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Street artists peek out from the shadows

Creators of some of the city's most ubiquitous sidewalk images tell their stories.

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Bored turned an Albany Avenue sidewalk into a Monopoly square; the artist has installed telephone sculptures from Logan Square to the South Loop. - BEN HUSMANN; COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Ben Husmann; courtesy the artist
  • Bored turned an Albany Avenue sidewalk into a Monopoly square; the artist has installed telephone sculptures from Logan Square to the South Loop.


Reaching Bored seemed as easy as dialing 773-669-TURD.

The mysterious sculptural street artist, best known for creating oversize Monopoly game pieces satirizing city life, has been painting the phone number on installations that comprise a vintage telephone affixed to a piece of wood sometimes in the shape of a Chicago star. Picking up the handset queues a recording: "You have reached Bored. I got 99 problems, but a bitch ain't one. If you're having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son," the voice says, quoting Jay Z in robotic tones reminiscent of Stephen Hawking's voice simulator. Calling the number from a normal phone triggers the same message, with one significant difference: it allows the caller to leave a message.

And so, at the beep, I did. A couple days later, a notification on Twitter: "Won't talk but i'll write," Bored tweeted from a fresh account. Eventually, he responded to questions via e-mail.

Why all the furtiveness? "If a face could be identified with this project, all enjoyment of viewing the public's honest opinion of it from the street level would be sacrificed." Among the scant biographical details Bored allowed: he's from "somewhere in the midwest," and is "old enough to have bags under the eyes" but "young enough to glue bullshit to the ground at 4 in the morning."

Bored styled an Albany Avenue sidewalk to resemble a Monopoly-board square, with a pair of to-scale green houses stuck to the pavement. Outside of Lula Cafe he installed a stack of wooden panels painted to look like Chance cards; the top card read Carissa, will you marry me? if yes, please advance one block south to the nearest church. A Community Chest card was more cutting: Go to jail for public douchebaggery.

"The Monopoly cards served as a billboard for poking fun at the neighborhood," he says. "Eventually that project had to stop because no one wants to be known as the Monopoly street artist."

His forthcoming spate of installations is inspired by a question: Can a piece of street art last? The project, he says, involves camouflaging work within everyday life. "Let's just say that everyone deserves an honorary street named after them, and a baseball field deserves a title if it doesn't already have one." Jake Malooley

Don't Fret
  • Courtesy the artist
  • Don't Fret mural in Fulton Market

Don't Fret

Over the past six years, Don't Fret has managed to straddle the sometimes fraught line between street artist and gallery artist. He's been embellishing walls around the city with his cast of wheat-pasted characters, all the while tackling solo shows, ambitious mural projects, and other commissioned work. He's well aware, though, that increasing levels of exposure can jeopardize a street artist who revels in his anonymity. His clever reflections on the mundane­—as he puts it, "everyday people engrossed in their own bullshit"—have upped his profile, but he still gets outside to plaster up a don't-give-a-fuck gentleman lounging hard in a hot tub, or a hot-dog-shaped hot dog stand that's quintessentially Chicago.

"There are a lot of guys that have abandoned putting up work illegally," he says. "In the past six months I've been doing a lot of legal murals [outside of Chicago], but I won't go to another city unless I'm doing both kinds of work."

He has scouted spots in San Francisco, Miami, and New York City scribbling down intersections that would make good canvases for his work. "The first time I went to NYC, I thought about archetypes that would fit the city. But I ended up going in blind. It's not like being in Chicago where I know the contexts of neighborhoods, or about this corner on Ashland. I did a big paste of a taxicab with a couple making out in the back and I thought, OK, this will make sense on the Lower East Side."

These days Don't Fret is taking on larger projects and creating singular experiences in rogue spaces. For last year's solo show "What Do You Really Want?," he built a Chicago dive bar inside Pilsen's Lacuna Lofts, complete with a pair of actors hired to play "Superfan"-type local yokels—all made possible by Malort and PBR sponsorships. In the spring he sold homemade scratch-off tickets for an art lottery; the winner received an edition of screen prints. And currently he's in the midst of painting an entire building in Fulton Market as part of a project he can't yet divulge.

Of his mission to remain undercover, Don't Fret admits that his identity has been leaked; "there are people I know that I really fucking wish I didn't know." But witticisms like the polar vortex riff "Thou shall not covet thy neighbor's shovel" can't remain in the alleyways forever. Kevin Warwick

The man in the bunny suit is a recurring character in the work of Left Handed Wave. - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • The man in the bunny suit is a recurring character in the work of Left Handed Wave.

Left Handed Wave

The artist known as Left Handed Wave—so-called for his strangely endearing prints and stickers of a man dressed as (among other things) a bunny, a banana, and a hot dog, waving cheerfully with his left hand—doesn't want his real name used in this article. "[Anonymity] goes with street art," he explains.

But when LHW goes out with his life-size posters and a bucket of glue, he makes no effort to disguise himself. "I can talk and interact with whoever's pissed off and explain what it is," he says. And mostly, aside from one bad day with the cops in Brooklyn, he feels people do appreciate his work.

LHW fell into street art the summer before his final semester at the University of Kentucky, when he interned at FugScreen Studios, a screen printer in Bucktown, and was asked to produce work for a show. He found a picture of a waving man in a bunny suit on the Internet. "It was stoner-esque and funny," he remembers. "I drew it, and people responded to it."

Encouraged, LHW began hanging his pictures up around Wicker Park and then in Lexington after he went back to school. Even people who weren't his friends liked them. Postgraduation, unemployed and living with his parents in the suburbs, he made a Facebook page and began friending other artists and gallery owners in the city. "As far as Chicago street artists go," he says, "I was definitely on the social thing first."

His Web presence first brought him free drinks, then sales of his art and jobs painting corporate offices, which pay the rent on his studio in Ukrainian Village and for trips around the country hanging up his work. "It's a weird source of income," he says, "from putting up stickers." Aimee Levitt

Penny Pinch dispenses some financial advice. - BILLY CRAVEN
  • Billy Craven
  • Penny Pinch dispenses some financial advice.

Penny Pinch

You've likely seen a Pinch, staring back at you from a square of paper plastered to a boarded-up storefront or a sticker attached to a light pole. They're those little round-headed guys with small, tired eyes separated by wide-bridged noses that look like downturned thumbs. Sometimes the heads are disembodied; other times they're attached to long-limbed monsters with fuzzy manes and horns. The characters take their name from their creator, Penny Pinch.

Doing street art—any art for that matter—didn't occur to the 28-year-old musician until just a couple years ago, when he did some wheat pasting with a friend and got hooked. What appealed to him more than the art itself was the method: affixing posters to walls with a gloopy adhesive. "I just really love wheat pasting. It's just so beautiful. It's grimy and dirty and semipermanent," he says. "You get to, like, feel it."

Penny Pinch started out drawing "guys in Cubs hats," and those evolved into the Ziggy lookalikes and horned monsters he does today. His practice is informed by his frugality, hence the name; he claims to have never spent money on his art—all his supplies are "either found, traded for, or reused."

The artist's frugality led him also to begin selling work. If he gets his hands on tiles, plywood, cardboard, or other nonwheat-pasteable items, rather than discard them, he'll paint on the found objects and bring them to Logan Square's Galerie F, which slaps on a price tag. Mostly, though, Penny Pinch is on the lookout for a good wall, one with "location, visibility, and texture"—a suitable home for his next Pinch. Gwynedd Stuart

Saro bolts painted boards to sign poles around the city. - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • Saro bolts painted boards to sign poles around the city.


Belmont's legendary joke shop Uncle Fun closed its doors earlier this year, but the life-size stencil of Lon Chaney from the 1925 Phantom of the Opera painted on the side door remains. The spine-chilling piece is the handiwork of street artist Saro (pronounced "sorrow"), but he's perhaps better known for a different ghoulish creation: the ChiClops, a skull with a single eye socket in its forehead. The artist often obscures the socket with a big red six-pointed star a la the Chicago flag, melding his love of the city with his predilection for golden-age-of-Hollywood horror imagery.

With wheat pasting becoming trendier in street art circles, Saro has stuck with his longtime practice of painting on wooden boards and bolting them to the poles of street signs around town. "Saro," says fellow artist Penny Pinch, "is the grandfather of boards here in Chicago."

"I'm not an art-school brat," Saro says. "I'm a blue-collar guy that does street art to appeal to my ADD." He favors areas with high foot traffic, where his designs aren't going to be removed right away. "Some people ask if they can cut down [my work]. I tell them I prefer it up there. But ultimately, once I walk away, it's no longer my artwork," he says. "It belongs to all of us." David Peak

Stef Skills developed a classic style while making hip-hop flyers.
  • Stef Skills developed a classic style while making hip-hop flyers.

Stef Skills

In 1992, Stephanie Garland first took the wildstyle techniques she'd honed while creating flyers for hip-hop shows and parties and began applying them to walls around Chicago. She began simply by writing her name, but two decades later Stef Skills's work is skillfully executed with a strong feminist bent—a refreshing perspective in the male-dominated world of graf.

Born in Maine to a navy family, Stef moved around frequently as a kid, which gave her the opportunity to experience art scenes across the country. It wasn't until she came to Chicago at age 19 that she settled in with a crew and started making a name for herself as a graffiti writer and street artist.

"The city is pretty oppressive to it, which kind of makes for better art sometimes," Stef says. "It's kept the art kind of pure and concentrated and purposeful."

Recently she re-created a piece from the 90s in Logan Square as part of a reunion with far-flung members of her crew, Three Hearts Club (aka the Hash Crew). These days she's happy to have more women painting alongside her than were taking part back then. Before Bloomingdale Trail construction began last year, Stef and a crop of rising female talent created a mural along a viaduct at Bloomingdale and Milwaukee. (The city has since painted over the piece.)

"I really enjoy pioneering it for my gender," she says. "I was always one of the boys back in the day, so it's really fun to do those kind of projects and really refreshing to be in a different arena."

When she's not bombing walls, Stef is a Chicago Park District arts educator, commissioned muralist (including work in Google's Chicago offices), and curator of the annual graffiti arts showcase "Eastern Sentral & Pacific." A piece she collaborated on with artists Miguel Aguilar and Krista Franklin is on display through August 30 at the U. of C.'s Logan Center for the Arts exhibit "Testimony."

But even as she gains recognition from the art world, Stef still favors the fleeting public works she creates. "The pieces I enjoy most," she says, "are never permanent." Brianna Wellen

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