Chicago is one of the few major cities that use taxpayer dollars to destroy art, to the tune of $9 million in 2010. It’s this situation that makes a book like Chicago Street Art a valuable historical document as well as a rare survey of the street artists currently producing work. This artwork is literally here today and gone tomorrow.
The book also serves as an opportunity to discover who’s behind that mysterious piece of art that has suddenly appeared in your neighborhood. I learned that it was CYRO who has pasted up an odd creature made of mostly fingers on the back of a local clothes donation box. I found out that it was CRO who did the stencil of a cheerleader holding a cross in one hand—and a gun in the other. Importantly some artists and artwork remain unknown, even within the ultra-reclusive street art community, but they are still included. Like the artist who puts up positive phrases in block letters around town like, “TRUE LOVE” and “HOPE DIES LAST”.
Photos are usually the highlight of street art and graffiti books and Chicago Street Art has excellent ones from Oscar Arriola, Chris Diers, Patrick Hershberger and Thomas Fennell IV. Some of these photos were shown in the Chicago Urban Art Society’s exhibition “The Chicago Street Art Show.” Shot on professional cameras and clearly with time to spare, they are better than the photos in another recently published book about the same topic, The History of American Graffiti (HarperDesign, 2011), which had to rely on amateur snapshots. The photographers succeed at including the surrounding of the artwork, which is a significant challenge for picturing street art. You can tell that Grocer piece is on one of Chicago’s iconic drawbridges, and a Don’t Fret piece is on a pylon for the El tracks. The grit of the street comes through too; these walls are not decontextualized with the work pried from its environment. The abandoned buildings are seen, the weeds and tall grass of neglected lots are pictured, the dirty blank expanse of a brick wall is turned into an artist’s canvas. These photos and photographers do the art and, importantly for street art, its environment total justice. I’d imagine the artists are pleased.
And all the must-know Chicago street artists are included here: CLS, Don’t Fret, Goons, SWIV, Nice One, SOLVE, MENTAL 312 and many others. There’s only a single artist inclusion that I take issue with, the religious nut-ball that posts screeds all over town, listed in the book only as “Crazy Talk/Artist Unknown.” This is most certainly not art, even if it is on the street. In an especially unfortunate move a homophobic piece from this person is included, although it’s tempered by a note someone else has scrawled on it, “God also said love thy neighbor assholes.” This piece and the artist should never have been included. While it shows the democratic nature of the street, this is not art. There’s no indication that it was ever intended to be.
Goons. Photo by Oscar Arriola [not included in book]
The author, designer, editor, and publisher Joseph J. Depre makes a valiant and admirable effort at theorizing street art in his several essays but falls short. There are some significant errors (“Jackson Pollack”) along with spelling and grammar issues that diminish the effort, starting at the introduction. The design could also be more uniform, with fonts, font size and margins frequently changing from essay to essay. But nonetheless you have to give him props for being a one-man printing company.
Despite some flaws, Chicago Street Art is a must-have for anyone interested in street art, whether they are in Chicago or not. It also fills a gap in Chicago’s reception of the art form, while Los Angeles is having a landmark street art exhibition at their Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago’s institutions have remained completely indifferent. And at $15, the price of two drinks at the bar, it’s quite affordable.
Chicago Street Art is available for purchase at the Chicago Urban Art Society Chicago Street Art is available for purchase at: www.chicagostreetartbook.com/)