The mural that Tyrue "Slang" Jones painted last fall on the shabby-chic wood-plank facade of Wicker Park's Violet Hour lounge was a traffic stopper: a twilight-hued, larger-than-life nightclub scene that posed curvaceous women in slinky gowns and a couple of strangely reptilian little waiters against heavy drapery and a backdrop spangled with sea horses. At one end, a fanged Mickey Mouse seemed to lunge across a swooping piano keyboard, his giant gloved hands proffering an upturned hat. A mix of vintage animation style and masterly graffiti, the piece suggested Prohibition-era sex, greed, exploitation, and excess, brought into the present with touches like a glove decoration that echoed the logos of the Wu-Tang Clan and McDonald's.
The mural had emerged over a three-week period in October and November. Jones says he did dozens of preliminary drawings and then spent at least 36 hours on the actual painting. Passersby were smitten as soon as it began to take shape, grabbing photos with their cell phones or cameras—uploaded images of its evolution live on in cyberspace. Donnie Madia, one of the Violet Hour owners and Jones's liaison for the project, says the mural was "lovely, unbelievably orchestrated," and displayed amazing technique. The image may've smacked of bite-the-hand satire, but Jones says he heard nothing but accolades. "Everybody loved it."
So he didn't believe an acquaintance he bumped into, soon after the work had been completed, who told him that it'd been painted over and was gone. "I said, 'No, it hasn't, that can't be true,'" he recalls, adding that Madia had told him that the average duration for a mural was three months. But when Jones went to look for himself, sure enough, he found a pale blue blank where his work had been. In its finished state, the mural had been up only three weeks.
Jones says that was "one of the biggest heartbreakers" of a career he started in that very neighborhood, as a 17-year-old kid with a graffiti itch and a spraypaint can. Now 41 and the father of four, Jones has been going through tough times and was counting on the mural to make a difference. Although the Violet Hour paid only $350—including expenses—for it, and he put in $100 of his own money to cover the cost of materials, Jones had figured there was a good chance the high-profile exposure would lead to other commissions.
"To tell you the truth, I put everything I had into it," he says. "I was months behind on my rent, no jobs coming through, and I wanted to use it as kind of advertisement." In a budget proposal he e-mailed to Madia on October 12, Jones wrote that as a "promotional entity, the mural would run through the winter months, (alleviating the need to find subsequent murals to be filled during those months)." That was his understanding, he says, but no contract was ever signed and he never got anything in writing that stated how long the mural would stay up.
Shortly after Jones saw the painted-over facade, somebody, he says, tagged it in magenta with the question, "Professional patrons II [i.e., to] the arts?"
Madia and his Violet Hour partners, Terry Alexander and Peter Garfield, also own and run other hip, art-friendly eateries and clubs. Among them their interests include Blackbird, Avec, Big Star, Danny's Tavern, the Publican, and the now-shuttered Sonotheque. Housed in a one-story building at 1520 N. Damen, the Violet Hour uses its unmarked, self-consciously scruffy exterior as a sort of blaring camouflage for the luxe lounge and premium drinks (the New York Times praised its martini) inside. The conceit is that only those in the know know it's there, and the elitism of that arrangement is part of its cachet.
So is the frequently changing mural art. Alexander says the idea came from incognito bars, hidden in apparently abandoned buildings, in 1970s Berlin. "The first, I wouldn't even call them 'murals'—we were painting them ourselves," Alexander says. Now, he adds, artists ask for the space, and the pattern is to change the wall every month or two. Previous work included a jogging Blagojevich by Ray "CRO" Noland and a group take on Tron. The most problematic was a billboard-like treatment whose tagline—"Coming Soon: King Fong Cafe"—made it look as if the Violet Hour was about to be replaced by a noodle shop. "That facade is an open canvas for all artists," says Madia. "Out of the 25 or 30 times its been painted and unpainted, not one person has complained. Why is this man complaining?"
Jones says that when he asked for an explanation Garfield sent him an e-mail saying they'd had to get the next mural up. But the new piece, which appeared about a week after Jones's was covered over, looked slapdash: consisting of bird images pasted on the wall, its colors ran with the first rain. A sturdier version went up a week later. Jones learned that Emily Woodworth, who created the bird mural with Nick Goettling, works as a host at Big Star, and also heard speculation from artist friends that the real reason his work came down was its subject matter.
Jones's mural, he says, was "a take on the service industry." The waiters were "minstrel characters" and "chameleons," and the theme was "how anyone of the working class has to serve the ruling class in America, the glamorous people who are comfortable. One of the owners told me that he wanted something controversial, but maybe, when they really looked at it, it was like I was knocking their business."
That implication wasn't lost on the anonymous proprietor of a personal blog called Kuriosität, whose November 29 post noted the mural's disappearance. She recalled watching it go up, writing, "I tried to make sense of it all. Was this Slang's commentary on the pseudo-elite clientele and admittedly high prices of the vittles at the Violet Hour?"
Madia and Alexander deny having any objection to the mural's content. Both were out of town when it came down, and Madia says the whole thing can be chalked up to miscommunication among the partners. They've invited Jones to come back and do another piece in the summer.
Woodworth, who says she was scheduled for December 1 back in October, at the same time that Jones was given his go-ahead, professes "a huge amount of respect for his work and his talent" and is "sorry he feels that he wasn't given a fair shake." She adds that she would've been happy to wait another month or more to get started, if anyone had requested it.
She also remembers what it felt like to whitewash Jones's work. Though "Nick and I were excited about putting up our piece," she says, "there was definitely a moment for both of us, standing in front of the wall with the rollers, that was really sad. Even though that's the way that space works, and they'd had a couple dozen people do things, you can't help but feel a little bit villainous painting over something that you know someone put so much time and effort into."
Jones says there won't be a return engagement. "The mural came down as soon as I finished it, with no warning. I didn't even have a chance to take final pictures. I feel like all my work was done in vain. It's like the mural that never was."