Graffiti is about getting your name up. Given its illegal nature, artists risk everything they have to give the city color and make their name known. Some of these artists are lucky enough to get paid to paint huge buildings and walls around the city. With sanctioned murals, they have both freedom and time to carefully craft their pieces. Most graffiti artists though, face major consequences in their efforts to make art for the public.
For this reason, there are mixed feelings in the graffiti community regarding the role of muralists. Some graffiti writers feel that muralists get off easy for being able to legally produce their work. Others feel that it empowers the culture because artists are able to work their way up. I decided to interview mural artists, local graffiti artists, and those who fall in between, to see how mural art is viewed in the graffiti community relative to its roots.
The first person I interviewed was a local graffiti artist named SYKE. I spent the entire last summer taking pictures of art in the Chicago streets, and SYKE was a name that I would see everywhere. I saw everything from little tags all over the streets to huge throwies on high billboards. This was a graffiti artist who was really getting their name up. I was intrigued to learn the context behind the art.
When I met him and talked to him about his art, I immediately noticed his unconditional love for graffiti and for his crew, J4F. I also realized the strong views he held on certain subjects in the graffiti culture.
Origins of SYKE
SYKE went to high school in the Humboldt Park area which is rich in graffiti and street art. At the time though, he was living in the Portage Park area which hardly has any graffiti. So high school is where it started for him.
In high school, he was a big art head. He practiced drawing cartoons in hopes of mimicking the linework and proportion. At lunch one day, he noticed some guys practicing sketching letters and that was what peaked his interest in the subject.
Those guys were DINR and REYOS.
“I got into graffiti by watching them,” he said, “they told me how to make a good flow and the different styles and techniques they each used.”
They were the ones that ultimately got SYKE into his first crew, DCM. This is a pretty big crew in Chicago. In order to join, he needed to establish a name for himself that was different from what he originally wrote: DOOM.
He came up with the name SYKE because in high school he was a class clown and was always getting into trouble. The punchline “syke” was his favorite.
I asked him if he had ever been involved in mural work, but he told me hasn’t done anything other than Project Logan (a series of legal walls for graffiti artists to paint in the Logan Square neighborhood).
SYKE prides himself on being a “bomber.” A bomber is someone who tries to paint on as many surfaces in the city as they can. They often focus on getting up tags, slaps, and throwies because they are simple and quick. There are some writers that are able to pull off getting up more complicated pieces with more details and colors. SYKE is definitely one of them.
I wanted to know his opinion on whether a piece that is legal versus illegal changes what it is in relation to graffiti.
“Bombing is fighting for your art. It establishes the heart you have to get your name up. Muralists get permission to paint. It’s not like they’re fighting for it.”
However, when I asked whether he thought muralists add or take away from the graffiti culture, he said they add.
“If you have established your name and you’ve done it hardcore by constantly bombing, then you made it. There comes a point where you’re going to have to stop [bombing] because getting felonies and misdemeanors makes it hard to get jobs that aren’t art-related. So if you’re able to make graffiti art your career, then that’s where you gain that legendary aspect. That’s what people aspire to be.”
The JC Rivera Mural
Two weeks prior to the interview I saw a picture of one of JC Rivera’s murals that SYKE stamped (painted on). The mural is on the side of Farmer’s Pride Produce in the West Town area of Chicago. I wanted to know whether this was a way of starting beef with Rivera. When I asked him about it, he kind of chuckled and said, “that’s an interesting question.”
When he explained why he did it, I realized that I was missing a big part of the story—gang graffiti was painted over the mural first. Also, before the mural was painted on, there was a van in the parking lot in front of it that graffiti artists had started painting on first.
The parking lot with the van and JC Rivera mural happened to be one of the hot spots for the beef going on.
At the time, there was a J4F vs EK war going on. This war allegedly began because of comments under a picture on Instagram. All throughout the city, there were KE stamps being painted as a way to diss EK crew, as well as upside-down 4’s to diss J4F crew. The parking lot with the van and JC Rivera mural happened to be one of the hot spots for the beef going on.
“It [the gang graffiti] was there for maybe a month or two. Then other gangs started throwing up graffiti on it. Mind you, these weren’t graffiti crews but actual street gangs in Chicago.”
Wars between graffiti crews are different from wars between Chicago street gangs. It all comes down to motive and degree of consequence. Graffiti writers fight for notoriety and staying up. While there might be violence between specific artists, it does not lead to shoot outs or death. Artists will eventually resolve their problems. Street gangs often fight for drug territory and control with a higher degree of action. They lead to people getting seriously hurt or even killed.
“When I passed the mural every day on the way to work, I got tired of seeing the gang graffiti on the wall. It’s a very crucial spot. I said to myself, ‘fuck it, JC Rivera isn’t going to keep up with his mural, so I’m going to stamp the gang graffiti.’
I never even got to finish it. I didn’t do the shadows or the aura. I actually got ran out by the cops that night. I had to jump a couple of fences. My phone also broke that night. I was able to get out of the jam though.”
SYKE mentioned that JC Rivera posted a picture on Instagram of his mural with the gang graffiti on it. SYKE responded to this by saying: I guess he just wanted to admire the “Chicago love.”
When I looked on JC Rivera’s page it was there, along with a response to a comment saying, “not upset. I appreciate the interaction and I think it makes it so interesting. It’s over the bear champ which is a symbol for the fight for what you believe in but not in an aggressive way. It’s art. Thanks for your input.”
This reinforced the controversy surrounding variations in street art. SYKE saw gang graffiti as a negative aspect of the Chicago street scene. JC Rivera perceived the gang graffiti in a different light, which is unusual but nonetheless justifiable.
There is a difference between mural art, gang graffiti, and regular graffiti. Gang graffiti is solely related to street gangs in Chicago. It serves as a way for gangs to claim territory and diss other gangs during wars.
Regardless of motive, going over someone’s work represents a lack of respect for that artist.
All of these things are a form of communication between different communities within the street culture. Regardless of motive, going over someone’s work represents a lack of respect for that artist. I truly believe that JC Rivera did not want to start beef with Chicago gangs and chose to see the communication as something positive. That’s justifiable.
The next day I decided to interview another local graffiti artist, AWAKE. I saw many of his tags next to SYKE’s at the beginning of the summer. The first thing I observed about his graffiti was his creative hand styles. There was so much variation.
I met him the same week that I met SYKE, and his dedication to the Chicago graffiti culture was the first thing I noticed. He ended up joining one of Chicago’s bigger crews, CMK, not long after I met him. He is also the founder of the crew TBS.
Origins of AWAKE
Around 12 years old, AWAKE moved from Boston to Illinois. At a young age, he started running around with street gangs. When his older sister realized this, she encouraged him to gravitate towards graffiti instead. One of her friends wrote SHARK, and AWAKE would see his tags on her school notebooks. This is what influenced his start in graffiti.
Most of his tags and slaps are on trash bins, street signs and poles, newsboxes, and other street spots.
AWAKE also prides himself on being a bomber. He has done very few pieces and no murals. Most of his tags and slaps are on trash bins, street signs and poles, newsboxes, and other street spots. He has also done some highway throwies which are popular. I was curious to know if his opinion on mural art was any different than SYKE’s.
“I think that’s what every graffiti artist wants to do deep down inside. I know there are people out there that are die-hard bombers. They do it for pure destruction or for themselves. But who wouldn’t want to get paid for doing their art, especially when it’s spraypainting? There’s a fine line, though. If you’re doing commission work, it’s good to have a balance between still bombing on the side.”
Much like SYKE, he believes that muralists positively add to the graffiti community only when they have worked their way up from graffiti’s roots.
The Gentrification Problem
Gentrification is constantly growing in different areas of Chicago, especially urban neighborhoods with large quantities of art, like Logan Square and Pilsen. This is killing the spirit of the communities that give the neighborhood life. It is forcing people out of their homes. It is also making it harder for graffiti artists to get their art up. However, this is making it easier for “street artists” to get their work up.
I was always confused about what the difference between graffiti art and street art is. I always thought that street art was an umbrella term for types of art in the street, therefore leading me to think that graffiti was a subgenre of street art. The more I interviewed artists, the more I realized that was nowhere near true.
AWAKE explained it to me like this: “Street artists usually have permission and get more respect by onlookers because it looks prettier and cleaner. I think doing art illegally and just as nice gets a lot more respect because these artists do it under people’s noses. They’re fucking art ninjas. Illegal art takes a lot more balls to do. Bombers don’t know if their piece is going to get buffed the next day. They don’t know if they are going to get chased out by cops. Street artists can go out in the day time and take as long as they want to put up art. ”
It was clear to me that muralists would fall under the term street art which helped me understand why there is so much controversy surrounding them. But what about the people that fall in the gray area between mural art and graffiti art?
When I interviewed SYKE, he suggested I talk to USEM. He told me that USEM often claims his mural walls by just painting on them and interacting with the public. His murals often consist of his name and cartoon characters. He likes makes art that appeals to the community. The quality and the colors of his art offer a bright element to the neighborhoods he paints in.
Origins of USEM
USEM began writing when a cool kid on the block who did graffiti gave him his name in eighth grade. He would take breaks here and there, but in total, he has been writing for well over ten years.
He is part of the BOYS crew and has done both mural work and bombing. When I asked about any mural work he has done lately, he told me about a program he did with After School Matters (ASM) last summer.
“My friends and I heard that they were planning on doing a mural at this wall we had been painting for years. One of my friends went in and basically told them that if we didn’t get commissioned for it, we would just keep painting over whatever mural was there, so they might as well make us the artists for it. We ended up getting permission and grant money for it and we did something really cool for the neighborhood.”
The mural is by Spaulding and Milwaukee Ave. near the Logan Square blue line train station. Unlike some of the negative feelings SYKE and AWAKE hold toward mural art, USEM is someone who enjoys both sides of the spectrum in their entirety.
“You can’t just be the best bomber or tagger. You gotta do it all. I remember when AMUSE was a normal graffiti guy and now he has professionalized his graffiti. That shit’s so cool.”
His old school graffiti and Chicago living mentality are what drives him to do what he does. I was curious to know how he was able to claim is permission walls, and he told me plain and simple, “I’m from Chicago. We’re always trying to hustle on some shit. That’s the first thing I think about when I’m gonna go up on a wall. I’m doing what I want to do for the community. There’s no way anyone is going to stop me.”
The Difference Between Street Art and Graffiti Art
USEM holds a strict view of street art and graffiti. I wanted to know how he differentiated the two.
“I’m still trying to figure out what street artists are. I talk to my friends about this all the time. Street artists do repetitive characters. They get paid for doing that. I wish I could get paid for putting up USEM but it just doesn’t work that way. They know who they are.”
Another thing that USEM pointed out about street artists is the fact that the rules are different from the graffiti culture.
Even though not all street artists aren’t seen as part of the graffiti community, there is one artist that USEM gives mad props to: Goosenek, who paints a character. Before he started doing pieces legally, he painted his character all along the Red Line train route.
Another thing that USEM pointed out about street artists is the fact that the rules are different from the graffiti culture.
“If you go over them, they’re just going to let it ride. If you go over a graffiti writer, they’re probably going to want to fight you for life. I think that’s the main difference between street artists and graffiti artists.”
One thing I appreciated about USEM was his opinion on the idea of graffiti artists had to fight for their walls.
“This city is huge. I don’t know why people complain about that. That’s the main reason that I do graffiti. I got tired of asking mural artists for permission to paint on their walls just for them to say no. The same thing goes with the bombing. You gotta find your own spots.”
Listening to the varying experiences and opinions made me realize that there is no clear answer to the controversies surrounding mural artists in the graffiti world. Most muralists are looked upon with respect for making their way up to the top of the art game. Some muralists are talented enough to make their way to the top without experiencing the risks that graffiti artists take on a daily basis to get their art up. That is where the controversy lies.
Graffiti artists aren’t given enough credit. A lot of people outside of the scene view graffiti art as vandalism, but since the act of graffiti is anonymous people lack a big part of the story surrounding the art. Mural artists have a platform to professionally put themselves out there whereas a lot of local graffiti artists have that same talent but lack the resources.
Territory and ego lie in the heart of graffiti, and graffiti artists will always fight for their art. Especially in Chicago. Chicago houses some of the most passionate and driven individuals and it is present in all of these artists.
You can’t stop art.