Chicago Street Art

When it comes to street art, graffiti, or any artwork that winds up in public, there’s a certain process involved that can be as interesting as the final piece itself. With The Chicago Street Art Show, the work of Chicago-based artists like Don’t Fret, Chris Silva, Goons, and Mental 312 is hardly framed in a neat display; this show held at the Chicago Urban Art Society exists freely on and off the walls of the gallery, allowing people to really see the work and layers involved in contemporary street art. Personally getting to witness the final day of setup for this show illustrated how much life these pieces take on—especially when multiple artists bring their individual visions together.

Street Art or Graffiti?

Even as the distinctions between street art and graffiti remain debatable, it’s safe to say that just about every participant in this show has put in work on the outside world—under viaducts, on light signal boxes, on industrial doors, etc. But one participant, Mental 312, is notably breaking down barriers between graff and street art in practice. Using a roller and a single color of bucket paint, he creates gigantic, maze-like pieces of lines, which sometimes don’t even spell anything out in particular. Mental says the motive behind these pieces originally was to cover all of the unsightly brown buff paint plaguing Chicago walls.

Even with Mental’s newer, roller pieces being such a large step away from his older traditional graffiti fill-ins and tags, he still doesn’t necessarily consider himself a street artist. “As a graffiti artist, I look at street art as something new. Street art is just a new version of graffiti—a new generation.”

As a graffiti artist, I look at street art as something new. Street art is just a new version of graffiti—a new generation.

Being in his first gallery, it was intriguing to see how Mental’s left field piece fit into the puzzle that is the collaborative wall at the Chicago Street Art Show. With large sheets of mounted plywood as the backdrop, Mental took a roller and green paint to the surface and created the foundation of the piece with his freestyle linear work. Eventually, one of the shows’ curators, Joseph Depre, and others began wheatpasting various posters and prints by street artists Viking, Goons, Cro, Brooks Golden, Solve (R.I.P), and many others onto the same wall. 


Subsequently Mental was not too happy about how much of his original piece was covered. Given that this wall and show features such a large cross section of artists bringing street side-style work into a gallery, it’s only natural that some tension would arise. Each artist has their own technique; their own vision; their own purpose. What was cool is that by the end of the day that I was there, the main collaborative wall completely came together. Eventually more artists helped to arrange the work, including Brooks Golden, Cro, and Mental—the latter who picked a roller back up and recreated some of his lines over parts of the wheatpastes. When the setup came to close, it looked like a real wall—a relatively proportioned representation of Chicago street art.

Joseph Depre, whose work is also featured in the show, says that, “The important part of the gallery is to find the balance [between artists’ work]. When they’re all put together, it’ll say a lot.”

Walking around the gallery, though, it’s not just the main collaborative wall that represents a balance. Take the two “You Are Beautiful” collaborative pieces, which are comprised of individual letters from different artists that come together to spell “You Are Beautiful.” The letters are made up of graffiti pieces, cartoonish characters and sometimes both. Considering the amount of participants in this piece and divergence of techniques, it’s possibly the most varied piece of the show.

A Look Back at Chicago Street Art (2005)

Chris Silva

Another highlight is the street sculpture that sits right in the middle of the gallery called (T)HUG LIFE(?). Created by longtime Chicago artists Chris Silva, Thor, Brooks Golden, Nick Adam and others, this gigantic installation is made up entirely of found objects like doors, windows, and even a model house, which are mostly collaged together and painted on with various oddball characters. It looks like a mini city in itself. One side even features a red light district with a nude female standing behind shutters as a pervy man looks on. It’s a bizarre collective piece that tells stories at every angle.

Silva, one of Chicago’s pioneering street artists and longtime graffiti writer says that in such a large-scale collaboration, “You work with similar sensibilities and have an understanding of the visual language.” He adds that, “This is a project of peers. We’re all holding ourselves to a pretty high standard.”

The aforementioned piece, (T)HUG LIFE(?), is one in particular that will continue to be worked on even after the shows’ opening. Like when these pieces are actually on the street, they evolve—artists add elements and sometimes strangers tear a part of the poster off or tag over it or just place a similarly styled work next to it. Street art is not static and those who made The Chicago Street Art Show happen, whether Chris Silva or Mental are arguably well aware of this evolution.

The Chicago Street Art Show runs through June 4th at the Chicago Urban Art Society, 2229 S. Halsted in Chicago: for more info.

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