Part One of this series traced the history and impact of Chicago’s famous community mural, the Wall of Respect—a timeline which connects the Black Renaissance, the Great Migration of African Americans, the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts Movements, protests against the Vietnam war, the contemporary mural tradition, the emergence of modern graffiti and street art, and public art policy. In Part Two, CRP Executive Director Desi Mundo further embellishes the legacy of the Wall of Respect, linking a recent symposium celebrating its 50th anniversary to his artistic development, the evolution of CRP’s organizational aesthetic, and its approach to community engagement.
Despite the majority of my work being on the West Coast, my roots run deep in my hometown of Chicago. My godmother, Susan Woodson, once caught a ride from the legendary performer and political activist, Paul Robeson, from Seattle to Chicago. She also lived in the historic Rosenwald building, which housed many of the central characters in Chicago’s Black Renaissance . Over holiday meals, she would regale us with tales of legends like Langston Hughes, Margaret Burroughs, and Gwendolyn Brooks sitting around her kitchen table. Woodson’s brother, Horace Cayton, wrote the definitive history of the time period, “Black Metropolis,” which he taught in a course at UC Berkeley. Growing up, the pantheon of black heroes described by my godmother organically laid the foundation for my love for hip-hop, which blossomed as I began to define my own identity as a teenager.
My relationship to my godmother, as well as my father’s work as a local historian, played a part in the creation of the first mural that I worked on. I’ve always had an interest in lineage and legacies, so I was both fortunate and determined in seeking out my first teachers and mentors to guide me through the process. In 1992, I affiliated with Chapter 13 of the ChiRock Nation, a grassroots, youth-led hip-hop organization that gathered practitioners throughout Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods. It was in one of our monthly meetings that the infamous North Side writer Heckle Fresh shared the legacy of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first and only black mayor. Washington had been so honored by the aerosol writers, that when he died, they took to the subways and painted end to end cars saying “We Miss You Harold.” .
In 1992, I affiliated with Chapter 13 of the ChiRock Nation, a grassroots, youth-led hip-hop organization that gathered practitioners throughout Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods.
Washington had lived in my neighborhood and I wanted to carry on that legacy of respect for him, so I began writing “We Still Miss You Harold Washington.” Several years after that night in the train yards when Fresh confided in me. I went to school with the son of the local alderman, who helped me get permission for my first large wall, the eastern side of Cafe Florian on 57th and Harper streets in Hyde Park. I fundraised in the community for the cost of supplies and convinced two of my heroes, ZORE and RAVEN, to allow me to apprentice there. I met them at the first permission wall that I organized through the top local writer, ATTICA (RIP). The first day, ZORE dragged out RAFA, the city’s best character artist, to paint the portrait of Harold. He slept the whole way to the wall. When we got there, we didn’t have a picture, so I liberated a biography of Washington from the local Walgreens nearby.
During the mural’s production, an old white woman on the block came out and cursed at us for painting a black man that she would have to look at every day. She tried to get the mural taken down for more than ten years after it was painted. This experience made it apparent that 25 years after the “Wall of Respect“–Chicago’s pioneering community mural–was painted, many of the same issues were still at play.
The Wall of Respect’s legacy helped shape my future as an artist. Its aesthetic normalized African American icons as culture heroes, addressed politics and social concerns, and gave the community something which was truly theirs. It contained messages and poetry as well as visual images, and stood as a testament to a determined sense of resiliency.
Growing up on the South Side, i was surrounded by murals which followed in the WoR’s wake, including those painted by co-lead artist William Walker, as well as his contemporaries Caryl Yasko and Astrid Fuller. The vibrant, imagery of those murals captivated my still-developing artistic sensibility, as did the resoluteness of their social commentary. To this day, the community-based approach–where local residents took ownership and responsibility for the aesthetics of their neighborhood–lies at the core of the Community Rejuvenation Project’s methodology.
The vibrant, imagery of Chicago’s murals captivated my still-developing artistic sensibility, as did the resoluteness of their social commentary.
As aerosol writers, it was natural for us to reimagine space without sanction. However, it was years after I started down that road that I discovered that the community-led murals around my neighborhood, done prior to the aerosol movement, were also created without consent. Without my knowing it, Chicago’s radical legacy fused with the hip-hop aerosol aesthetic that drove me.
25 years after the “We Still Miss You Harold” mural, my inclusion in the “Art, Publics, Politics: Legacies of the Wall of Respect” symposium  at Northwestern University in Evanston held a deeply personal significance for me.
Northwestern professor Rebecca Zorach organized the symposium at the university’s Block Museum to honor the 50th Anniversary of the creation of the WoR. I was honored to present alongside original WoR artists such as Abdul Alkalimat, as well as the heirs to their legacy, known as the Children of the Wall of Respect. Important aspects of this legacy highlighted during the symposium included the focus on the guerilla aspect of community retaking public visual space; the additional methods to engage the community through performances and music on-site; and the need for these strategies to give voice to the voiceless and collectively empower the disenfranchised.
Upon arriving at the museum, I immediately began a live painting demonstration outside. The piece was composed spontaneously and I adapted my traditional lettering to a new three-dimensional approach that I began using in Oakland. The concept of this approach was to interpret my calligraphy as walls and three-dimensional objects. The piece builds off of the work of my contemporary DMNOLOGY, whose style involves making his signatures three-dimensional and gives each piece a feeling of being folded. I, in turn, gave the outline of my letters dimension so that I could then play with the spatial relationships and use the walls, once again, as a space to make political statements such as “Water is Life” — referencing the struggles at Standing Rock — and “Say Her Name”– a reference to the marginalization of women of color killed by police. This followed the path of the Wall of Respect’s political statements. I hid older, yet still relevant, political slogans such as the Black Panther slogan “All Power to the People” and the anti-war cry “End US Imperialism” within the cosmos while placing more recent messages on the walls of my letters. Finally, I added a Yaqui deer dancer, who stands on a wall at the bottom of the piece in a prayer which connects the universal energy to activate older social justice messages inside the cosmos itself.
I hoped the title of the work, “Dancing to Escape the Illusion of Boundaries,” reflected both the reinterpretation of walls as a means to communicate, as well as subtle challenges to the current US administration’s attempt to divide indigenous communities on the US border.
Inside the museum, symposium presenters contextualized the WoR from many different perspectives, ranging from Alexis Salas’ analysis of street interventions in the Americas to the For the People Artist Collective’s strategies for making artwork for modern social justice movements.
I took a different approach in my own presentation. Building off the legacy of guerilla artwork, I connected the WoR to the modern aerosol movement and focused on the policies used to suppress spray can artwork, contrasting the abatement and incarceration model with CRP’s own community engagement work. I highlighted comparisons of the costs of graffiti abatement and the benefits of murals and public art — ranging from lasting decreases in vandalism, to stabilizing property values and increased neighborhood pride. I’m always disturbed by how much more city governments invest in erasing art than in creating it.
I connected the WoR to the modern aerosol movement and focused on the policies used to suppress spray can artwork, contrasting the abatement and incarceration model with CRP’s own community engagement work.
Our personal tales of lost masterpieces, of entire legacies being painted over, often require numbers to explain the extent and expense that we go to silence specific artforms. Cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco routinely spend tens of millions of dollars on abatement while only investing a fraction of that amount towards cultural arts. US graffiti abatement expenditures went from $4 billion in the 90s, to $12 billion in 2002 , to $17 billion in 2009 , and now are estimated at more than $20 billion.That’s not even factoring the hundreds of millions spent on abatement overseas.
My presentation incorporated statistics on the rising costs of graffiti abatement, contrasting the dramatic increase in annual expenditures over the last 20 years with the fact there has been no corresponding decline in vandalism over that same time period. I drew parallels between the prison-industrial complex and the targeting of the flawed Broken Windows theory toward low-income communities of color.
I also drew a connection between the late-60s civil rights struggles symbolized by the WoR and Michelle Alexander’s analysis of the new Jim Crow in our current society. I went on to point out the co-opting of street art and mural organizations by city governments as a tool for gentrification. I identified community engagement as a means to avoid the pitfalls of public artwork, using the “Alice Street Short” film as an example of deep community engagement in Oakland. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
On a subsequent panel, I appeared on with Victoria Martinez of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, moderated by Northwestern’s Drea Howenstein, many audience members applauded CRP’s analysis and research into graffiti abatement, which most of the attendees had not been aware of. For instance, the graffiti abatement industry has never conducted a longitudinal study on the impact of painting out the writing on walls.Thus, no one can definitively prove its effectiveness over time. As abatement costs and penalties for vandalism continue to skyrocket–Oakland’s abatement spending doubled between 2013 and 2015–graffiti has not been eliminated anywhere, while cities like San Jose, which once touted a 90% abatement success rate, have seen and explosion of tag recidivism.
Although abatement costs and penalties for vandalism continue to skyrocket, graffiti has not been eliminated anywhere
The award-winning “Alice Street Short,” which I screened during my presentation, also drew rave reviews and clearly made a connection between the struggle depicted against gentrification in Oakland and similar experiences in neighborhoods throughout Chicago. It’s worth noting that these struggles are cyclical– just as Chicago and Oakland’s low-income communities of color battled urban renewal in the 60s and 70s, these same populations have had to be continually-resilient against population shift and the loss of cultural identity due to accelerated development.
The conversation begun in Evanston, just north of Chicago, continued on the South Side, in my childhood neighborhood of Hyde Park. The Stockyard Institute invited me to host an evening presentation and community discussion at the Hyde Park Art Center which I called “Public Art from Pavement to Policy.” The “Pavement to Policy” approach—a phrase coined by CRP Communications and Policy Director Eric Arnold– works from the bottom-up, engaging marginalized communities to develop best practice methodologies, a practice that has proven to be far more effective than its top-down counterpart.
In front of a packed house, I was able to delve even deeper into the graffiti abatement advocate’s ties to the coatings industry and demonstrate how the abatement industry depends on short-term results which cannot be maintained over time to sustain itself. The vast majority of the audience had not looked at the issue from this perspective, so this analysis broadened their understanding. Following my presentation, I facilitated a passionate community dialogue which highlighted community responses to aerosol writing. These ranged from resident outrage against the vandalism of their property, to a more sympathetic viewpoint acknowledging the need for youth outlets for expression.
Just as Chicago and Oakland’s low-income communities of color battled urban renewal in the 60s and 70s, these same populations have had to be continually-resilient against population shift and the loss of cultural identity
Reflecting on the dialogues of this journey, numerous parallels became clear. There was a distinct connection in the timing between the guerilla take-over of the site the Wall of Respect was painted on and the emergence of the modern aerosol movement in New York, both taking place in 1967 . And, the disenfranchisement of people of color was not limited to one geographic region of the US, but was systemic in nature, and prevalent in urban cities across the country.
Furthermore, the struggles of the civil rights era mirror the current issues of today; equity remains elusive, despite the steps forward that have taken place. Chicago’s covenant housing laws bear similarity to redlining in West Oakland ; the same issues come up in terms of gentrification in both cities today. Chicago’s Black Renaissance and Oakland’s role in the Black Arts Movement, formed foundations for deep cultural resilience in both communities. At the center of each city’s self-determination is community-oriented artwork that has shaped neighborhoods and defined their identities. Yet the fight against the erasure of disenfranchised voices that began 50 years ago with the Wall of Respect remains at the forefront of the struggle today.