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Could Chicago Become U.S. ‘Capital Of Street Art’? After Embarrassing Mistakes, Plan To Save Murals Emerges

Streets and San crews blotted out work by famous artists across the city. Now, an alderman and a city agency are on a mission to celebrate — not erase — such work.

Artist Tara McPherson in front of a new mural she's working on along the front of the Cards Against Humanity building.
Alisa Hauser/ Block Club Chicago
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BUCKTOWN — After city crews painted over the work of several prominent artists in recent months, Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) and city cultural official Mark Kelly say they’ve come up with a way to help graffiti removers tell art from tags: they’re creating a tag of their own. 

Max Temkin, co-creator of the popular Cards Against Humanity game, invited Hopkins and Kelly to make a statement in spray paint Wednesday during a rally to protect street art. The event was held at Cards Against Humanity’s building, 1917 N. Elston Ave., where a mural by renowned French street artist Blek le Rat was mistakenly removed by city crews in March.  The removal came just before officials from Amazon reportedly toured the Lincoln Yards site just east of Cards Against Humanity.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) spray paints over a mural that shows a Streets and Sanitation worker spray painting a building.

As Kelly and Hopkins used a stencil to create their own piece – which shows a Streets and Sanitation worker spray painting a building – the gathered crowd learned about updates to an ordinance that aims to protect future murals.  The ordinance, first introduced by Hopkins in June, aimed to protect street art from being mistaken as graffiti and removed in error. It would create a citywide registry maintained by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) to help eliminate confusion among Streets and Sanitation graffiti removal crews.

Related: Despite Destruction of More Public Art By City Crews, Alderman’s Plans for Mural Registry Stalls

“Big companies can put ads all over the city and it’s hard to go about your everyday life without being bombarded with advertisements and messages from every angle,” Temkin said. “To me, street art represents the other side of that, people claiming civic space for themselves, for the public good, to share something that’s really joyful and surprising and meaningful.”

Cards Against Humanity co-creator Max Temkin in front of a mural by artist Natalie Shugailo, who goes by the name “(sub)urban warrior.”

Temkin, along with Tanner Woodford of the Design Museum of Chicago, reached out to Hopkins after the Blek le Rat mural removal. Temkin praised Hopkins for putting together a plan to try and preserve and protect street art by creating a registry that crews would be required to check before they begin painting or blasting over any art on walls. Initially, Hopkins’ ordinance faced opposition from other aldermen. 

To address these concerns, the updated ordinance adds a list of rules and incorporates an emblem designed by the DCASE to be spray-painted or stamped alongside any art approved by the city or property owner.

“Not all murals are graffiti and not all graffiti is public art,” Kelly, who was a longtime administrator at art-focused Columbia College Chicago, said. “Oftentimes, graffiti is a public nuisance and in those cases it should be removed.” 

Emphasizing that “public art should be respected and protected,” Kelly said that his agency, guided by the ordinance, will work with the Department of Streets and Sanitation to protect murals.

“This ordinance will mandate a more careful and coordinated process for identifying what is and what is not public art,” he said. “The process will encourage and protect murals and establish a process for treating damaged and endangered murals properly.”

Kelly said he estimates there are more than 2,000 murals on the streets of Chicago.

In recent weeks, a taxpayer-funded mural by artist J.C. Rivera was mistakenly removed in Lakeview just days after it was completed. This past spring, an early work by Hebru Brantley was inadvertently painted over by city graffiti blaster crews.

Hopkins said he’s “confident” the ordinance will pass in the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards when it’s heard for the second time on Wednesday. If the ordinance passes, it will go before the full City Council. The proposal was stalled in August after Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) expressed concerns about a bureaucratic requirement that could slow down the pace of actual graffiti removals. An earlier version of the ordinance has since been revised and Hopkins has crafted a “Rules for Graffiti Registration and Protection” to guide building owners.

According to Hopkins, the ordinance creates “two very separate and distinct categories of paintings on walls”: street art and  unauthorized graffiti or vandalism.

“I talked with the Streets and Sanitation employees who were responsible for those inadvertent removals, and they felt bad about it and remorseful,” Hopkins said. “They were doing the job they were trained to do, and they found out after the fact [that they removed art]. They shouldn’t be in that position. We want them to continue doing the aggressive graffiti removal that Chicago is known for, but to do it with the knowledge that they won’t be at risk of making those kinds of mistakes.”

Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Mark Kelly paints over a mural that shows a Streets and Sanitation worker spray painting a building.

Hopkins said that the registry of murals will also help to propel cultural tourism.

“You can come to Chicago and spend a couple of days touring our city and seeing works of great street art,” he said. “We think that’s the beginning of really establishing Chicago, believe it or not, as an American capital of street art and as a destination for people who want to experience that and see it for themselves. That’s a side benefit of the ordinance that we are very confident will come to fruition.”

New York City-based artist Tara McPherson is currently working on a new mural (called “Stellar Revolution”) on the Cards Against Humanity building to replace the Blek le Rat work that was destroyed. McPherson said she hopes other cities will eventually enact similar mural protection ordinances.

“It’s a way to protect so much work and time and love and energy that goes into creating these murals,” McPherson said.

Shawn Smith, a Chicago-based artist who goes by the name Shawnimals, said the proposed ordinance makes a lot of sense.

“It’s challenging, it’s a very slippery slope, because the lines between street art and graffiti and public art are blurred right now,” Smith said. “On one hand, you have traditional street artists who are making legitimately beautiful, unauthorized street art who don’t want to be registered. However, for the stuff that is authorized, particularly commissioned, taxpayer-paid works, it’s an opportunity for an artist to know that their work is protected.”

Shawn Smith, an artist who goes by the name Shawnimals, in front of a mural he created along the wall of the Cards Against Humanity building.

Smith said he imagines that the mural registry could give him another outlet to showcase his work to people who are visiting Chicago or who live here and are interested in street art.

“It’s will be an awesome marketing piece that we don’t have to pay for,” Smith said.

Artist Keith Smith who goes by the name Afrokilla, in front of his mural along the wall of Cards Against Humanity.

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