CAN STREET ART BOOST WABASH BUSINESSES?
Ben Eine, a graffiti-vandal-turned-popular-street-artist, stood at the foot of a massive stone wall Monday evening, smoking a cigarette with paint-covered hands. He was in a parking lot at Wabash Avenue and Harrison Street, where the “L” tracks bend snake-like as the Orange Line rattles in and out of the Loop.
Anyone who has ridden that train has seen the wall, if not remembered it, though they will soon enough. Stretching 240 feet long and 30 feet tall, with its base starting about 17 feet off the ground, the wall, once Eine and his helpers are done with it, will be blanketed in brightly colored lettering in his signature circus-y font, and will read: HARMONY.
“It’s a happy word, a calm word,” Eine said of the choice, which he picked by flipping through notebooks full of words and quotes he has jotted down over the years and looking at photos of the area. “It was more of a feeling I got than a conscious decision.”
Eine is among eight street artists who are adding murals this summer to the budding Wabash Arts Corridor, an initiative launched in 2013 to transform forlorn and forgettable Wabash Avenue into “an urban lab for creative expression.” By the end of the year, the corridor, roughly from Jackson Street to Roosevelt Road, will have 16 murals or large-scale public paintings, many by street artists of global repute like Eine, a U.K. native who counts mysterious stencil artist Banksy among his collaborators.
“The momentum now is remarkable,” said Mark Kelly, vice president of student success at Columbia College and a driving force behind the eight-block corridor, which he hopes will become Chicago’s pre-eminent destination for high-end street art. Kelly has identified 45 more building walls on the corridor that he thinks could serve as canvases and already is discussing projects for next summer with Vertical Gallery, a Ukrainian Village art gallery that has helped bring some of the big names to town.
The corridor, a collaboration of the cultural and educational institutions concentrated in the area, is among several initiatives underway to make Wabash a more vibrant destination. Separately, a design duo recently raised $60,000 to test Wabash Lights, a colorful interactive lighting installation to run under the “L” tracks.
The goal is to give the area an identity by tapping into the creative hive of its art schools, galleries and performance art venues, and in turn draw students, visitors and shoppers to support businesses, Kelly said.
But, he added, “Maybe the highest purpose in all this is to remind all of us that the urban landscape does not have to be barren and scripted and surfaces that are only filled with traditional marketing messages. Why shouldn’t the urban landscape be filled with whimsy and delight and be visually alive?”
To Eine, 44, who launches a show this weekend at Vertical Gallery, the mural represents yet another invitation from another city to beautify its gritty neighborhoods with his spray paint cans, which in his younger days got him in so much trouble with police that he had little choice but to give up tagging lest he be thrown in jail. Ironically, in Chicago, where spray paint remains illegal, he will have to go into the suburbs for supplies.
But to Marlene Levine, general manager of University Center, the student residence hall that owns the wall Eine is painting, the design carries deeper meaning.
“Harmony,” she said, is a perfect fit for a building that houses 1,700 students from four colleges.
She hopes to leverage the word in the residence hall’s programming and discussions about diversity, civility and respect. And, if the artist grants permission, they may use the image on tote bags or other campus souvenirs.
“We are going to tell the story behind the word in the way we approach student life,” she said.
Persuading property owners to put their walls in the hands of street artists is one of Kelly’s greatest diplomatic challenges. Some have been reluctant, he said, but as the art goes up he is seeing people come around and recognize the benefits of being the building with the funky wall.
As he walked along the corridor, pocked with parking lots that expose the drab sides of many buildings, Kelly talked about the potential.
“That wall,” he pointed, “and that wall, and that wall, the wall behind it, the wall up there.” Raising his finger to a series of concrete slabs above the entrance to a parking lot, Kelly said: “These panels were made for storytelling.”
Dan Broughton, property manager at 1132 S. Wabash Ave., calls Kelly “the world’s hardest person to say no to.” On his property, a newly renovated six-story building with a restaurant coming to its first floor and five floors of offices above, a mural of a little boy in a cape and aviator goggles soars across the southern wall, painted earlier this year by Chicago native Hebru Brantley.
In addition to liking the art, Broughton said the urban superhero has helped create an identity for the building, which is helpful as it markets itself to prospective tenants, including tech companies, galleries and nonprofits.
“We’re trying to create this idea of a building that has some creative energy, and that (mural) certainly lends itself to that vision and the type of tenants we want to attract,” Broughton said. “It’s all part of what gets people excited about getting in that building.”
Eine and other professional artists are not paid for the murals, which help promote their work, but the property owners and other interested stakeholders can help with expenses like lifts. University Center, for example, arranged to have a base coat put on the wall in advance of Eine’s arrival, and once the mural is complete it will have a special pollution-repelling topcoat applied so it lasts longer, Levine said. The artist provides the paint.
Students contributing major murals to the project are paid commissions of about $5,000 by Columbia College.
Works of art with no commercial message are exempt from regulation under the city’s zoning ordinance, but Kelly has instituted some rules of his own. For example, he asks property owners, who may review and approve what goes on their buildings, to leave the murals up for at least six months.
Gerry Curciarello said he was hesitant at first to give the OK for a mural on the side of The Buckingham, a student residence hall at Wabash and Van Buren.
Curciarello, one of the managing partners of the partnership that owns the building, worried the city wouldn’t approve and that he would risk mucking up the wall with something no one would appreciate.
But, to the contrary, he has noticed that people stop and look and take pictures of the mural, an 8,100-square-foot geometric abstraction painted last month by Italian artist Never 2501. He hopes buzz about the artwork drums up interest from students looking for housing.
“We would love for there to be a connection with kids in the neighborhood that we’re a cool building and a supporter of the arts,” Curciarello said. “If I can have a competitive edge, why not.”
Even buildings that are not hosting the murals are tapping into their appeal.
The marketing tagline of a skyscraper under construction at 1001 S. State St., which will be 40 stories and have 397 apartment units, is “Where Curiosity Lives,” to tie into the neighborhood’s artsy values, said Paula Harris, principal at Golub, which is co-developer along with CIM Properties.
Among the building’s amenities is a “maker’s lab” that will contain a 3-D printer and stations for tinkering on creative projects, a first for the developer, Harris said.
“We created a brand around what’s being built in the area,” she said.
Several more murals are expected to spring up in coming months. At Wabash and 9th Street is what Kelly calls “the mother of all walls in Chicago,” a 12-story blank canvas where he hopes the big-name German artist Hera, aka Jasmin Siddiqui, will paint in September. The owner of the wall, East-West University, has agreed in principle to host the mural, he said.
A few blocks north, Gene Charness, the owner of Warehouse Liquors at 634 S. Wabash Ave., is in talks to host a second mural on his building wall, which Kelly said would be by Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, famous for her anti-harassment messages.
Charness, who has operated his shop in the neighborhood for 32 years, said he has declined various invitations over the years to participate in art projects. But he was impressed with the professionalism and caliber of the black-and-white mural Los Angeles artist Cleon Peterson painted on his south wall, something of a war scene with men and horses, which he calls “an excellent image,” albeit one that overlooks a Harold’s Chicken Shack.
While he hasn’t heard anyone comment to him about the artwork and doesn’t see it affecting his business, Charness feels that good street art helps “embellish” the community.
Eine, whose “Harmony” is almost complete, said he has seen street art shift the public’s perspectives of a neighborhood.
“We spent 20 years doing graffiti and making everything ugly and a mess, and definitely taking something away from society and the environment,” Eine said. “And as we got older we felt we are adding something to the environment. That’s a really privileged position to be in.”