Max Sansing, a Chicago-based artist known for his large-scale murals and fine art paintings, is one of the country’s most prolific and proficient artists. His vibrant works have been featured in galleries and on walls across the United States. However, this impressive two decade career started from humble origins.
Sansing was born and raised on the south side of Chicago by two artistically minded parents who had a major influence on his life. His mother was an art teacher, while his father, Ellis Sansing, was an employee of the Chicago Transit Authority.
Ellis would often take young Max on errands, riding the trains of the el (elevated train lines) to different parts of the city. Using his work issued skeleton key to get into the operator cabs located on the two ends of the train, Ellis and Max would sit in the seats meant for employees of the rail system. Since those seats didn’t have cars in front or behind they provided unobstructed peripheral views of Chicago’s many neighborhoods.
It was an eye opening experience for Sansing to move around the city like that and it was part of what inspired him to incorporate skeleton keys onto some of his works. The keys in many ways serve as metaphors for the places that people could go and the possibilities behind new doors that one could open in life.
It was an eye opening experience for Sansing to move around the city like that and it was part of what inspired him to incorporate skeleton keys onto some of his works.
“The key symbol is so important to me. I’ve had my ideas of how things should go and then it all falls to shit. I’ve had to regroup and look for new pathways and doors to unlock to get to where I am destined,” Sansing said.
As a teenager, Sansing signed up to participate in the Gallery 37 Center for the Arts Program. Sponsored by the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, the program was designed to attract artistically-inclined youths to work summer jobs as artist apprentices. It was around this time that Sansing began trying his hand at graffiti with friends.
As a graffiti artist, Sansing worked in a spectrum of mediums and tools, spanning markers, rollers, specialty caps and aerosol paint cans that he would use to paint his art on walls around town. Most of these walls were permitted by property owners, who would give permission so that Sansing and his friends could adorn their properties with colorfully stylized letters and character pieces. Eventually Sansing would join some of the most prominent graffiti crews in Chicago like the Def Con 5 Crew (DC5), the Recking Krew (RK) and the Criminal Young Artists Crew (CYA).
As a graffiti artist, Sansing worked in a spectrum of mediums and tools, spanning markers, rollers, specialty caps and aerosol paint cans that he would use to paint his art on walls around town.
The opportunity to paint pieces on walls eventually gave birth to Sansing’s desire to paint large-scale murals. The bigger the better.
Graffiti fed Sansing’s artistic hunger. He taught himself how to work with oil paint. This creative curiosity and desire to learn eventually led him to enroll at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. He attended the private school for two years and received formal art training to help prepare him for a career in the industry. This career spans over 20 years now as a fine artist, a muralist, and a graffiti artist. Sansing frequently paints in his hometown, but his work can be found in Denver, Texas, Florida, Boston, Michigan, Indiana, and beyond.
Sansing’s portrait works are easily identified by their vivid colors, which ignite everything from flames, rays, and clouds to the streaks of paint splashed across the cheeks of his subjects. Even his figures’ skin tones are subject to a wide variety of colors, including blue, red, green, and purple.
Sansing occasionally paints portraits of well-known celebrities; his repertoire includes President Barack Obama, Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, Hall of Fame running back for the Chicago Bear’s Walter Payton and revolutionary socialist Fred Hampton who served as the Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party. These are to name but a few of the iconic personalities featured in Sansing’s art.
Sansing occasionally paints portraits of well-known celebrities; his repertoire includes President Barack Obama, Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, Hall of Fame running back for the Chicago Bear’s Walter Payton and revolutionary socialist Fred Hampton who served as the Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Recently, he was commissioned by Chicago’s professional soccer team, The Chicago Fire FC, to paint a large mural in the South Loop area of downtown Chicago. This initiative is part of the Stand For Chicago program, which is designed to promote locals who give back to their community. This past February, Fashion designer Virgil Abloh and Nike tapped Sansing to paint a large mural installation at one of the local Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago in an effort to support access, creativity and self improvement for the community. The NBA Allstar Weekend in Chicago also commissioned Sansing to paint the cast of the NBA on TNT crew consisting of Ernie Johnson Jr., Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Williams, and Charles Barkley.
Beyond celebrities and high profile individuals, Sansing has also painted a large population of everyday people, many of whom he knows and who hail from the Avalon Park neighborhood where he grew up in Chicago. Sansing also frequently paints youths because he feels that if other youngsters see people that look like themselves in “monumental ways” that it will influence them in a positive manner.
Sansing takes great pride in his lifelong relationship with the south side of Chicago. Roots and community are one of the reasons why he paints as many walls as possible near his home. To Sansing, public art comes with a responsibility to the areas where it’s being installed, and that art has the power to either affect the people of a community positively or negatively, much in the same way that billboard advertisements can do the same. Sansing believes that if the neighborhood culture is strong then the neighborhood will be as vibrant and powerful as a mural. It’s his deep commitment and support of his Chicago community that make Sansing’s work stand-out amongst other artists.
Roots and community are one of the reasons why he paints as many walls as possible near his home.
“I’ve only lived in one general area my entire life. I’ve seen it change in many ways, both good and bad,” Sansing said. “I have deep roots here. In terms of my work, one of my greatest fears is to look back and have it look like I had my head in the sand. There’s a rich and unique culture to where I come from, and I hope my work reflects that in a unique way.”
The murals and paintings that Max Sansing produces can be described by many labels – from fine art to street art to graffiti art – but no matter what category anyone uses to define his work, it’s going to be difficult to fit that much beauty, creativity, and style into any one little box.