A Look at the Street Art and Artists of Chicago’s Near West Side

Awake-Pilsen

I was walking down Halsted Street between Lake and Randolph when I first saw a work of art by CLS. If you aren’t familiar with Reyes, Roa or Banksy, you might not recognize CLS, either.

These guys don’t have their art hanging in the Field Museum or Art Institute. They are street artists.

It’s an art form unique to large urban areas. Street art is part of the fabric of cities from New York to Berlin, and of course, Chicago. Some might consider it an eyesore, or question whether it’s really art, but it’s hard to argue the talent on display in many of the works.

CLS Work on Halsted and LakeThe CLS piece that first drew my attention is a wide rectangular mixed media mosaic constructed out of random pieces of wood, as is the case with most of his work. I haven’t a clue as to its meaning. Nor, evidently, did the Chicago cop leaving Johnny’s Snack Shop at 160 North Halsted. I asked him if he was familiar with the piece. He shrugged no and said, “I guess it’s art, or something.”

Another West Loop piece I walk past regularly is similarly confusing, and not a little disturbing. It’s a black and white grouping of five skulls with the warning: ALL YOUR BRAINS ARE BELONG TO US!!!!

I also found some incredibly detailed, whimsical and colorful pieces on 16th Street between Halsted and Damen in Pilsen.

Art is largely in the eye of the beholder, and street art of the type created by RLS and his peers is often perceived as a sign of a neighborhood’s hip quotient. Less welcome is graffiti, which is usually considered a sign of urban decay. They have one thing in common, though, according to Chicago artist Billy Cravens.

“In the eyes of the law, they’re both illegal if you don’t have permission to put them on private property,” Cravens noted.

Ah, yes. The inconvenient aspect of street art for the artist is that he could get hauled away by the authorities. Which makes the brazenness of some street artists particularly impressive. They often paint their murals or nail wood to a wall in broad daylight.

Cravens is co-owner of Galerie F (2381 North Milwaukee Avenue) in Logan Square and has a good read on the pulse of the Chicago street art scene. He’s also an artist who works with a more traditional medium, but he appreciates how street artists contribute to exterior design. He also says the city’s graffiti removal crew, known as the buff squad, isn’t as aggressive going after street art as they are with graffiti.

“What the street artist is doing is illegal, but because it’s three-dimensional and uses found materials, people tend to accept it,” Cravens said. “People look at it and say, oh, it’s art. If someone put up a graffiti piece in the same spot, they’d think the property value is going down.”

West Loop Wall ArtAnd lest you think the street artist or graffiti artist is an angry, impoverished kid with a chip on his shoulder and a spray paint can in his backpack, some are actually doing pretty well financially.

“There are a lot of very wealthy street artists,” Cravens said. “They’re brought into a city to do a mural and are sent on their way with a big check in their pocket.”

If you see a graffiti artist casually painting a wall in the middle of the day, don’t assume it’s unwelcome. It could be a permission wall (known as a P-wall), where they property owners allow graffiti artists to come in and paint.

“Some of the quality you see on a P-wall is top-notch,” Cravens said. “The artist could spend an entire day painting and do some amazing work.”

Street artists like CLS operate in anonymity, other than his ubiquitous initial signature. Others proudly brand their work, like CHema Skandal, a Mexican street illustrator whose work can be seen on 16th Street and Ashland in Pilsen. It’s signed with — what else — his web address: chemaskandal.com

Editor’s note: In spite of the tiny little words at the bottom of each page of this blog, we are in no way connected with the work mentioned in the fifth paragraph of this article.

Bill Motchan

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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