Chicago's Artistic Reaction
George Floyd’s death hit close to home in Chicago. For years, the city’s police department has faced its own issues with racism and police brutality. According to data from the Chicago Department of Law, the city spent over $85 million in settling police misconduct cases in 2018. The day after Floyd’s death, peaceful protests calling for an end to racial injustice spread throughout Chicago. Many demonstrations quickly turned into violent riots and looting, sparked from people outside the movement. Businesses of all sizes–from multinational retailers to family-owned shops–were left broken or forced to board up their windows. The eerie feeling of watching this vibrant city transform into shut-off streets overnight was hard to shake.
Great art often emerges from strong emotion. Just as quickly as storefront boards were installed, they were painted over with murals and powerful messages from business owners and local street artists to inspire the community. The once plain sheets of wood now exclaimed, “Black Lives Matter” or “Chicago Strong.” Some murals were expressive while others were hopeful.
It was a beautiful sight. It is now a couple of months after violent riots have ended. New, shocking stories cover the mainstream media. Yet, many Chicago business owners continue to keep the murals in front of their shops. The impacts of what happened to George Floyd are lasting and we can both see it and feel it here in Chicago.
"I love Chicago. As bad as things can get, this really showed that we are in support of each other and we need more of that..."
- Mario Castaneda
Terence Byas is a Chicago native who currently lives and works as a painter, muralist and illustrator in Chicago. “I have been making art, really, since I was about 4 years old,” he says. Byas collaborated with Mark Rosengren, artist and owner of Standing Passengers Coffeeshop, to create a mural on the corner of Chicago Ave. and Ashland Ave. on Chicago’s West Side. The mural features multicolored fists with “Black Lives Matter” written at the top. “It was never something I had made any art about before so it was an interesting experience,” Byas said about the mural, “It came together pretty easily. We (Byas and Rosengren) collaborated on the hands and it was pretty quick.” Terence Byas’s work has been on display in many Chicago galleries and he continues to be commissioned for street artwork around the city.
Mark Rosengren, 'Black Lives Matter' & 'One Love'
Standing Passengers is a coffee shop and art gallery owned by artist and filmmaker, Mark Rosengren. Rosengren has always been passionate about art and specifically interested in graffiti. After completing his undergraduate degree at Columbia College Chicago, he created an independent film, “I Write On Stuff,” about Chicago graffiti. “Graffiti is the voice that isn’t heard. It’s a way of reminding us or having the messages out there that you don’t hear on mainstream media. It’s a way to communicate what the people are saying,” says Rosengren.
Standing Passengers later grew into its current business as a coffee shop and art gallery. When the riots began earlier this year and the boards went up, Rosengren was asked by the store on the corner of Chicago Ave. and Ashland Ave. to create a Black Lives Matter mural with Terence Byas—Resengren designed the lettering.
“As soon as the murder happened and the whole unrest was stirred up, I went right to my shop and pulled out the ladder and put it (“Black Lives Matter”) right on the front. I’ve been in business for just over four years and my two full-time employees are Black. And I grew up in Evanston (north of Chicago), which is a diverse town and a lot of my friends growing up were Black so racism was very apparent to me from the earliest of my life to currently, with all the unrest. When they said ‘White silence is violence,’ I knew I didn’t want to be part of that. I ordered some Black Lives Matter shirts for the shop, so we’re not going to let it fade out.”
Along with the “Black Lives Matter” mural co-created with Byas on his shop, Rosengren painted another mural. A black and white design saying “One Love” is in front of The Noble Grape, a restaurant just down the street from his cafe.
About the art he created, Rosengren said, “I thought it was a beautiful reaction to a very troubling time. It was a great response to the damage that was done to all the storefronts. It was a way to repurpose it into this gallery of positivity.”
Mario Castaneda, 'Stay Strong Chicago'
Mario Castaneda was born and raised in Chicago, in the same neighbourhood where he currently lives. Castaneda is passionate about the city and loyal to his local community. When the boards went up in his neighbourhood, he knew he had to create a message of hope for his neighbours and created a mural on the boards of a liquor store his son works at.
“It was all uplifting. If it’s positive, I like doing stuff like that. I’m a really positive person and it was fun to do for the community. I like doing murals because it gives instant feedback from the community and it makes a lot of people happy and brings a lot of people together. I’m glad something positive came back from this negativity,” he says of the mural.
Castaneda is not new to street art. He has been creating graffiti art around the city for over 30 years. “Chicago has become an art-friendly city,” he says, “With the characters and the bright colours I use, I wanted to create something that makes people happy. There were always a lot of negative connotations with using spray paint but now, not so much.”
“I love Chicago. As bad as things can get, this really showed that we are in support of each other and we need more of that,” said Castaneda.
Rene Romero, 'No Justice, No Peace'
Rene Romero is the owner of Beauty Bar Chicago, a quirky, fun West Side bar that allows customers to get their nails done while they’re out and to attend themed dance parties. The bar is decorated throughout the year, celebrating holidays and festivals, everything from Halloween to Gay Pride.
“We’ve been doing murals in our front window for years and years. So when protests started happening in Chicago more frequently in our neighbourhood, we wanted to make sure we showed some solidarity. Being a bar doing this is a little weird but a lot of young people frequent the place so we wanted to make sure we were representing everyone,” said Romero.
”It’s cool how people notice the art we put up. I have a funny story; we had a Black Lives Matter mural up before this one. Now, it’s just tempera paint that I’m using on the windows and that’s what we’ve been doing for years because all of the murals are always meant to be kind of temporary. With this one, it had rained a couple times and I had fixed it a couple times and I was like ‘ok, it’s time for a new one,’ and I came up with the ‘No Justice, No Peace” idea. But as we took it down, we got a lot of questions about it and people were shocked, thinking we meant we were stepping away from that statement, when we were really getting ready for the new one. It was kind of cool to see that reaction—that people were looking out for it and following along with it.”
Of the mural, he says, “Even though the message is serious, I still wanted to make it look nice and not as harsh. I see people taking photos of it or in front of it. Maybe it will get through to someone else that way.”
”It’s just important because these are our values. I mean, it’s not hard to be like ‘We support this. We support people.’”
Andrew Jesernig is one of the owners and the Creative Director at RoboToaster, located on Chicago’s West Side. I reached out to interview Jesernig after seeing the mural on the boards that were protecting their agency headquarters.
Tell me about the art displayed in front of your store.
As a bit of a back story, my partner James Kruml and I have been building up RoboToaster since 2012. We got our first office in 2015 and moved into our current space in 2017. The grind has been real, but it’s a labour of love and there are few things that I am more proud of than our storefront office. Having to put the boards up and essentially lock up everything that we’ve been building for the last 8+ years was one of the most surreal moments of my life. The art on the boards was more of me trying to cope with sadness of needing to board up, and also realizing that they would probably be up for a while so we might as well make them look good.
What is the meaning behind this art?
My good friend and all around great human, Rich Alapack started We All Live Here in 2015 as a way to use the power of creativity to remind people to get along and spread a positive and inclusive message. I love Rich’s message and before we even put the final boards up, I texted to ask if he would be interested in collaborating on our new, unplanned ‘canvas’. He said he was down to paint, so I got to work on the background pattern. I wanted something simple so that the message was the focus, and settled on the heart pattern repeating from the middle. No matter our differences, we all live here together and we should treat each other and our planet responsibly.
The intention of the art was to cover up the plywood boards and spread a positive message that I believe in.
Why do you think it is important for this art to be displayed?
We all live here is a great way to view the world at any time, but particularly during a once in a generation pandemic and economic recession. The message is an extension of the golden rule, and a reminder to be kind to one another. This is a collective experience, and we will get through it united, rather than divided.
Who are the artists involved? How did you come in contact with them?
There were a few of us: I designed the background heart pattern and color scheme, my girlfriend Brittany Tomlinson helped paint, and Rich Alapack came through and painted his We All Live Here to top it off.
Does your business take any specific steps to support diversity?
We treat our employees equally and hire based on merit, not quotas. We look to build a diverse team from different backgrounds with different skills and opinions, and try to work with companies that do the same. We promote equality in the workplace, and do our best to be an accommodating workplace for all.
We are a minority owned business and our choice to move into a storefront vs. a typical agency loft space was intentional. We wanted to be able to interact with our neighbours and the diverse community in West Town, and it’s still one of the best things about our location. We hope that the mural provided some good vibes to the world and our community in particular.