For years the plywood boarding up the unoccupied storefront at the northwest corner of Honore and Milwaukee was prime band-poster space. Then a couple weeks ago the wall was covered with a large-scale graffiti piece. The painting showed a cityscape with one word on each building: it can happen anywhere, the message read. A big-bosomed cartoon woman stood demurely off to the side; next to her the word axe was written in a familiar angular style. At first glance it just looked like bad art with a confusing, vaguely sexist message. But if you looked closer you noticed a black bullet-shaped can in the bottom right corner and the words THE NEW LONGER-LASTING AXE EFFECT. The piece was an ad for that nasty Axe body spray for men.
Last Friday night my pal Ed Marszewski and two of his friends--artist Elisa Harkins and a guy who wants to go by just Matt--decided to do what they say the city encourages people to do: they grabbed a bucket of paint and covered up the unsightly street art.
In 2000 the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance giving the city the right to remove graffiti from private property without a waiver from the owner--Streets and San just leaves a notice on the building giving the owner five days to argue that the graffiti shouldn't be removed. The Give Graffiti the Brush program gives community groups free paint to cover graffiti in their neighborhoods.
While they were painting, says Harkins, about a dozen people gathered to cheer them on. As they were finishing up, she says, a representative from Critical Massive, the New York marketing company that commissioned the ad, showed up.
According to its Web site, Critical Massive "specializes in artistic urban media and innovative promotions." Its logo is a stencil on top of a messy dot of spray paint, which reflects their Graffiti Media strategy, a "unique and high-impact form of outdoor advertising [that] appeals to the urban/hip-hop lifestyle segment" and "appeals to the core emotions of today's urban-style youth." Dodge Magnum, M&M's, Snapple, Reebok, and J. Lo's perfume, Glo, are among Critical Massive's clients; right now, by my count, there are two other graffiti-style Axe ads in Wicker Park (both on the 2300 block of West Division), though Noah Shapiro, the owner of Critical Massive, won't confirm how many ads they've done in the city or where they might be found.
Shapiro insists that no rep from his company was at the scene that Friday. "It must have been the graffiti artist," he says.
"Sure, if he's a graffiti writer who drives around in a black SUV," says Marszewski. "He was definitely a rep. He kept saying he'd paid to put the billboard up, he'd paid the landlord money. He said the client paid $7,500 for the billboard. He's probably just some chump hired by Critical Massive to deal with this stuff in Chicago. He kept calling New York demanding paperwork to be faxed to him to prove that he'd paid for it."
Marszewski told the guy to call the cops. "I didn't do anything wrong," Marszewski says. "It was graffiti." He and his friends went around the corner and found a couple of officers giving someone a traffic ticket and asked for assistance in settling the matter.
Back in front of the freshly painted wall, another gaggle had formed to offer their opinions. According to Marszewski, a guy walked out of the vintage store US #1, looked at him, and said, "I don't like you. I love looking at that every day." Harkins says someone else exclaimed that they'd destroyed a "beautiful piece of art." A hobo was shouting to arrest them.
Marszewski explained to the police that he's constantly painting over graffiti at Buddy, where he's the head organizer, and at Maria's, his mom's bar in Bridgeport. "[The cops] were flabbergasted that I felt it was OK to clean this up," he says. "Every time I tried to express my opinions, they said it was private property." He says the Critical Massive guy threatened to file a complaint against him and filled out a form on the spot. According to the Chicago Police Department's office of news affairs, the police have no record of any complaint.
"I feel that a crime was committed," says Shapiro. "It was an act of vandalism on someone's private property, and they should be held accountable."
"It wasn't vandalism," Marszewski says. "It was cleaning it up."
Two Fridays ago Warren Fischer from Fischerspooner and electroclash innovator Larry Tee were DJing at Crobar, and I went there expecting a good dose of mindless fun. Back in my days of die-hard electro fandom that would've meant rhinestones, a miniskirt, neon pumps, and riding the white pony till dawn. Now, four years later, I settled for white jeans.
Outside the club a sign told me that by entering the premises, I gave RJ Reynolds Tobacco the right to use any image of me for advertising purposes. Inside, when Antisocial photographer Andrea Bauer tried to snap some photos, we were immediately accosted by security guards. Turns out Camel practically owned Crobar that night, and they were concerned that someone under 18 might read this column and be tempted by their cigarettes. So if you're not legally an adult, avert your eyes now!
The jet-set-chic easy-listening band Brazilian Girls performed in a big white tent in the empty lot next to the club. Husky-voiced singer Sabina Sciubba is the Angelina Jolie type: so voluptuously sexy it's almost gross, and possibly evil. In the back of the tent a guy painted messy impressionistic portraits with long brushstrokes, and makeup artists airbrushed stars on people's bodies. My friend Phoebe asked one of them to paint cleavage on her. The artist seemed kind of weirded out: after dusting some bronzing powder on Phoebe's breastbone she called it a wrap.
On the dance floor, giant screens featured the Camel logo and live images of people dancing against a swirly psychedelic backdrop. A woman in a minuscule sequined top who was operating the projector gestured at me to join the ass-shaking guy and girl she'd trained her camera on. I declined with an emphatic shake of the head. Then I heard the strains of Fischerspooner's "Just Let Go" and decided, Hey, why not?
I ran in and went crazy: convulsing, screaming. Then I jumped onto the guy's back--he was short enough to make it easy. Freaked-out, he bucked me, sending me flying backward. I tried to work it out into a graceful backbend, but I slipped and cracked my head on the floor.
"Are you OK?" the projectionist asked.
"Of course!" I shouted, laughing, happy that I got to ride a pony after all.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.