A few weeks ago, we learned that Roderick Sawyer, a former writer and visual arts editor for the South Side Weekly, had passed away.
At the Weekly, Rod wrote or produced more than a dozen stories in which he interviewed and profiled artists and documented their art in cafes, healing spaces, and on the outside of buildings. Rod also worked with numerous writers as an editor and helped shape their coverage of emerging artists, putting a spotlight on an important art form.
He was a warm, thoughtful, caring person and will be missed.
Below you will find tributes and homages to Rod from people who were close to him, as well as photos of Rod and his work as a graffiti artist and photographer.
Luz Magdaleno Flores
On September 10, 2023, Roderick “Chance” Sawyer passed away suddenly at the age of twenty-eight. The Hyde Park native was a photographer, visual artist, curator, graffiti educator and archivist in Chicago’s Black and brown barrios. His father, Roderick Sawyer (no relation to former 6th Ward alderperson Roderick Sawyer), remembers the first time that an eight-year-old Chance tagged “Chance was here” in their family home. “I asked him why he did that and he responded, ‘I want people to know I was here!,’” Sawyer said.Chance made a profound impact on the streets of Chicago.
To the Chicago graffiti community, he was “Lurrkgod” known for lurking the streets with a camera in tow on a mission to capture graffiti—“an art dedicated to spray-painting, letters, and oftentimes a lack of permission,” as Rod once put it—throughout the city. He would often shadow other graffiti artists and document their procesos, which he would then share on his social media account @lurrkgod and include in self-published zines and artworks dating back to 2013. You can also spot his own tags throughout the city, by the name of “JPEG” or “Gafas” depending on which neighborhood you are in.
In a 2017 interview with Chicago Creatives, he shared that his photography journey started in high school, when he began exploring neighborhoods outside his Hyde Park stomping grounds. “I would take photographs to capture the essence of the places I had been and the moments I’d experienced in them,” he shared. Around the same time, he began contributing to South Side Weekly and served as the Visuals Editor through 2019. He wrote about the processes of graffiti, initiatives that empower children, spaces that feel like sanctuaries, and the historical texts found at the Blackstone Library, where he had also worked.
Rod explored the importance of language and storytelling through his art practices. For the past few years, he had been creating photo collages that overlapped 35mm or 120 film captures of moments with friends over paper samples of his own graffiti art. He combined these with paper material such as receipts and handwritten notes, often in Spanish, to bring his audience into his world of thought and travel.
Themes of self-reflection and love, along with to-do lists and reminders to himself and others, decorate his work. For example, “One of my favorite parts of graffiti? El espacio. Lo importante aint que pintaste pero it’s about where you’re at. You color the space but al mismo tiempo the space te pinta la memoria.” and “Sometimes I feel a greater amount of Love/the need to love more for those I perceive may be lacking it. The question is (are) can I speak their love language and will it interrupt my own love tank?” written on the pages of his zine, 2019 Gang Activities Vol. 2.
Rod would often trek on his bike to Zine Mercado, a zine market organized by his longtime friend Oscar Arriola, and would happily trade a zine that he would pull out from his bag. As JPEG, he also had a zine wall (1419 E. 61st Pl.) where he would paint a new “ZINE” mural each year. This sacred alley spot is home to a community altar that loved ones are invited to activate in his memory.
He also had a secret spot, through a cut and along train tracks, where he painted thirteen murals starting in 2015. He had just finished his latest piece during his “Sunday Spray” session a week before his passing.
As an ode to JPEG, this year’s Meeting of Styles—a grassroots yearly convening of over 120 artists from around the world who come together to paint murals that stay up for a year in the Southeast Side—included an array of graff pieces that pay homage to him. One of the murals, made on a viaduct on 93rd and Chicago Avenue, reads: “Thank you for the dedication to documentation Lurrk God JPEG Love From the Boys.” The love was also felt and can be seen via the bypass on Commercial and Chicago Avenue, where four portraits of JPEG were painted by graffiti artists NEEN, SERK, and SALOMON.
“Rod had a passion for documenting other people’s art, making it his own. He was a very open and genuine person who only had positivity to give back. He made it his mission to capture the process of the artists all the way to the end product in a vibrant and sincere style. He inspired many to get out, explore, and appreciate what the city has to offer. He will be dearly missed by the entire community,” shared SERK.
This year’s Meeting of Styles was organized by DTEL, who remembers meeting a young JPEG. “I met him at the Hyde Park and 53rd St. alley wall behind the gas station which is no longer there—it’s where Target was built in the summer of 2013—before he even had a camera with his notebooks and hung out with everyone.”
I was very lucky to have met Roderick during our early twenties, when he was working on his degree in Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I fell in love with his commitment to capturing community through photographs and will always remember his smile when asked for a baile or a beso. His spirit emulated love and I am forever impacted by the way in which he showed care and commitment to uplifting the beauty all around us.
He was a studio artist with the Fulton Art Collective, where he curated the exhibitions “Portraits” and “Journey/Explore,” and had also completed a Chicago Artist Coalition residency in 2022. This summer, we got to co-curate a photo exhibit, “Tethered en el Barrio,” where we were both challenged to put the camera down and take turns capturing each other and others in Chicago’s POC bondage community. The resulting show was hosted in a DIY gallery in Back of the Yards.
During an opening speech, he shared: “Sometimes things happen and you don’t know for how long, and sometimes things happen and there is a time limit, and you got to make the best of that time. I have been telling people that as a photographer there are some events that I photograph, and then I look at the pictures later and I am like, ‘yo, this photo is dope, but I didn’t know it at the moment’ … I am grateful that we have had this time … the whole point of this is community. It’s a space we are creating. Seeing the process, experiencing the process, that is what this is all about—community.”
Photography was always at the core of his practice. He led “The Mirror Project,” an ongoing photo series that explores the use of mirrors and portraiture. He challenged us to romanticize ourselves and see our bodies as sculptures. In some of his notes from this summer, he linked the inspiration of this project to Tumblr’s sex positivity movement and the culture of taking self-portraits that depict the person we wish to be.
You can follow the tag #themirrorproject on Instagram or visit www.flickr.com/people/rodosaw/ to see his work.
He had recently reminded me of the importance of rest. He was preparing for a new school year with his graffiti class as an instructor of the Teen Arts Council at Arts + Public Life, a position he held since 2022. He had just moved out of his studio, had finished exhibiting art for the “Hip Hop 50: A Voyage Through Time” art show in Pilsen’s HAZ Room, had attended Kenwood Academy’s ten-year high school reunion, and was making an effort to make time to chill and read a book or enjoy a film. May the reminders and messages he left behind be elevated and remembered forever. JPEG x vida.
The Sawyers are holding a public memorial in late October. More information forthcoming.
Many a time, with words like these, the ethos of a eulogy exists not only to praise those who have passed on from this life, but to share their greatness with the community—remnants of the cadence they left, seeded in the storybook of the earth to find its way to many minds.
But this South Side artist has been so actively present in the Chicago community that this written testament is instead a collective voice, made up of the many circles that Rod was a part of.
Roderick Chancellor Sawyer (known as Rod to family and friends) was a son, brother, friend and lover, an artist, scholar, historian, and documentarian. Rod’s storytelling triumphed across many mediums, that which the community remembers and honors today: graffiti, preservation of memories through film and collage, video, zines, and the many dialogues of explorations across social platforms that, if read earnestly, could birth many studies of what Rod left us with.
Born and raised in Chicago, a South Sider based in Hyde Park, he was a man of the people, welcoming all who were drawn to the city and all that belonged. You could never say he walked with a specific group. He was worldly and exhibited that through his curiosity in spaces, cultures, mediums, and ideas. His inner rhythm reflected his outer movements. We now witness it through the multiple documentations, testimonies, and artistic creations he produced.
Rod experienced people, environments, and notions with absolute open-mindedness, open arms, and respect. In return, he gained an audience, students of his fabrications. Many have come forward to share the experience of Rod: observers of the Sunday Sprays, admirers of the Mirror Project, friends of Apt 908, sympathizers of his use of photography to romanticize the self, the tethered from all the barrios, the other rope practitioners and the many more spaces he held for conversation and exploration.
Excerpts from Rod’s Community:
“The marks you left in this world with your creativity and energy are ubiquitous and will remind us how much of a passionate and loving person you are.”
– Sumin Kim, artist and close friend
“He was in After School Matters (ASM) as one of my students years back. He was such a sweet kid and an even sweeter man. He will be missed for sure.”
– Jourdon Gullet, ASM instructor and mentor
“Thank you for every zine, graff, documentation, photo as study of history, photo as care for intimacy in the mundane or the sensual. For including me throughout your practice. Your work was a deep breath. To see you was a laugh. To be in your orbit was to feel love. To run into you was a smile. To laugh with you—at memes, new Midwestern drill, poly theory—was to learn, to gasp, to cackle with delight.”
– Maira Khwaja, writer and organizer, friend.
“When I think about the City of Chicago, I think about the people foremost. Rod is and will always be the epitome of a true Chicagoan. He was an artist through and through, and he will be missed by many.”
– Julietta Magaña Pérez, movement artist, friend.
“I choose to remember him cheesing. I choose to remember him biking across the city in search of a new photo to take. I choose to remember him practicing Spanish, dancing and showing up for the people he loved. It is an honor to love and be loved by Rod.”
– Kee Stein, poet, friend
“Rod continues to focus on the moment. Tying back into the energies of a piece of work, the viewer can vibe with it, and although it is community-based it’s ‘about using your own style…kinda like what hip hop is about, perfecting your style.’ Sawyer is fascinated by the time and effort and meanings of these pieces as they are temporary, so capturing them before they’re destroyed is another way of him saying ‘I was here, and I witnessed these creations …whether they be ephemeral or not, they’re now forever.’”
– Claire Smith, writer, friend and schoolmate
“Rod. Someone who has a presence bigger than the present. A teacher for me without knowing, a mentor for many, and a leader by example for always immersing fully to life.”
– Janny Jang, consultant, friend.
“Rodicient! Rod the magnificent: what I called Rod every time I saw him because of the gravitas he carried. Such quiet strength. Unparalleled care. A man who constantly radiated love, familiarity, and savior faire. We would talk for hours about life: its meaning, how it changes, and where it takes us. I always had a laugh and smile in your presence. The warmth we shared over the years will last for a lifetime and more.”
– Landon Williams, artist, close friend
“Rod, you left us with so much substance, tangibly and intellectually, that we, the collective, will continue to study these elements for years and years to come.”
– Natasha Estevez, poet-copywriter, close friend
“Rod was a nurturer. He had a grace to him that everybody was important and you saw that in how he documented people in his work, you are worth a conversation. He taught us to be present. When he was in front of you, he made you feel like a focus. I’m going to truly miss his attention to you, his care, and acknowledgement. Rod used the pros and cons of what he experienced in his life to help other people. He was a true artist.”
– Armani Howard, artist, close friend and colleague
Dedicating Multiple Odes to Roderick Chancellor Sawyer, we will always remember you.
To contribute or read more stories shared in honor of Rod, visit the Mad Seasoned blog on Substack. Stories are hosted there by Natasha Estevez.