over their art.
In order for a mural or piece of graffiti art to be protected by the city, the artist or affiliated organization must register the work with the City of Chicago’s mural registry, which is publicly accessible and contains details on artists and mural locations. Registration requires that the murals be in good condition and can’t be considered vandalism. What constitutes whether a piece is or is not “vandalism” is more subjective.
Chuck West is a hip-hop artist and graphic designer who’s straddled both communities for nearly a decade. He realized that he could bring these communities together by reaching out to graphic designers as well as graffiti artists of the hip-hop community for a two-day workshop facilitated by the Design Museum of Chicago. The workshop, lea by West and joined by Lewis Taylor and Luis Montenegro Ferrel, covered not only the history of graffiti, but its evolution, key contributors and a virtual exploration of prominent graffiti sites in Chicago.
“Graffiti has low-key been a big deal for the past few decades but Chicago graffiti hasn’t gotten the exposure and respect it deserves from the general public,” says West. “I decided that if I could get some of the city’s graffiti artists to come speak to the graphic designers at the museum it would be a great marriage of both cultures and give graphic designers of Chicago a chance to see what graphic design is like within the independent areas of Chicago’s hip-hop scene.”
Despite the stay-at-home orders that turned the two-day workshop into an entirely virtual experience, West said they had a decent turnout, with fifteen students of varying design experience in attendance. “We were able to use Zoom to have the guest graffiti artists demonstrate how they draw letters and the Design Museum arranged to have graph notepads sent to the participants in the workshop so they could draw along with them,” says West. “It was pretty impressive what they were able to create, considering they’d never drawn graffiti before. They were pretty damn good.”
Day two of the workshop was slated as a field-trip day with students heading to Pilsen to get a look at some of the city’s most impressive murals as well as a history lesson regarding the work. The pandemic had other plans, so the artists visited the mural site a week in advance and filmed a twenty-minute video.
“Lewis spent about one-hundred hours putting it together over three months… so an entire summer he just spent doing it,” says West. “It was me and Lewis discussing the piece itself, what inspired it, and how it relates to graphic design by way of what color was used, the thought put into how the light strikes the letters, the use of different shades and values, and what hip-hop tracks would sound really good layered under that piece of art.”
The popularity of graffiti art and the emphasis on three-dimensional design in design trends have caught up with one another. Chuck West thinks that this means that graffiti culture is finally making the transition from what they used to call “criminal” to what they now call creative. It’s difficult to plan, given the unknowns surrounding Illinois’ reopening phases, but West says he will continue to work with the Design Museum of Chicago on future events and workshops.
Learn more about upcoming virtual events here.