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.

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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)