Living walls of art

Go to the 3100 block of W. 36th Place – between Kedzie and Albany – and you’ll find a display of public art unlike any other in the city.
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This elaborately detailed, fantastically complex composition is one of dozens – perhaps hundreds or thousands – that, over the last decade,  have graced Chicago’s Aerosoul Walls – home of Chicago’s biggest and best collection of graffiti art.

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Standing at the corner of 36th Place and Albany – a dreary industrial zone south of the Ship & Sanitary Canal – the otherwise undistinguished Crawford Steel Building is Ground Zero for the Chicago graffiti community. Here, aspiring and prominent taggers practice their art, devising and executing larger-than-life works in the open air.

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The display is ever-changing; new works are constantly underway, layered over the old.  Quite a few works had vanished between my first visit, in May, and my second, in early July. Photos posted a few years ago on local discussion boards show works that have all since vanished.

Each wall is “owned” by a group of particular artists, whose works are not to be painted over; violators will find their own work quickly painted over.

The most common subject of a tag is the artist’s own adopted name, often stylized beyond legibility. The message can be difficult or impossible to decipher. No matter – the art is in the craftsmanship and the creativity. Cartoon figures often augment designs, such as an appearance by Dragon Ball‘s Kami…

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…and a rabid Ewok from Return of the Jedi nearby in the same composition.
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The influence of the Aerosoul Walls extends well beyond the Crawford Steel property. One rule of thumb about graffiti artists – they have no interest in staying inside the lines. Give them an officially designated canvas and they will inevitably fill it up and move beyond it, as St. Louis learned when it invited taggers to decorate its industrial floodwalls some years back, and got tags on vacant historic buildings downtown.

So it is here – except that instead of damaging historic architecture, here taggers have bombed a group of run-of-the-mill industrial buildings. Several anonymous buildings on the same block, facing the  emptiness of the railroad tracks, are heavily slathered with layers of tags. These solid walls of graffiti are highly visible from passing Amtrak trains, which is how I first became aware of the place.

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These more obscure locations tend to invite works of lower quality, as well as somewhat diminished respect for the better paintings that are done there.  A piece may last for several years, or only a few months or weeks. Technical craftsmanship and artistic originality are no guarantee of survival, though they sometimes help. More useful is getting your tag into a spot that’s harder to reach – above the nine-foot reach of the typical tagger, for example.

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There are elements of gang activity to some of the tags – though most gang tags lack the artistic quality of dedicated taggers’ work.

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I will make a half-hearted concession that this work is illegal and, essentially, is vandalism. Certainly, Crawford Steel is furiously vigilant in their efforts to prevent this lawless scourge from infecting our fair land:

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Notice to Spray Painters: The City of Chicago has made it illegal to spray paint any walls with or without the permission of the property owners. In order to adhere to this law, please do not spray paint anywhere on Crawford Steel’s property. Thank you for your cooperation. March 2002

But I can’t say it really bothers me much. Truthfully, about the worst outcome I can see here is that this area acts as a prepping ground for writers to tag other walls elsewhere, with perhaps less harmless results.

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I have seen works of far lesser craft and quality enshrined in museums. The Crawford Steel building looks much better with its ever-shifting array of artworks than it would without them. The adjacent buildings cannot be said to have any artistic merit – why shouldn’t they be used as a giant canvas? In my opinion, the city should have places like this – designated tagging grounds, places where artists can express themselves and stretch their creativity unencumbered. In this depressingly drab industrial section of town, it is a breath of fresh air and one of the few sources of beauty.

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For good or ill, the graffiti valley on either side of the railroad tracks represents an outpouring of the community’s voice – a chorus of souls striving to be heard. Perhaps I’m putting a benign spin on a malevolent force – but in the aggregate, I find this collection of tags to be overpoweringly wonderful.

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1×1 Tile Mosaics

I love finding convergent architectural elements scattered about the city. Geometric glass block, Midcentury 2-flats, green-on-white glazed brick storefronts – whenever I see something popping up in a variety of places all over town, I’m hooked.

My latest find in this vein – 1960s-era 1×1 tile mosaics. Using common construction materials, which could be installed by commonly-skilled workers, 1×1 tiles allowed an artist to create colorful additions to a building’s exterior. For curves and added levels of detail, the titles could be cut in half with a 90-degree angle.

I have found about half a dozen examples of note scattered around Chicagoland:

169 Grove Avenue, Oak Park

An apartment building from circa 1960 turned condo, with wonderful projecting balconies on two of the corners, trimmed out with blue metal spandrel panels.  Inside, the lobby features  a wonderful abstract mosaic along one side. The mosaic extends through the glass front wall into the vestibule.

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1040-1044 Ontario Street,  Oak Park

A curious little courtyard apartment building from around 1963, with 4-Plus-1 style parking under one wing, and the other wing at ground level. On the street facades, two tile mosaics reflect Native American or Aztec themes. Unfortunately, the eastern mosaic was mostly covered by climbing vines when I photographed it.
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El Lago

A residential highrise at 6157 N. Sheridan, by architect Irving M. Karlin Associates (J.J. & I.M. Karlin). Planned in 1957, El Lago broke ground in Sept. 1958, built on the site of the George Leahy home, president of Republic Coal and Coke.  The structure was built utilizing federal housing insurance that covered mortgages. 22 stories, 268 apartments.

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The El Lago tower was built with a “Mexican motif” meant to convey a warmth missing from contemporary buildings. The primary result seems to be the two tile mosaics flanking the entrance, portraying a man and a woman of Mexican heritage.
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5850 Lincoln Avenue, the Simgreen building

This multipurpose commercial building was built for real estate developers  M. Suson & Associates, circa 1959. Inside the curvaceous lobby, a tile mosaic depicts the building trades at work, reflecting the primary tenant’s occupation. Other offices located here over the years include  Vacations Enterprises in 1959  and Simgreen Jewelers by 1989. Today it houses an alderman’s office and a gold shop.

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2411 W. Fargo / 7420-7428 N. Western

A mixed-use building with commercial spaces facing Western Avenue, and access to the upper-floor residences on the side street. The apartment entry is marked by an abstract design in 1×1 tiles.

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1809 N. Harlem Apartments

his  pair of 6-flat apartments is  part of a long row on Harlem Avenue of the same vintage and scale. These two  feature an abstract pattern of colored tiles, with a minor echo of the motif around the entrance.
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West Leyden High School

1000 Wolf Road, Northlake. A 1957 building with somewhat workmanlike mosaics decorating its wings, portraying the various areas of academics, learning, athletics and high school life.
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No, no, no, no…

This giant mural of St. Vincent adorns the west face of DePaul University’s Francis X. McCabe Hall. It can’t be missed if you’re riding north on the Red Line.

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The mural, titled We Are DePaul 2, was created in 2001 via a composite of 16 repeated images of DePaul students and faculty. But it’s not the composition or technical aspects that intrigue me so. No, it’s his chagrinned scowl.

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St. Vincent looms far larger than life over the Wish soccer field, and his disapproval of DePaul’s athletic teams couldn’t be clearer. Every time I pass, I imagine just what he’s thinking as he glares at the minuscule student athletes below:

“No, no, no, don’t pass to him… no, don’t go there… no… wrong… wrong… stop… oh good grief… don’t kick it – now what’re you – now what is that? What do you think you’re – you guys… no, no, no, no, NO. That just won’t do at all.”

Monkey! Monkey! Monkey!

A long while back I wrote briefly about the strange Midcentury 3-flats on Kominsky at 55th Street, with their low-relief sculpture panels in place of the usual glass block over the stairwells.

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I was already aware of another set of sculpture plaques just around the corner, a trio of charmingly chintzy “See No Evil” monkeys at 5516 S. Pulaski.

MidCentury See, MidCentury Do

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Then I found a third set of plaques, this time on three breezeway apartment buildings on Division near Concordia University:

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The name plate above the “Hear No Evil” monkey (7213 W. Division) reads “The Alexandrian”, as if someone thought they could convince students they were moving into a Colonial-era Grecian mansion.

This batch definitively ties the first two together, sharing the common background elements of a rising sun and a strange “cobblestone” pattern. The Concordia University set also led me to the story behind the monkey sculptures. And the story is… there is no story.

An article from the Chicago Tribune, dated June 24, 1956, is titled “No Reason, But Monkeys Adorn Dwelling Units”. General contractor Angelo Esposito explains that the sculptures were added to the Division Street apartments for no other reason than to generate buzz about the company’s latest buildings, and likewise for sculptures added to previous developments. No mention is made of who did the actual designs.

Esposito and Company, Contractors, were headquartered at 1515 N. Harlem Avenue, and got their anonymous sculptor’s work on at least one more building, a large breezeway apartment at 1305 N. Harlem Avenue, just south of North Ave:

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Harlem Avenue, I think.  In Oak Park.

It may look like a duplicate of the flute player on Komenski, but it’s actually a completely new rendering of the exact same pose. Likewise, the Concordia monkeys are completely new sculpts of the same idea used on the Pulaski building.

Other likely Esposito buildings feature geometric abstractions. One can trace a path of repeated design elements from the fourth member of the Komenski/55th group…

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…to this 55th Street area 3-flat…

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…to another 3-flat around 95th Street.

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Past that, it gets more and more dodgy. Did they do “The Treehouse”, an apartment at 8101 S. Maryland Ave.? The sculpture and the building do fit the style; notice those gray stone stripes.

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How about this 6-flat at 7322 N. Harlem in Niles? Could be, but the connection’s more tenuous.

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Angelo Esposito’s company did not come to a happy end. In 1960 a bankruptcy suit was filed against the builder, and over a dozen buildings in states of partial completion were put in the trusteeship of the court and sold off, including “two 4 story apartments in the 900 block of Pleasant avenue; a completed one storey office building at 6807-09-11 North av.; a partially finished residence at 1115 N. Harlem av.; a completed two story apartment house at 1111 N. Harlem av.; and a completed one story commercial building at 6817 North av.” Others included 7026 North Avenue, 1915 Robincrest Lane in Glenview, unnamed properties in Niles, and a partially constructed “mansion” at 936 Ashland Avenue in River Forest, a “stately shell” of a house that quickly became a reputed neighborhood nuisance in its unsecured condition (city inspectors found no particularly egregious conditions at the house.)

3550 Lake Shore Drive

If you drive down LSD enough at night, you’ve seen this striking MidCentury lobby.

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It joins two massive 1962 apartment towers at 3550 Lake Shore Drive. Though the folded plate roof is modestly interesting, it wouldn’t be enough to make the lobby a real show stopper. What does the trick is the abstract sculpture running the length of the lobby.

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Clearly visible from the rushing highway, the work is by prolific sculptor Abbott Pattison. Its abstract shapes transform what would otherwise be a plain glass and stone lobby into a quintessentially 1960s mode of expression, and a highlight to be watched for as one flies down LSD.

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Painting the town

Murals abounded on a late afternoon expedition to mid-south Chicago — on a Pilsen hot dog stand…

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…on the wall of an adjacent building…
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…and on the building of the Fellowship House, 844 W. 32nd Street in Bridgeport:
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The delightfully detailed mural covers the entire building, and is themed around the divisions people build between us and them, fellows and others. Bits of text drift among the surreal images, turning the building into a message against prejudice.

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