Chicago Street Art & Its Importance to Local Communities

Whether you are strolling through Pilsen, Rogers Park, Logan Square, or any of Chicago’s urban neighborhoods, you are likely to be enamored by the beauty of the street art. From vibrant and inspiring murals spread across slabs of concrete wall to captivating quotes and posters tacked on countless surfaces, these unique forms of expression have become a staple of Chicago culture.

Chicago street art history

A Brief Introduction

With ragtag beginnings from the graffiti movement of the 80s, Chicago’s street art has evolved beyond spray cans to incredibly diverse forms of art such as mosaics, yarn-bombing, wall-stickers, sidewalk chalk, and murals.

Since its introduction to the city, the graffiti form and its artists have experienced varying levels of acceptance. In 1992, the city targeted the “growing infestation of graffiti” and pushed a ban on spray cans across Chicago. This limited the means by which many street artists created work at the time.

However, in 2018, ideas of reversing this ban gained traction after Alderman Edward Burke, 14th, and Matt O’Shea, 19th, raised concerns about the detrimental effect the ban has on local shop owners. The demand for spray cans has been frequently met by Chicago’s suburban stores, which limits potential revenue for local urban shop owners. Although the recent proposal was not necessarily advocating for street art, it illustrates, yet, another aspect of the nuanced relationship between the art form and the city.

Nonetheless, some elements of street art adapted to the restrictions of the time, and more opportunities became available for “permission pieces.” These were collaborations between fringe graffiti artists, traditional muralists, as well as community-based organizations that resulted in many of the murals we see today.

These projects were one way to make street art more palatable to those who may have entirely disregarded the craft as an act of vandalism or a nasty blight spreading across Chicago. In reality, these people missed the essence of street art—its ability to create and represent.

It is no news that many communities, particularly Black and Brown ones, in Chicago have been heavily under-represented and disadvantaged; this is true especially in the art world. As a result, artists among these marginalized groups and beyond have found solace in covering every part of Chicago with their work. And despite their discreditation, street artists have continued to push for their voices to be seen and heard.

Chicago street art graffiti examples

For Me, For Them, For Everyone

Recognition of one’s work was a significant factor in why graffiti artists ‘tagged up’ a location. Of course, this factor still holds importance for many of today’s street artists. Most people would appreciate receiving recognition for producing such brilliant and powerful pieces admired by both locals and outsiders.

Within the past couple of decades, however, street art has further rooted itself in areas dealing with representation, politics, and contemporary issues. For this reason, it can hold profound significance for the people it speaks for and the community it is created in.

Street art in Chicago’s urban neighborhoods contain a variety of intentions and messages. There are some that pay homage to late figures, like the visage of Robin Williams on the Concord Music Hall (2047 N Milwaukee Avenue), and others that convey complex and emotional journeys of being American, such as the Pilsen mural Galeria del Barrio (Blue Island & 16th). They can also serve as vehicles of social response, as was the case with the Black Lives Matter movement throughout 2020.

This unique influence of street art unceasingly gifts neighborhoods across Chicago with color and identity. Whether you are a native making your 1,000th trip past that corner-store mural or a visitor touring different parts of Chicago, you will find yourself thinking, “Wow, what a city.”

Read part 2 here.

Chicago Street Art

Photo credits: – Chait Goli & Daria Shevtsova, Wikimedia