All posts by ellenkobe

Painting the City: Chicago’s unbalanced treatment of illegal art

By Ellen Kobe

Anyone who has lived in a relatively large city is familiar with graffiti — paint in public places. But what exactly is the difference between graffiti tagging — which is often cleaned up — versus street art — which is often encouraged by neighborhood organizations? Medill reporter Ellen Kobe asks anti-graffiti activists, a street artist and people in the Wicker Park and Bucktown neighborhoods about the issues that arise over these two forms of illegal artwork.


Steve Jensen revs up his black SUV on a spring Thursday afternoon. He’s trolling the streets armed with his weapons: two cans of black spray paint.

He is on the lookout for graffiti tags — spray painted symbols on public property. Jensen, president of the Bucktown Community Organization and aldermanic aid in the 1st Ward, has lived in the area for 35 years and cares about the presentation of his neighborhood.

“It’s a huge negative impact to the community,” Jensen says. “It depresses property values. It kind of aids in crime.”

Jensen drives on one of the most frequently-tagged streets — Milwaukee Avenue. 

“This is the area where it’s problematic,” he says. “All of Milwaukee going all the way out to pretty much Belmont is ground zero for all taggers.”

But Jensen also points out several murals in the neighborhood, which he defines as street art. But what exactly is the difference between graffiti and street art? Technically, they’re both forms of vandalism. But one certainly seems to be eradicated more than the other.

One local street artist, who calls himself Left Handed Wave, describes his purpose.

“I’m just looking for something in decay trying to bring, you know, a space back to life rather than, you know, as opposed to like graffiti where you know, if I was catching tags or writing graffiti, then you know I’d be going to screw something up a little bit,” Left Handed Wave said. “That’s kind of the joy of graffiti.”

Left Handed Wave primarily puts stickers and pastes large posters of his graphics on buildings around the city. He said doesn’t do much graffiti.

“I feel like that’s a lot of younger kids, but they’re basically creating a language that only like another graffiti writer or someone, their homie, would understand,” Left Handed Wave said. “It’s not for the greater community, you know. It doesn’t communicate to your neighborhood. Street art, posters, you know, things with a more artistic nature, like imagery, rather than you know like text, language, communicates on a much higher level and it resonates, so that’s why people are more prone to like street art than tags, you know.”

Back in the car, Jensen describes the average graffiti tagger.

The typical tagger is either Hispanic or Caucasian male,” Jensen said. “Fifteen to maybe mid-20s. They’re usually on a bike. People that I’ve caught, the people that have been caught on camera, always have a backpack, always have a hoodie with the hood on. Key times for tagger are midnight to 5 a.m.”

There’s one signature tag that Jensen runs into multiple times on his drive around the neighborhood.

“This tag in front of you, Forgive Yourself, that’s probably enemy No. 1 in the entire city of Chicago,” Jensen said. “Sometimes he writes Forgive, sometimes he writes Forgive Yourself, and sometimes it’s the number four and then give. He’s kind of like, you know, Bigfoot in the forest. Some people have seen him, some people have described him — he’s a white male with a ponytail, lives in Bucktown, but nobody’s ever caught him.”

Jensen has over 500 photos of Forgive’s work all over the city. It’s evidence that Jensen believes would give this man a felony and jail time if he were caught.

“So here’s a Forgive Yourself on the black pole,” Jensen says, getting ready to exit his car. “Since it’s on a black pole and it’s right there and it’s highly visible, I’m just going to do a quick, put paint on it. So we’ll get out, and we’ll cover this one.”

He leaves his keys in the ignition and slams the driver door. Jensen approaches the pole slowly, clutching the can of spray paint.

So usually I would just drive right next to it, hop out, zip zip and back in the car, you know, just as quick as they tag it, I can cover it, right?” Jensen says.

He presses on the top of the can, and black paint blows in the air, eradicating the white “Forgive Yourself” mark.

“By coming through every couple days and covering up their stuff, it kind of takes the impact, you know, it takes the wind out of their sails,” Jensen says. “Because their whole thing is they want their friends who ride by, either on the train or on bikes…When they see their tags are obliterated really quickly, that stops them from tagging.”

But Jensen certainly isn’t the only one cleaning up graffiti in Chicago. The city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation budgeted $3.4 million for graffiti blasters in 2015. Plus, there are also other graffiti activists.

Adam Natenshon runs a company called Graffiti Action Hero, which gathers chambers of commerce, special service areas and community organizations for what are called Graffiti Action Days. These volunteer events invite residents to clean up their neighborhoods with graffiti products provided by his organization.

Natenshon points out a mailbox on the corner of Montrose and Wolcott Avenues in Ravenswood. It has several graffiti tags, which he says would be easy to remove.

“It would just take a little bit of the right graffiti remover, a sponge and a little bit of training,” Natenshon says. “It would take not much time at all to get it nice and clean.”

Natenshon says that his his graffiti action days can clean up graffiti for a fraction of the cost that the city spends each year. He thinks putting all this time and money into cleaning up graffiti is worth it.

“If you’re the owner of a new business, and you go to different neighborhoods to explore different places to consider opening up your new coffee shop, and you walk down the street, what is your feeling? Does it feel safe? Does it feel inviting? Do you think patrons would want to come to your establishment in that neighborhood?” Natenshon says. “And if the answer is no, then there’s a problem. And I think that again graffiti can send a negative message and one that may not necessarily be accurate to the community.”

But Natenshon isn’t trying to swipe every single drop of paint that he sees on public property. He believes there’s a difference between a graffiti tag and street art, and he tries to educate others about this philosophy, too.

“Graffiti tagging is much more about me writing my name on the street,” Natenshon says. “It’s ‘Joe was here,’ and it might mean something to the graffiti tagger, it might mean something to the graffiti tagger’s friends. It doesn’t mean anything to the rest of us. Street art is very different. It looks different, it feels different. The way it interacts with you, the third party observer, is different. Street art is really focused on the observer, and Chicago has great street art. It can be very creative, it can be very artistic, and it’s very much about getting somebody who’s walking down the street to stop and say, ‘Oh wow that’s really interesting or different.’”

On a Thursday morning, Left Handed Wave checks up on one of his posters in Ukrainian Village. It’s a creature’s head with tusks. The lion-like animal covers the majority of a vacant building’s brick wall with its multicolored mane. It’s been there since this winter, and Left Handed Wave is surprised it hasn’t been taken down or covered over yet.

It’s lasted a really long time,” Left Handed Wave says. “Someone should have gone over it already. But that’s cool, that means that people like it and respect it, and that always makes me feel good.”

Photo at top: Street artist Left Handed Wave pasted this lion-like animal to a building on the east of Chicago Avenue on Damen Avenue in West Town. (Ellen Kobe/Medill)

Quadriplegic Mike Becker photographs his way through Chicago (AUDIO)

By Ellen Kobe

Several years ago, Catholic Charities Chicago gave disposable cameras to many of their homeless and at-risk-of-homelessness dinner guests, encouraging them to take photos of the city from their perspectives. One of the participants was Mike Becker, who is a quadriplegic. The experience taught Mike a hobby he now loves and empowered him to explore Chicago — even when it’s hard. Continue reading

Mayor Rahm Emanuel to serve four more years after winning runoff

By Ellen Kobe

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was elected to a second term on Tuesday after easily defeating challenge Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in an unprecedented mayoral runoff.

“Being the mayor of the city of Chicago is the greatest job I’ve ever had and the greatest job in the world,” Emaunel said during his victory speech at the Chicago Plumber’s Local 130 Union Hall. “I’m humbled at the opportunity to continue to serve you — the greatest city with the greatest people for the next four years.”

He said that he is proud of what the city has accomplished in the past four years and that he has listened to the people of Chicago’s concerns.

“The decisions that we make over the next four years will determine what Chicago will look like in the next 40 years.”

Grace Mager, 16, a sophomore at St. Ignatius High School attended Emanuel’s victory party.

“I’m very pleased with how Rahm did tonight,” she said. “Great job.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel calls voters at one of the field offices on the South Side. (Thomas Yau/Medill)
Earlier on Tuesday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel calls voters at one of the field offices on the South Side. (Thomas Yau/Medill)

Garcia conceded with just short of three-fourths of the precinct results counted just before 8 p.m. But he had been fairly consistently behind by about 10 percentage points during most of the evening as ballots were counted after polls closed at 7.
Continue reading

Presbyterians approve same-sex marriage amendment

By Ellen Kobe

The largest Presbyterian Church denomination, PC(USA), approved an amendment to its Book of Order that recognizes same-sex marriage in the church Tuesday. As approvals needed to vote in favor of the 14-F Amendment steadily increased this winter, those in the Chicago Presbyterian community reflected on what this change means for the Presbytery of Chicago, churches in the city and individuals who identify as LGBTQ.

Continue reading

Catholic Charities kicks off Jazz Fest with supper for hungry

By Ellen Kobe

More than 100 guests at the Catholic Charities weekday suppers on the Near North Side received more than a meal Tuesday. They also heard a live jazz concert.

Continue reading

Aldermanic election results roll in with low turnout and runoffs

By Bethel Habte and Bennet Hayes

Updated: 11:10 p.m.

Results are rolling in for the  aldermanic races, with over 90 percent of votes reported for many key contests.

Voters failed to turn out in high numbers across the city Tuesday. Latest reports from the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners show that 32 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

Continue reading

Archbishop Cupich celebrates first Ash Wednesday in the Loop

By Ellen Kobe

Archbishop Blase Cupich presided over Mass Wednesday, giving ashes to guests at St. Peter’s in the Loop.

Cupich was installed as the leader of the Archdiocese of Chicago in November, and this service marked the start of his first Lenten season in the city.

Beginning at 6 a.m., hundreds of people filed in and out of St. Peter’s. Nylon coats shuffled and boots squeaked on the marble floor as people entered the lobby with clean foreheads. They went to one of six stations in the lower auditorium, and within minutes, left with a cross of dark ashes above their eyebrows.
Continue reading

Chicago Celiac Catholics celebrate communion in the low-gluten way

By Ellen Kobe

On a Saturday evening in January, Carol Shilson, a parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Lincoln Park participated in a common experience among Roman Catholics: the Eucharist. As the sun went down and the church’s stained glass windows turned from vibrant colors to darkness, the Rev. Jeremy Dixon consecrated the communion — turning the bread and the wine into what Catholics believe is the actual body and blood of Christ.

From the left-side pews, Shilson made her way down the main aisle with the rest of the congregation, which sang a hymn, folded their hands and strode back to their seats while the wafers melted in their mouths and the burning sensation of wine seeped down their throats.

Holy Communion is a shared experience for Shilson and other Catholics. They are only required to go through these motions once a year, although the sacrament is more routine for many who go to Mass every Sunday or even daily.

But for Shilson, receiving traditional communion is a health hazard. She has Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder activated by ingesting a gluten protein in wheat. Continue reading

Charlie Hebdo ‘survivors’ issue’ quickly sells out in Chicago

By Yanqing Chen, Ellen Kobe, Meghan Tribe and Andersen Xia

Dozens of people lined up at two Chicago-area newsstands hoping to get one of the copies of the “survivors’ issue” of French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo (WARNING: Cover image may be offensive to some) before dawn Friday morning. Within minutes, both City Newsstand in Portage Park and Chicago-Main Newsstand in Evanston sold out the 12 copies made available to the public. Continue reading

CAIR-Chicago’s social media campaign generates conversation about Islam

By Ellen Kobe

Hasan Ahmad, or @hasanahmad80, as he is known in the Twitter-verse, sat on his computer Tuesday morning tweeting a series of photos with the hashtag #WhatAMuslimLooksLike. The 34-year-old in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, received 63 “likes” and 43 “favorites” (at the time of publication) on one photo of Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, an online education platform.

Ahmad and Khan have at least one thing in common — they are Muslims. Continue reading