I have a certain fondness for graffiti, because if it is done well, if it is more than just someone’s scribbled moniker, it becomes Art. In fact, there is quite a lot of graffiti in Chicago that is just simply Art. I call it Street Art to distinguish graffiti I like from what is just juvenilia.1 The lack of permanence is part of the energy of the work, but apparently, Richard Daley contributed to Chicago’s cultural life in this instance without realizing it. I’ve visited a lot of cities, and Chicago has some of the best guerilla artists anywhere.
For nearly 20 years, Chicago and Cook County have waged war on graffiti.
The city estimates it will spend $5.5 million to remove graffiti this year, and despite a $487 million budget deficit, the Cook County board renewed its commitment to the cleanup by rejecting Sheriff Thomas J. Dart’s proposal to scrap a suburban graffiti-removal unit costing $600,000 a year.
But the anti-graffiti strategy — deploying crews called graffiti blasters to quickly erase or blot out painted surfaces — has imposed a kind of natural-selection process in the graffiti subculture. By discouraging all but the shrewdest and most determined practitioners, the city and county have inadvertently contributed to making Chicago a vibrant hub of graffiti activity, according to experts.
“It made Chicago graffiti an aggressive and competitive sport,” said Sebastian Napoli, 32, who began writing graffiti around the city in the 1990s when writers called Chicago “the chocolate city” after the brown paint used to cover their work. The enforcement efforts “weeded out guys that get up once or twice and tried to call themselves writers,” Mr. Napoli said.
Roger Gastman, co-author of “The History of American Graffiti” (HarperCollins), said Chicago was “the biggest scene in the U.S. that is the most undocumented.” The book, to be published next month, explores graffiti in several cities and devotes two chapters to Chicago. It will be the first look into the city’s elusive subculture since William Upski Wimsatt’s self-published “Bomb the Suburbs” in 1994.
According to Mr. Gastman and his co-author, Caleb Neelon, the rise of Chicago’s new breed of graffiti writers dates to Mayor Richard M. Daley’s campaign to eradicate graffiti as part of preparations for the 1994 World Cup games at Soldier Field and the 1996 Democratic National Convention.
(click here to continue reading Crackdown Feeds a Flourishing World of Graffiti / Chicago News Cooperative.)
I have a bunch of photos of Chicago street art, if you want to see some examples I’ve encountered. Click here, or here for instance. Or use the Lightbox slideshow (click the triangle to start the show)
- What is Street Art? By my loosy-goosey definition, simply art I’ve discovered that isn’t in a gallery. Most of it is graffiti art, and semi-permanent as well, but that isn’t a requirement. [↩]