The Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago has a long history of Xicano artwork and murals. It is home to the National Mexican Museum of Art. A primarily Mexican community for many years, many people have been displaced by gentrification by the University of Illinois at Chicago, who bought up the entire Maxwell Street area on the other side of the tracks and converted it into bourgeois housing for its students. Pilsen has also been a target for development with the emergence of new galleries and bars. There is an interesting juxtaposition between the acceptance of the new murals in Pilsen by Alderman Danny Solis and the heavy-handed response to art in nearby Bridgeport by Alderman Balcer.
Over the decades, some of the tracks have decayed and begun to crumble. They’ve also become easy targets for graffiti — both innocent and gang related.
So around the area, community groups and local officials have found a solution: Murals. You can find them covering the sides of train tracks from Oak Park to Hyde Park and Rogers Park, gussying up walls all over the city and suburbs.
Now Ald. Danny Solis wants to take that to the next level. Instead of commissioning just one mural to cover a few feet of wall, he’s aiming to cover the entire 1.5 mile span of railroad embankments along 16th Street in Pilsen.
The result will be a colorful, vibrant wall along the neighborhood’s north border, enticing artists to contribute constructively to the community while also deterring negative gang graffiti.
“I’d like all that wall to be a canvas for artists both in and outside of the community,” he said. “For people who also do what we’ve called graffiti in the past, I want to make it a venue for them to use.”
Since beginning this summer, the project has already made a big impact. Driving the length of the railroad embankment in Pilsen, there’s at least one fresh-looking mural on every block.
So far, the project has been paid for almost entirely out of Solis’ political funds — about $10,000 so far, according to staff member Lauren Pacheco, who’s been coordinating the project. There should be about 20 murals along the wall by the end of Sepember, she said, with more on the way.
“We’re not only looking at gang tagging, we’re looking at all types of unsanctioned art,” she said. “We want to use this as a way to combat those unwanted images. The murals are really respected in the community and folks don’t deface them.”
Some of the bigger artists were recruited when they were in town for Lollapalooza. Internationally known street Belgian artist ROA created a mural of a dead possum at the intersection of 16th and Laflin Street in August, which got the project a lot of attention.
But not all the artists are so big. Many of them are locals, Pacheco said.
“Many of them are eager and hungry … People really wanted to have their piece next to ROA,” she said. “Many of the artists are self-funding the murals, others getting money from Montana spray paint or Modest Skate Shop.”
Rodrigo Mireles, a Little Village resident who’s working on a mural near 16th and Paulina, grew up in Pilsen. On weekends as a kid, he’d walk along 16th en route to the Maxwell Street Market and admire one of the original murals along the wall, a large series of faces at Blue Island drawn some 30 or 40 years ago.
He knew Pacheco and her brother through the local art scene, so when he heard about the project, he jumped at the chance. A professional artist who goes by the name of Solo, he got his start years ago with street graffiti pieces, but he’d never done something of this scale before. (His piece along 16th will be 12 feet tall by 50 feet long when it’s finished.)
The piece, filled with bright colors and shapes, also features a giant head stretching eastward. It’s his tribute to those original murals several blocks away.
“It started out as an experiment in colors and became an ode to the pieces on Blue Island,” he said. “I was inspired by the stuff that was here before.”
Mireles is hopeful that Solis is right, and the project will cut down on gang graffiti. His project hasn’t been touched so far, even when it was in its most vulnerable phase.
“I painted the wall and left it white for three days,” he said, “and no one touched it.”