Chicago: Legal Graffiti Hopes to Change Look of West Humboldt Park

Some of Graffiti Zone's work. (Photos/Shellye Leggett) 

Chicago Red Line El Stop IconBy Shellye Leggett
The Red Line Project

Posted: Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Chicago’s West Humboldt Park residents have gotten use to the illegal graffiti in the area.

But this summer, they’ll be seeing something new — legal graffiti art and murals to cover blank walls of buildings and businesses in the neighborhood.

Graffiti Zone, a local youth art studio in West Humboldt Park, will help local graffiti artists build on their talents while legally creating pieces on open spaces throughout the community. 

Graffiti Zone is located at 3722 West Chicago Avenue, has existed for six years as an after-school arts program where young students in surrounding neighborhoods can connect with themselves and their community through art making and arts promotion. Elementary students to high school students come to the studio on weekday afternoons and participate in many different forms of art: painting, photography, music and dance.

Owner and Executive Director Jody Cooley said businesses with bare walls, just blocks away from Graffiti Zones’ front door, could be upgrading their appearances this summer with a new masterpiece created by students and local artists that work with Graffiti Zone.

“Each space we have had, the community has been very supportive,” Cooley said. “They know what dangers their kids face on the streets.”

Cooley is a self-taught artist that created Graffiti Zone to help kids get off the streets in an at risk neighborhood.

“Kids need something to do in at risk neighborhoods to get off the dangerous street,” Cooley said. “They also need a creative outlet to express themselves and learn art and business skills which is lacking in our schools.”

Graffiti is a form of visual communication, usually illegal, involving unauthorized marking of public spaces by individuals or groups that cover many walls in the West Humboldt Park area. Although the common image of graffiti is usually a symbol or phrase spray-painted on a wall by a member of a street gang, some graffiti is not gang related.

Miguel Rodriguez (left), program director of Graffiti Zone, started tagging in eighth grade.

“It was a way of telling the world that I exist,” Rodriguez said. “Eventually, I racked up enough cases with the law and I spent one week in the juvenile detention center.”

Rodriguez was given 300 hours of community service, which is where he got his start in working with nonprofit organizations.

“Instead of labeling me as a vandal, they were labeling me as an artist,” Rodriguez said. “I started to experiment with other forms of art, with graffiti being the baseline for it.”

Many graffiti artists tag to get attention or satisfy a form of thrill-seeking. But in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood, the amount of illegal graffiti is decreasing because of the Graffiti Zone Art center’s work, Rodriguez said. The group takes measures to legally paint graffiti as art on area spaces to bring color and storytelling to the neighborhood.

“[Graffiti] communicates indirectly with the world that there are issues going on in the community,” Rodriguez said. “If you walk down a street that has a lot of illegal graffiti, they probably don’t have any art programs around there.”

Many graffiti artists see what they do as a harmless why of expression. Others like local branch of McCahill Painting Company, Chicagoland Graffiti Removal, see graffiti as an illegal form of defacing a neighborhood.

Local musician and graffiti artist, Al Tamper, started tagging in high school during his teenage years and still continues to create masterpiece after masterpiece with the friends he has made through the art form.

“Creating this art makes me feel good whether it’s a dope tag, dope fill, dope burner or a day at the chill walls with the homies,” Tamper said. “Beer and beats usually playing while you calmly paint a masterpiece.”

Some people and artists see graffiti as an expressive art form. Local musician Samuel “Racecar” Nash, said there is a line between true graffiti art and simple tagging.

“I would draw a line between graffiti as an art and the art of tagging,” Nash said. “Creating a proposed, conceptual piece is entirely different from tagging as a form of advertisement.”

The mission of Graffiti Zone is to have each empty wall covered with a beautiful masterpiece created by students and artist at the studio. This has been a great way to get teens off the streets and give purpose to the art form in a troubled neighborhood.

“To the young artist trying to come up, don’t do it unless you’re going to do it right,” Tamper said. “I’m sick of seeing kids get into it to be rebellious and then stop after two years. I love what I do. I can’t stop.”

Creating graffiti, tagging, and painting on public property is illegal. There are ways to be creative and use artistic talents without breaking the law. According to Rodriguez, there are "permission walls" in Chicago where artists are free to pain. Also, artists can simply ask the local business owner for permission.

But Josue “Sedz” Gutierrez, a Columbia College Chicago student and a local graffiti artist, said participating in tagging is a thrill.

“I never understood how people got on top of buildings or rooftops until I had to do it myself,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez has also had some close encounters with authorities while tagging late at night.

“I’ve been caught a few times. Once at a train station and another on a rooftop,” Gutierrez said. “Some cops were shining their lights on our freshly painted wall and we just laid flat on the roof for an hour before they left.”

But that's a risk that graffiti artists shouldn't take, Cooley said.

“How would you feel if you worked really hard to buy a building and keep it looking nice and then I walked up and painted my name on it?" he said. "There is a place for graffiti and many people will give you permission to do [it] if you just ask them.”

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