More Public Art Imperiled By Downtown Skyscrapers

Another downtown Chicago mural is going to be turned into a time capsule by progress.

“Loop Tattoo” which is painted high on the east side of the MDA City Apartments (63 East Lake Street) has been playing peekaboo with tourists and locals since 2005. It was designed by Filipino artist Johanna Poethig and executed by the Chicago Public Art Group.  It incorporate intertwined figures of dancers, athletes, geometric shapes, and plants on the windowless side of the building.

Loop Tattoo on MDA City Apartments

But the skyscraper now starting to rise next door at 73 East Lake Street is expected to obscure the artwork, placing it into a kind of a kind of time warp until it can be seen again.

There are plenty of examples of buildings in Chicago with paintings on their sides that are out of step with the times. There’s an advertisement for corsets on South Michigan Avenue. Promotions for banks and department stores that no longer exist in The Loop. And a Crain’s sign on Rush Street marking one of at least four buildings the business newspaper has occupied in the last 30 years.

In many cases, these were advertising signs painted on the sides of buildings where they could be clearly viewed by the downtown throngs. Later they were obscured by other buildings that went up. When those same buildings came down, the historic signs were unveiled. They weren’t preserved well, but they persevered over the years and outlasted their brick and mortar competition.

But those are all crass commercial messages. And while their faded writing is cherished for giving us a glimpse into the past, it is somehow more sad that we are now losing works of art.

The Plug Bug, now obscured by Block37.

The first victim of this century was the Plug Bug, a cartoonish hybrid of insect and electrical circuit that adorns the east-facing side of the Commonwealth Edison substation at 121 North Dearborn Street.

The west side of the substation is a wonderful piece of Art Deco architecture. But the east side was never meant to be seen as it was incorporated into the fabric of the surrounding buildings back when Block 37 was a hive of run-down businesses, and not a shiny mostly-empty mall.  It was the work of Karl Wirsum and placed on the blank wall in 1991 after every other building on the block was torn down, leaving the blank face exposed in one of the city’s most visible locations.

The ComEd substation is so integral to the functioning of The Loop that it couldn’t be moved when the Block37 mall and office tower was constructed in 2005, so the new building was erected around the Art Deco cube, enshrouding the Plug Bug.  The only way to see it now is to be an actual bug that can crawl through the crevice between the buildings.

Windy Whales, now hidden by Avenue East

Also gone are Chicago’s “Windy Whales.”  In 1997 the artist formerly known as Robert Wyland and his crew used 3,000 gallons of paint to add whales to the blank eastern wall of the InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile (505 North Michigan Avenue).  The whales cover 18,000 square feet of the skyscraper, but nobody’s seen them since 2006.  That’s when Avenue East went up next door (160 East Illinois Street), shielding the pigment mammals from public view.  But they’re still there — six inches behind the 27-story residential tower.

The rule of thumb is that a skyscraper is designed to last 100 years. But many of the world’s important towers are being preserved longer than that.  So what will happen a hundred years from now?  Will 73 East Lake be torn down giving the Loop Tattoo a chance to dance in another Chicago sunrise?  Will Block37 be replaced, as people wonder what kind of a scary creature could have inspired  the Plug Bug?  Or will Avenue East crumble to dust, reminding the people of 2105 about the imaginary creatures they once read about called “whales.”


Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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