Gary, Indiana and ancient Egypt are thousands of years and thousands of miles apart, but you could read writing on the walls in both. In Egypt, hieroglyphics covered tombs and palaces, telling stories of death, life, passion, rebirth, sexual intrigue, and philosophy, written by priests and princesses. The hieroglyphics of the Rust Belt steel town of Gary, Indiana came largely from Crazy Indiana Style Crew (CISA), a graffiti crew led by New York-born writer Ish Muhammad, better known as ISHROCK. After his family relocated to Gary in 1983, he found himself drawn to use another Rust Belt invention, spraypaint, (the brainchild of Sycamore, Illinois) on the faded walls of the many abandoned industrial buildings of Gary.
I met in Ish not in Gary but in Chicago, its flashier neighbor across state lines. It was in Chicago that Ish’s show The Astros was on view at Elephant Room Gallery in the city’s Loop neighborhood. I get hundreds of press releases every month, and to anyone else, curator Kimberly Leja Atwood’s press release for The Astros that appeared in my inbox in January would looked like any other. But to back up to how I got to Chicago in the first place, however, I have to go back twelve years—bear with me. When I received Atwood’s email, I felt a pull. Something told me I needed to go see the work in person. It fit my Rust Belt graffiti research for UP6. The mystical, futuristic colors of the paintings intrigued me. There were some weird coincidences in that Ish and CISA painted primarily in a Gary neighborhood called Horace Mann, which was the name of the school I went to for thirteen years. Plus, I had never been to Chicago and always wanted to go. And I knew that I knew someone in Chicago…or rather, I felt something for someone in Chicago, who I had known since the days of Tumblr and Fanfiction.net and terrible shaggy middle school haircuts. I read through Atwood’s press release and hovered my finger over my old friend’s name in my phone contacts. Press, release.
I asked my friend if I could stay with him. Give me til Thursday to figure out logistics with my dad, he wrote back. Twenty minutes later: Actually, never mind, I got it all together now, you can come! I booked the ticket and started packing up my clothes, over-analyzing how much skin my shirts revealed and then looking over at the divet in my bed where my then-partner had been sleeping. I arrived at Elephant Room via a hulking METRA train, Chicago graff tags flashing by out the window and the dark glitter of the city appearing above car-part yards and splashes of river. It would be a lie to say that the effect the work and the city had on me completely snuck up on me. But when I got to looking at The Astros, I was so transfixed by the moment that I didn’t think much about the consequences.
Passion, secrecy, denial, and hubris are part of the series’ ethos. The Astros is a graffiti-informed retelling of the ancient Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris. Osiris, king of Egypt, was the object of his brother Seth’s fury and envy. His motive may have been vengeance for the suspicion that Osiris slept with his wife, Nephthys. Or it may have just been simple jealousy and immaturity. Whatever the reason, Seth hatched a plot to kill Osiris and lured him into a decorated wooden chest at a party, depicted by Ish in There He Go.
“When Isis put him back together, one thing was missing: His penis. So she performed a ritual to make one and procreate one last time. When I was working on this painting, I thought about all the communities I’ve been a part of that had a lot of parts, but didn’t have that one thing, that ability to create.”
Once Osiris laid down in the chest, Seth cut up Osiris’s body and scattered him across Egypt. A grief-stricken Isis searched the riverbeds and sand dunes, and, miraculously, was able to put the pieces back together. As Ish told the climax of the story, shown in the show’s enormous central painting One Last Shot: “When Isis put him back together, one thing was missing: His penis. So she performed a ritual to make one and procreate one last time. When I was working on this painting, I thought about all the communities I’ve been a part of that had a lot of parts, but didn’t have that one thing, that ability to create.” That final ritual birthed Horus, the Egyptian god of the sky, and allowed Isis to keep a piece of Osiris.
Atwood’s gallery’s name draws from the euphemism for an “elephant in the room.” What is sex if not the constant elephant in the room? And the myth itself is a sensual and provocative one, retold with a graffiti writer’s eye for dynamic linework.
One Last Shot was the painting I found myself most drawn to. It’s hard to say what stood out most—the way that Ish created dimension using hot pink and cyan, two opposing colors, the Isis-figure’s elegant, yonic face, the deep purple of the space-time around her. There was a fair amount of throat-clearing about the sexual elements of the work, but the sexuality and passion within The Astros is one of its most poignant parts, and, after all, Atwood’s gallery’s name draws from the euphemism for an “elephant in the room.” What is sex if not the constant elephant in the room? (The irony is not lost on me that I was ogling my friend helping Atwood set up chairs then quickly darting my eyes back down to staring into my plastic cup of cabernet sauvignon at a gallery referring to an “elephant in the room” in its name). And the myth itself is a sensual and provocative one, retold with a graffiti writer’s eye for dynamic linework. Though its color scheme is crimsons, purples, and blues more reminiscent of the glitz of the ‘80s than the Nile, The Astros is a dramatic work of storytelling that mixes Ish’s experiences with the existing mythical archetypes.
“The first painting I did in the series was I Got Your Back,” he explained at his artist talk, where he spoke without a podium because he said he didn’t want to feel like a New Yok street preacher. “It’s Nephthys and Isis, Nephthys saying I got you back, I’ll help you find him, I won’t tell Seth. My tribe is female, I got a lot of women in my family, and I know there’s a lot of pinky swears going on.” He paused, looking out at his wife Stefanie in the crowd. “This is one where I’m always seeing new things in it. Later, I saw my daughter in it. She came out to me and I knew she must have had people she trusted before she told me that. There’s a sisterhood out there that women have and men may not be aware of.”
“There’s a sisterhood out there that women have and men may not be aware of.”
Though I Got Your Back explores that sisterhood, Kicks Club, another painting in the series, draws from the brotherhood of Ish’s teen years in Indiana. “This was a thing when I was a kid—any time you’re bent over, I can kick you. It’s kicks club. Maybe it was just an Indiana thing, but I painted Osiris kicking Seth,” he said. “Sometimes, men, we find these cruel ways to emasculate each other.”
Like many of the works in The Astros, Kicks Club makes use of black and white lines in its background, which Ish ascribes to his search for an identity beyond Afrocentric or Eurocentric lines of thought as a Puerto Rican. The black lines peek out in One Last Shot and zig-zag through I Got Your Back. “This is a deep cut for us old folks,” he said. “Remember when the TV static would come on at 2AM ‘cause there was nothing on that time of night? That’s what those lines are, too, that empty TV screen.” Like many of aspects of The Astros, the appearance of those black and white lines is a subtle through-line of Ish’s life that hides a larger emotional truth.
“This was a thing when I was a kid—any time you’re bent over, I can kick you. It’s kicks club. Maybe it was just an Indiana thing, but I painted Osiris kicking Seth. Sometimes, men, we find these cruel ways to emasculate each other.”
But in contrast to the immaturity of the teenage Kicks Club, Ish has actively cultivated positive relationships with other men in his adult life. One of Ish’s contemporaries, Chicago writer Nick Fury, added his perspective to the piece. A Whole Lot of Writers but Only One. That particular piece plays on the idea of only some graffiti writers having a “fuse” lit up by a true passion and drive, which only few have. “Nick said: ‘There’s a whole lot of writers but only one Ish,’” Ish recalled. Nick Fury, from the audience, elaborated that “There’s not a lot of us still active out there, but Ish and CISA are the root of the graffiti movement in Indiana.” Regardless of who was the root and who lit the fuse, though, Ish and Nick Fury agreed on one thing: “Some people say graffiti started in the Heights, some people say it started in the Bronx, but the most important thing is that it started.”
“Some people say graffiti started in the Heights, some people say it started in the Bronx, but the most important thing is that it started.”
Funnily enough, it turned out that viewing The Astros wasn’t the first time I had met Ish and his wife Stefanie. He moderated the conversation with The Boys from the Heights at Graffiti HeArt in 2021, another UP story I chased at another pivotal moment of change in my life, right as I moved to Pittsburgh. This time around, settled in Pittsburgh and in my domestic relationship, I came to Chicago and felt things that I thought I was sure about completely melt away. After leaving The Astros, I realized I had a firestorm of passion inside of me—a “fuse,” if you will—that I had convinced myself that I could never and would never let anybody light. Two days after returning from my trip to interview Ish, I ended my relationship, and several large financial hits later found myself moving into my own apartment on Pittsburgh’s South Side. It was the first place I had ever had that was really mine.
Graffiti is a romance between the streets and the people, the walls and the spraypaint, the vivacity of youth and the decay of time. At its core, as I’ve written about in my work with the Boys from the Heights and the desperation and depersonalization that led them to write on walls, it springs from a desire we all have for other people to know our names. We want to hear our names said with kindness, to feel heard, to feel seen, to hear ourselves spoken back to us as an exaltation. In Chicago, I experienced firsthand what it’s like when someone says your name and you feel simultaneously recognized as yourself and uplifted as new with a pride, beauty, and joy you thought impossible.
Maybe there’s someone out there who can go on living their life ignoring a feeling like that, but I knew I couldn’t go on without the possibility of hearing my name said that way again. When Ish and I spoke at length at a coffeeshop in the Loop for my UP6 article, he referenced the popular idea of “urban decay” in the Rust Belt. “I don’t see graffiti as part of urban decay. I see it as urban bloom,” he said. I found the concept of urban bloom to be an unspeakably beautiful one, a perfect encapsulation of why I feel I’ve found a home and a passion in the stories and landscapes of post-industrial cities. Maybe it resonated with me because I was in the midst of blooming myself.