We met in a UIC parking lot, made our introductions and hellos, then hopped into a 16 person van and set off on a bumpy funny ride to the Crawford Steel Company in Brighton Park. The street facing walls contain sanctioned murals, masterpieces done by working graffiti artists from the Chicagoland area. The walls have been given by Crawford Steel to the artists, and the walls are worked and reworked on an ongoing basis. Around the corner, we encountered the Crawford Mural house rules, which deal with respect, boundaries, and a hope that this space better fosters the graffiti community.
Behind the factory and under a set of working train tracks are what Coval referred to as practice walls. While these aren't technically the same caliber as masterpieces behind them, they serve to act as a space for artists to work over ideas, images, colors, styles, words, and tags they are playing with. The evolution of these spaces is absolutely breathtaking, and it's merely by happenstance.
|The ground was a mix of persistent foliage and remnants of art supplies|
We spent a few minutes quietly pondering the sanctity of the space, and it had never occurred to me that for something as ubiquitous as graffiti, that the community remains completely underground because the art they create is illegal. Issues of space, the definition of art and beauty, neighborhood politics, and anonymity came to the forefront of our discussion, as we trekked along the train tracks to a hidden spot where some of the real magic took place.
|Kevin Coval, our on-site lecturer and van driver for the day|
Behind the steel factory is this amazing hidden spot. Coval told us that this is a practice space, as well as a space where graffiti artists BBQ, hang out, and enjoy one anothers company. I pretty much swooned as soon as we walked out of the dense foliage on the right. Besides the occasional mosquito, this hidden site is perfect, breathtaking, and full of color.
|A character commonly found in the work of the artist Shel|
Following our visit to Crawford Steel we made a quick trip to a space along the side of the expressway, which had a completely different vibe. This didn't feel so much like a community, many of the tags were rushed, some less-developed than what we viewed at the first site. This space contained gang graffiti as well, something we saw very little of over at Crawford Steel. The site itself was interesting though, I've driven by this September 11th Memorial countless times and had no idea that there was an entire wall of graffiti beneath it.
Upon reflection, this walking/driving tour of some of Chicago's graffiti hangouts was incredibly eye opening. I learned a bit about why artists write the way they do, learned a thing or two about anonymity and breaking the law, as well as the basic but monumental difference between gang graffiti and art. I think creating sanctioned spaces for artists to work like the Crawford Steel site shows a change in the mentality surrounding graffiti, and slowly over time graffiti might finally earn its spot in the hallowed halls of the art and museum world. Banksy and Shepard Fairey are just the beginning, but after what I saw and how I felt looking at these works has me thinking graffiti is just as relevant and talentful as much of what's happening in the contemporary art world.