It was about 8:30 p.m. on a dark, foggy night as I pulled into the Hell Zone neighborhood of Chicago. The Wisdom, a local graffiti artist dressed in a black fleece and blue jeans leaned against a wall just below the orange glow of the light that hung overhead. With a nod he climbed into the passenger seat of my car and off we went through the foggy streets.
As we rolled from the Westside to the Northside, The Wisdom sat smoking, eyeing the buildings we passed even though I was sure he already knew where we were going.
“A good use of color” was the way that Erin Hogan Public Affairs Director of the Art Institute of Chicago put it when she was asked about the 50 foot tag that adorned the Modern Art Wing of the museum on the February 22, 2010. That was probably just a way of saying something nice about the unwanted submission. But that’s graffiti.
In 2008 the Department of Streets and Sanitation removed 172,999 pieces of graffiti and 172,989 in 2009. Matt Smith, spokes person for the DSS says it’s an assault on the city. “Graffiti is like a tattoo. Yes it’s art, but it’s permanent. If you choose to get one on yourself, that’s fine but if you try to just tattoo someone it’s assault.”
“Graffiti is a deliberate act of destruction against something you find wrong in society.” said The Wisdom. I asked him about what he thought about the recent vandalism of the Art Institute, he simply shrugged it off. “You normally don’t want to draw that kind of attention, but it is what it is.”
Whether or not you consider it art or destruction, Graffiti is going to be there. Be it with the aid of a foggy night, an easily accessible roof or just a wall in a train yard that isn’t being watched, graffiti is going to happen. But graffiti isn’t just happening in our city streets. The fact that it’s in (as opposed to on) our museums, in our toys, and our clothing shows how graffiti art has left its mark on our culture.
Clothing labels such as Zoo York, Echo Unltd, Ed Hardy, and Rockawear have all cashed in on urban styles derived from graffiti art. Even the haute toy line Kidrobot which releases limited addition vinyl figures designed by urban artists have cashed in on graffiti art. Started in 2002 by Paul Bunditz has not only sold millions of toys from five to twenty-five thousand dollars apiece, but in 2007 the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) acquired 13 Kidrobot toys for display.
We took a few lefts and a few rights as we snaked through the city streets until The Wisdom asked me to pull over. As we got out of the car I asked where the building was. The Wisdom stayed silent giving me the look that all journalists get when asking too many questions to a subject that would usually never answer them. Instead, I followed him a few blocks until we stood in front of a ten foot high chain link fence. With a flash he was up and over. From the other side of the fence came the invitation, “You coming with or what?”
Clothing labels and toys aside, the true form exists in our streets, but for the fame that lasts only until The Department of Streets and Sanitation eventually remove it, the price can be high.
The next morning after our interview, The Wisdom found out a fellow artist Jason Kitchekeg, 26 died from drowning while evading police on the 2800 block of South Ashland Avenue. “It’s tragic, but that shit happens. I’ve almost been hit by a train a few times. It’s weird you see the train in the distance and then all of a sudden it’s on top of you.”
Any loss is heard loudly in a community that knows its members by the mark they leave and even though it is mourned, it does little to slow down or stop graffiti in Chicago. “You hit, do your thing and then get out. You have to keep getting better. You need to have your name out there so people know you’re still doing what you’re doing.” says The Wisdom.
I took all of this into consideration as I pondered whether or not to accept The Wisdom’s invitation. Being that it was a dark, foggy night and there was an easy way to access the roof, I got up my own nerve and followed. After all, what’s a trespassing and vandalism charge go for these days anyway?