Chicago artists use boarded-up storefronts to make a difference

Chicago (tca/dpa) - JC Rivera thought about hurricanes, he thought about his childhood in Puerto Rico and what happened whenever a storm passed through. Plywood would fly up across every window and every store front. He thought about this the other day, while driving through Chicago, passing business after business hidden behind a blank landscape of paneling.

Rivera is an artist, known for his gold, sleepy-eyed bear in boxing gloves, a ubiquitous bit of street art across Chicago, seen on the sides of buildings and vans, pizza boxes and skateboards. So after many store fronts across Chicago were shattered and looted this past week, while protests clogged streets and the name "George Floyd" traveled across the world, Rivera kept getting asked by friends and admirers why he was staying so quiet, why he wasn't saying anything online or creating anything to acknowledge the moment.
"And I thought, 'Because I'm thinking, I'm thinking.' Eventually I realized, the one thing I can probably offer right, that's my art. That's what I can offer. My work. It's something."
On Tuesday he posted a message on Instagram:
He would paint your boarded-up storefront, free of charge, paint and art supplies included. Let him know if you want his services. But please, only small local businesses.
He was quickly swamped, "just overwhelmed" by requests. A friend and colleague, Benjamin Stanley, who paints under the name NonStopBangin, posted a similar note: He offered his signature image, a colorful rain of stenciled "I Love You" notes. Likewise, he would do the work free of charge, all the paint and supplies included.
"Want to share as much love as I can right now," he wrote.
As requests flooded in, Rivera responded: "I got you." Though within hours both artists had so many requests - from large corporations, chains and mom-and-pop businesses alike - they had to stop accepting new ones.
Between them, sometimes working alone, sometimes in collaboration _ Rivera and Stanley, old friends, well-known within the close cloistered world of Chicago street art - they plan to paint about 50 storefronts in the next few days, in the Loop and Uptown, in Pilsen and Lakeview and beyond, for nail salons, pizza parlors, neighborhoods cafes, beauty spas.
Which won't be nearly enough.
Not against a monochromatic sea of plywood, touching nearly every neighborhood in the city. On the other hand, a never-ending landscape of plywood is not unlike a city-stretched canvas. "We just wanted to get some color up there, something positive for Chicagoans," Stanley said, "something that helps in a small way so that Chicago is not so depressed for the next few weeks."
They're not alone.
If you're out between curfews, socially-distanced, wondering when the ground will settle and Chicago will be Chicago again, pay attention to boarded-up businesses.
Some have Biblical scripture scrawled across; some have "Black Lives Matter" written in long strips of masking tape; on the front of the plywood that obscures a spa in Bucktown there's even a crude approximation of that classic Norman Rockwell illustration of a police officer sitting beside a black child, with the message: "It's OK to support law enforcement and also condemn officers who tarnish the badge ... "
Along 18th Street in Pilsen - a kind of unofficial hub for Chicago street art - it feels right now like a who's who of poppy, vibrant, socially minded local street artists. If you've ever looked closely at a street mural in Chicago, the names are familiar: Kozmo, JoeyD, Jeff Pak, Frilz.
What happened in Pilsen was this: Delilah Martinez, owner of nearby Vault Gallerie, said a local print shop asked her for art to add to its boarded-up front; which led to other businesses asking for something similar. Word spread online, and more than 30 artists offered their talents.
Now where there was only blonde and brown wood, anthropomorphic pigeons shout "UNITY" and "Peace and Equality" uncurls in ornate script across a cellphone store. On the boards in front of Ahmed Maktoob's dollar store, artist Rocio Urbano has a portrait of Brazilian human-rights activist Marielle Franco, which made Maktoob's windows prettier than usual "and at the same time sent a statement."
Across the front of another dollar store there's an Air Jordan silhouette, rippling with color that radiates outward in rainbow waves. On the plywood covering another print shop, there's a new portrait of Malcolm X, created by artist Brenda "Kozmo" Lopez and her husband, who likes to go by his art signature MATR.
"We wanted to make sure whomever comes into this neighborhood to protest, they understand how we feel," Lopez said. "Some of these businesses, they want a more responsible stand than simply saying they're not racist. They want to be clear where their support sits and how they feel. They want people to know, we're united in this."
Indeed, some of the businesses here with art on their plywood had already been looted.
Gerardo Salamanca, who co-owns four Cafe Tola locations around Chicago with his wife Victoria, said that after they posted notes on their own plywood coverings that they stood as allies with Black Lives Matter, "we actually heard from a customer who couldn't believe we as a business would do that, or say something like that. I don't care. Black lives do matter, and we do mean it."
So far, some of the art that the death of George Floyd has inspired already looks fixed in the culture, perhaps even impermeable: The Minneapolis memorial near the spot where he died, photographed countless times, or Chicago artist Shirien Damra's "Justice for George" viral memorial of Floyd ringed with a wreath of flowers, liked on Instagram more than 3.4 million times.
Painting on plywood - hung in front of a storefront waiting to return to some semblance of business as usual - is more ephemeral. Salamanca himself believes the best way to get Chicago back to normal is "to get rid of boards now and trust ourselves."
Rivera and Stanley themselves didn't plan for their works to be any more lasting than that. Zissou Tasseff, owner of All Star Press in Logan Square, is helping them plan the paintings but "JC's stuff in particular is so collective they're wrestling with a way to do it right."
Both artists create routinely for corporate clients; both are sough-after brands. Rivera said he didn't want a spontaneous gesture bogged down in paperwork and has decided to simply trust that businesses who get his work will not profit from it. "We really don't have have time for that now," he said. "It's not about us _ or any artist."
On Thursday morning, Stanley, his earbuds tuned to The Future, his face wrapped in a pink ventilator mask, painted stencils of "I Love You" in a dozen colors across the front of the Cafe Tola on Southport. Joggers slowed, smiled and continued past. Strollers paused and pushed ahead.
A neighborhood woman stopped. Could she take a picture of this?
Stanley tugged the ventilator away from his face, which was red and coated in beads of sweat, his eyeglass frames spotted with dots of orange spray paint. Of course, he said.
We need this right now, she said.
Well, he said, considering what this city looks like right now, you're going to be seeing a lot of it.

Saturday, June 13th 2020
By Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune

New comment:

News | Politics | Features | Arts | Entertainment | Society | Sport

At a glance