Here’s the romantic version: Mario Gonzalez, Jr., aka Zore, was hanging out across from the Museum of Science and Industry one day in 1989 when he was approached by a couple of kids. They were all at a gathering for Chi-Rock Nation, an organization that aims to create outlets for young people to be creative and artistic—the “Rock” is for Respect Our Creative Kids. The pair introduced themselves: Desie and Sensei.
“We have paint,” they informed Gonzalez.
He asked to see their paint, and when they handed it over he popped it in the trunk of his car.
“They started crying and shit,” Gonzalez told me. “Never tell anyone you have paint.”
Desie and Sensei had been interested in painting with Gonzalez, who at that point had, by his own measures, quite the reputation up and down the city of Chicago. “There was a time when I literally had all the walls on the South Side,” he said. “I had a monopoly on the South Side.” No wonder these “toys,” as inexperienced artists are referred to in the graffiti world, wanted to paint with him so badly.
“We got a wall,” they told him.
“(My crew and I) were like, ‘Okay, do it,’ ” Gonzalez recalls. They told him the spot they had in mind: an alley just north of 53rd Street in between South Blackstone and South Kimbark Avenues, sandwiched between several floors of condos and a McDonald’s and Mobil gas station.
That McDonald’s later moved, leaving the Mobil gas station, which will soon become a 267-unit high-rise development. Demolition of the existing property—including the graffiti wall—is set to start this December.
Back in 1989, Chicago graffiti saw little daylight. Most writers were active under overpasses and bridges, on “L” trains and in the abandoned factories and industrial sites that dotted much of the city. Walls were rare—you were more likely to get arrested painting on property that didn’t belong to the city, and your artwork was less likely to survive. But Desie and Sensei were intent on hitting this wall. And they did.
The first prominent graffiti in Hyde Park happened in the early seventies, when artists, often locals, began doing murals underneath the Metra tracks. Jon Pounds, executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group, says that these individuals were primarily interested in expanding the use of murals to Chicago at a time when they were beginning to become popular on the coasts. CPAG, founded in 1971, is an organization that is responsible for putting up the vast majority of the city’s public art installations.
“Since 1972, the types of materials employed have expanded to include spray paint, mosaics, direct application mosaics, and high-resolution digital prints,” Pounds wrote in an email.
Back in the day, Gonzalez assures me, the paint was everything.
“Graffiti writers were the first World Wide Web,” he said. “We would paint graffiti in one city and three days later somebody in Australia would show up with a response.” These kinds of global conversations were happening in Hyde Park through the seventies and into the late eighties, when Gonzalez and some friends founded SB Crew. (The SB was originally for Spray Brigade, but, like many other graffiti crew names, it can be turned to almost any phrase whose words start with S and B.) “Everybody wrote, everybody had style in the seventies,” Gonzalez added. “Like, even little kids.”
The crew was made up of “leftover guys from the eighties and leaders of the new school in the nineties” who were painting all over the South Side. They got their start hitting train cars, especially what is now the Pink Line—the canvas most accessible from Pilsen, where Gonzalez grew up. The crew, he claims, was the first to “bomb” the underpass near Promontory Point (where he would go after school to pick up girls) and many of the Metra underpasses.
By the time he was approached by Desie and Sensei about the 53rd Street wall in 1989, Gonzalez was a student at the SAIC. He ended up giving the kids back their paint to make them stop whining, and then let them show him their newfound spot. They began painting, with Gonzalez giving them tips on how to make their pieces look good. A few other members of SB Crew put their marks on the alley, but then they, as well as Desie and Sensei, moved on to bigger and better things. They still came back every now and then to do some maintenance: putting up small pieces and painting over the shoddier tags left by amateurs. “We left it to the toys,” Gonzalez said.
The toys inherited it. Around 2006, a few kids from Hyde Park started a graffiti crew—IDC—whose name, like that of any good crew, has come to mean many things, such as “I Define Creative” or “I Destroy Chicago.” It depends on who’s spelling it out.
The crew was founded primarily by the late Chris Gary and a couple friends while they were taking art classes at Gallery 37, through CPS’s after-school Advanced Art Program. It was the winter, and they were juniors in high school.
“I guess they were just sitting around in painting class and talking about how they wanted to start a graffiti crew,” said Shawn Bullen. “They started throwing out names and the first name that came up was I.D., for—I believe it was for ‘Indirect Disrespect,’ or something like that, or ‘I Dream.’ It pretty much just came out of nothing, people just sitting around coming up with ideas, and, you know, making meaning out of a couple letters.”
Bullen was introduced to the group when Gary saw him scribbling on the bleachers during a Laboratory School basketball game and invited him outside for a smoke.
“So man, I’m trying to start this graf crew,” Gary said.
“I didn’t know jack shit about graffiti, but Chris was kind of the one who introduced it to me,” said Bullen. “He was like, ‘You wanna be in this?’ So I said yes, and some weird-ass graffiti crew started and now it’s an art collective and people think its real.”
Bullen became one of the main leaders of IDC, and the 53rd Street wall was their de facto home base. They began hanging out there after school and on weekends. It was a safe spot to get stoned or drink without getting hassled too much by cops, but there was a much more obvious draw: a constantly evolving and changing gallery of graffiti artwork.
“The graf culture has a built in curatorial system,” said Eric Guo. He is friends with many of the people in IDC, and when he’s not working at Hyde Park Produce he is gathering funding for public art projects. “It’s a whole lot of politics of course, but it’s about gaining respect through technical skill, artistic content, and creativity. The writers are the curators, covering up whatever they don’t like. Other writers in turn can cover those pieces up, etc. The ‘curatorial integrity’ is built up over time through this ongoing cycle of creation and destruction.”
The members and friends of IDC jumped feet first into this cycle, throwing up tags on the 53rd Street wall and critiquing, in their own way, the artwork that would appear on it.
“We would just talk a lot of shit about other people’s artwork to the point where it was like, well, we better step our game up so we can actually do something as good as this,” Bullen said. “Working towards being good enough to even paint on that wall was this huge thing.” They sketched all day long, coming up with elaborate ideas for their first big piece.
Bullen and his crew finally painted something on the wall, in the summer of 2007. But when they went behind the McDonald’s the next day to revel in their artwork, the guy whose piece they had painted over had already returned the favor.
“We all came back, all pissed off and sad, and we were like, ‘Man, it’s the greatest thing we ever did and it’s painted over in a day,’ ” he said, chuckling.
The guy showed up later and gave them a hard time for having painted over his piece the day before. They talked it out, however, and made peace.
“He eventually was like, ‘Yeah, but I respect what you guys do cause I can see that you’re getting a lot better,’ ” recalls Bullen. “Graffiti, in a lot of ways, is a bunch of guys trying to be tough who are really a bunch of softies who just wanna make art and get to know each other.”
“The wall brought a lot of very talented graffiti artists from all over Chicago together,” said one Hyde Park tagger, who asked to remain anonymous. “It was usually a friendly gathering—I don’t know of too much graffiti crew beef. But it was a way for amateurs to get better—you get to learn from watching other people paint, because painting, in itself, is its own art. And you got to see different styles. It’s a pretty, like, family-oriented community if you stay out of the trouble.”
The IDC family grew up and spread out across the continent, with members going to Canada, San Francisco, and the East Coast. I asked Bullen how “real” IDC can be with its membership spread so thinly.
“If a company had no office and no registration but was very active and many people knew about them and they were getting paid under that name—occasionally—it would be real,” he said with a laugh. “I always say, it’s as vague as an idea and as real as a company.”
Chris Gary, IDC’s founder, died in a freak boating accident in August of 2010. He was known as ‘Crusto,’ ‘Rusty,’ or ‘Rustoleum’ to the walls he wrote on. After Gary’s memorial service, Bullen brought people behind the McDonald’s so they could pay tribute in the graffiti community’s traditional way: creating a memorial in paint. He set out a big bag filled with spray paint cans and let people draw whatever they want. Many people who partook in the alleyway memorial had never tagged a wall before. Portraits of Gary and tributes such as “In Rust We Trust” were put up. Messages from loved ones, interspersed with Gary’s many monikers, dotted the wall from end to end.
“The wall was completely covered in his name and images of him, and it stayed that way for months—no other artists touched it,” Alice O’Keefe, a friend of Gary’s, told me in a Facebook message. “Every year on August 6, Chris’ death date, I lay some flowers there.”
Bullen told me that a guy who had once threatened to beat him and Gary up for painting over his piece near the Metra tracks came by the memorial to paint and pay his respects.
Each year since Gary’s death, the greater IDC community has come together to celebrate his life at the wall. This past summer they had a party and over a hundred people showed up. “The cops came through and they didn’t even care,” Bullen said. “They just told us to try and keep it down.”
In the 53rd Street wall’s heyday in the nineties, paint ran from Kimbark to Blackstone—on both sides of the alley. Now the painted area is just the northernmost wall of what is now the Mobil gas station property. A little over 120 feet long, it runs from the building that houses The Sit Down restaurant to the parking lot of MAC Property Management’s offices.
The entirety of the wall, and the adjacent gas station and parking lots, are set to be demolished this winter in order to make way for Vue53, a hotly contested high-rise development. The building, at thirteen stories, will have retail stores on its first floor with entrances facing 53rd Street; the back of the building—where the wall is currently—will be used for truck deliveries. The development is backed by the University of Chicago—it’s another step in 53rd Street’s controversial makeover, which is gradually making Hyde Park’s center a much flashier place.
The neighborhood also used to be a much rougher place than it is today. One of Chicago’s most famous gangs, the Blackstone Rangers, now known as the Black Peace Stone Nation, or the Stones, was started in neighboring Woodlawn and still has many members who live in the area. They were some of the first to deface the city’s walls, along with other gangs—it was a way to mark territory and spread influence.
“The first people to hit it were the gangbangers,” Gonzalez said of the 53rd Street wall.
That’s the unromantic version of the wall’s genesis story: just another alleyway getting tagged by criminals. And there was no lone Creator, just a bunch of different guys who claim they were the first.
“It’s organic,” Gonzalez said. “It’s like the pizza or the hotdog. Ain’t nobody started it, but you have, like, twenty people claiming it.”
Joe Check has lived with his wife in a house on South Blackstone Avenue, right next to the alleyway’s eastern entrance, for forty years. For at least twenty-five, he said, people have been coming almost every day to paint the wall. A retired school social worker, Check remembers the almost simultaneous appearance of the distinctive symbols in the alley and in his students’ notebooks.
“It was similar styles of lettering, stuff that I can’t read,” he said with a smile. He watched with fascination as more and more young people began to leave their painted mark on his alley.
“Usually there would be regular changes, because one group would follow on another group, and paint with rollers, and I noticed that people would come with plans,” he told me. “It wasn’t just all spontaneous, they had worked out what they were gonna do.”
Over the years, Check’s garage has been tagged more than a few times, but the next day kids would come and paint over it in white. Now, he says, “It’s understood that you don’t do that.”
I asked Check what he thinks should happen in light of the wall’s demolition.
“I really think that a space should be provided,” he said. “It can be supported by the community.”
“I don’t know how many people will be impacted by the loss of the graf wall,” Eric Guo wrote. “The wall is filling an admittedly niche demand at the moment. I feel that the major consequence to the community at large will be that far fewer practiced writers would come to Hyde Park.”
For whatever reason—perhaps as opposition to the university’s corporatism, or because of its intellectual reach, or just due to a certain brand of cultural awareness its inhabitants share—Hyde Park owns a kind of subversion that is acutely represented by this wall of graffiti.
“It was not significant, and it still to this day is not significant. It was started by toys and maintained by my crew, and then it went back to the toys,” maintains Gonzalez. About fifteen years ago he moved to San Francisco, and his artwork is now found in galleries all over the world. He’s had pieces shown in South Korea, Germany, Bangkok, Italy, and at Miami’s Art Basel. He gives off the feeling that when he left Chicago (“It would be insane to live in the same place your whole life”) he left the entire city to the toys.
Writers from the older generations still come by the wall every now and then to paint the kinds of pieces that put other graffiti glyphs to shame. Hundreds of artists have painted something on that wall—people from all over Chicago and all over the world. But with the demolition of the wall, the promise of impermanency that comes with each piece is being made good on in a profound way—all graffiti looks the same when it’s broken up, spread across a large pile of rubble.
“There is no category named Eternal,” Jon Pounds wrote me. “Nothing is permanent—do we really think Cloud Gate will exist in 500 years? OK—it’s permanent. After twenty years, we’ll decide.”
A team of marketers and building designers at Mesa Development LLC. has already made the decision of the 53rd Street wall’s impermanency. They still face a small but vocal faction of resistance from the community, but there is one question that neither side has attempted to answer: will there be another wall?
“There’s other graf walls in the city. There’s plenty of bridges and abandoned buildings to go and practice in,” Shawn Bullen told me. He will be back in Chicago this January—he moved to San Francisco a few years ago—to create a retrospective of the 53rd Street wall, a painted epitaph. This summer he’s going to be running a three-month long project to bring more public art to the South Side called—what else?—“I Decorate Chicago.”
“I figure life will go on normally,” he said.
When you visit the alleyway behind where the closed Mobil gas station is, where the McDonald’s used to be, where a 135-foot building may soon rise, you’ll see flakes of paint littering the ground next to the wall. You’ll see the cleansing gray paint, the canvas on which a piece has come to life—someone will reapply it there soon. There are some vague marks on the northern walls of the alley, leftover tags that were not washed away as easily as others, and you’ll see those, too. You’ll see the street lamps, the ones that give unparalleled, albeit orange, lighting for the paintingstel. You can touch the chipped-cement top of the low wall, and cut yourself on it if you’re not careful.
“That’s just a regular wall that would get tagged or bombed,” Gonzalez informed me. He added, with a little more heart, “It has many stories, I’m sure.”
At the end of our conversation, Bullen left me with this image: when they tear the wall down, you’ll be able to see the paint strata on the wall’s surface, padding its northern face like a horizontal tell.
“There’s inches upon inches of paint there,” he said.
This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 3, 2013
An earlier version of this story misstated the history of the “McMobil” site that the graffiti wall abuts. A McDonald’s and Mobil gas station occupied the site’s lots together until McDonald’s moved to 52nd Street in 2004.