News & Politics » Chicago Antisocial


How the city wiped out a decade of history



When you duck under the Metra tracks at 47th Street you do it through an underpass whose walls gleam with fresh white paint. But it's not supposed to be that way, says Sam Mulberry, who helped paint murals on those walls in the mid-90s. A few weeks ago, the city painted over them without explanation.

When Mulberry was still in high school he got permission to practice painting on a wall behind a Mobil station on 53rd Street. "Guys like me needed to get skills together and do graffiti until we got comfortable enough," he says. "First time I did it, it was a huge space, and I wanted to get some more artists to come fill out the wall with me."

He asked a neighborhood graffiti artist he idolized named Wyatt Mitchell--best known as Attica, though he's used half a dozen other monikers--to bring some people over to teach him how to paint. Among the people Mitchell brought to the wall was Mario Gonzalez, one of the founders of Higher Gliffs, then a loosely organized street-youth collective that advocated self-expression through public art (it's now better organized as a nonprofit, though its goals remain the same).

With help from his father, Mulberry says, he got permission from Metra for Higher Gliffs to paint the 47th Street underpass in 1996. The Department of Cultural Affairs and Chicago Public Art Group had already sponsored similar projects for the underpasses at 53rd, 55th, 56th, and 57th.

The 47th Street underpass is divided into 11 walls on the south side and 12 on the north, and all of them were covered with aerosol and brush murals. The north side was dedicated to a project called "The Twelve Doorways of Perception," a "group prayer," says Mulberry, that depicted "12 different views of spirituality," including elements of Latin-American, African, Mayan, Indian, and Native American spiritual practices. The south side was the "Gallery of Style," an annually changing wall of fame featuring local and international graffiti legends. One section became a memorial two years ago when Mitchell died. "You don't paint over memorials," says Mulberry. "What [the city] did was doubly disrespectful."

Jon Pounds, executive director of Chicago Public Art Group, chalks up the whitewashing to an honest mistake. About three years ago, he says, the Department of Transportation asked him to survey the murals on Lake Park Avenue, which runs along the Metra tracks, and determine which to save and restore as part of a plan to upgrade the underpasses. The ones at 47th, he says, were a "vital working active surface. People were working to maintain and update those murals. For me it was part of having a complicated surface, not homogenizing the world." He decided they should stay, and the city accepted his recommendations.

Brian Steele, spokesperson for the department, said Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle gave the order to whitewash, and Mulberry says Preckwinkle has apologized. "She said, 'Sorry, it was a mistake,' and was seeing what could be done to bring us back and do new murals." (Preckwinkle hadn't returned my calls by press time.)

Pounds says whitewashing is never a satisfactory way of dealing with public art. "When you paint over murals, you wipe out a sense of cultural history and then you create a surface best remembered for water stains," he says. "Water stains on a mural have a patina of urban beauty. Now you just have a stained wall."

"We need reparations," says Mulberry, who, with Gonzalez, has started a Higher Gliffs chapter in Oakland, where he moved in 2000. (He teaches a graffiti class to high school students and leads several after-school art projects.) "The city of Chicago has vandalized our mural. They just cut out a little part of our soul. We need to go out and make sure this gets fixed."

Some relatively new graffiti-style murals are alive and well on the walls inside Humboldt Park's Reversible Eye Gallery. A few weeks ago the gallery invited street artists, graffiti writers, art school kids, and friends to paint whatever they wanted as part of Public Image Enemy, a bimonthly series of visual and performance art, dance, and music shows running until the end of November that's meant to connect the common points between hip-hop and punk rock.

The place looked great: a panic-attack-inducing amount of graffiti on walls and canvases, plus smaller, scrappy, semi-industrial-looking sculptures scattered around the room. Billed as a "celebration of the 30th anniversaries of punk rock and hip-hop cultures," the series encourages "collision and collaboration" between artists of different genres and styles.

Good intentions aside, the event was a bit of a letdown. Like some modern version of West Side Story meets Footloose meets a junior high dance, the punks and the backpackers never mixed. Sidewalk Skolaz were performing when I walked in, and most of the art-damaged, mostly white kids representing the "punk" contingent drank their cans of Pabst in the backyard. When headliners Mahjongg went on they switched places. Classic Chicago-style segregation.

The two factions did click at the end of Mahjongg's set, when a couple of B-boys cleared some space in the mosh pit and busted some moves for a few seconds while the sweaty kids rocked out around them. But even then it felt more like a cheesy after-school special where the jocks and the freaks finally find common ground on the dance floor than like any kind of real breakthrough.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.

Add a comment