Photo by Maura Turcotte.

Brenda Lopez didn’t have permission to create her first mural. Upset and alone in her grandmother’s new condominium in Logan Square, Lopez, then sixteen, painted the image of a sacred heart, complete with thorns and fire, on her room’s white walls. 

She felt happier. Her grandma, however, was livid. 

“I’ve always just decided to do art in the wrong places,” Lopez said, “which ended up traumatizing me because people’s reactions were so bad that I always had this idea that art wasn’t for me.”

Today, Lopez, now thirty-five, gets commissions—not just permission—to paint on people’s walls under the street name KOZMO. The name was inspired, she said, by her love for the stars and magic; she’s created sixteen murals and other pieces of street art around the city. And her collection continues to grow: she’s working on a mural for Dark Matter Coffee’s new cafe location in Pilsen, opening this summer. 

Lopez’s work includes relatively realistic pieces, inspired by legendary figures such as an Apache warrior, or a massive image of Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, on the side of a tortilla shop in Pilsen. But she’s happiest painting colorful, pop-inspired pieces, she said. Her signature image is a hamburger surrounded by petals, with gleaming eyes, long eyelashes and a mouth featuring fangs or a stuck-out tongue. 

As bright and whimsical as the piece may be, Lopez said she wants people to understand that her burger-flowers—found on buildings and viaducts across Logan Square, Pilsen, Back of the Yards, and Englewood—can be just as serious and meaningful as realistic art.

“People talk to me like, ‘Oh, It’s just a cartoon. It’s not real art. It doesn’t mean anything,’” she said. “You don’t know what a character means to somebody. It does mean something.” 

The image draws from childhood memories. Born in Little Village to teenage parents, Lopez grew up moving between her father in Chicago and her grandparents in Caguas, Puerto Rico. Lopez said her young mother, who left the family when she was four, was often stressed out; her only memory of her mom happy was running through a field of dandelions with her and her younger sister. Alone with two daughters, her father, Lopez said, resorted to putting them in front of a TV and constantly feeding them burgers. 

Combining those two details—dandelions and hamburgers—with her love of Disney animations and Tim Burton’s gothic characters, Lopez crafted her signature burger-flower in 2017. 

“I’m really happy that happened because I really needed to make that peace with how I felt about my parents,” Lopez said.

While Lopez grew up drawing on notebooks, school tests, and herself, she only committed to painting on canvases and walls as a full-time job six years ago, thanks to the encouragement of her mentor and now-husband, a street and tattoo artist who goes by the name MATR. Previously, Lopez worked as a bank teller and mortgage processor. Her project with Dark Matter Coffee brings her full circle—she used to manage the local coffee chain’s account. 

When they’re not raising their four kids—who, according to Lopez, have painted all over the walls at their home in Back of the Yards—Lopez and MATR frequently collaborate on pieces. This last summer, for instance, they worked on the Cuauhtémoc mural on the side of tortilla shop El Popocatepetl Tortilleria in Pilsen, painting the roughly fifteen-foot image under the harsh sun in 110-degree heat. Forgoing any preliminary sketches, the two sometimes struggle with creative differences on their joint work.

“She’s very accurate to the point where she’s focused and gets it right the first time,” her husband said. “But I’m a little fun and messy.”

With pieces in Logan Square, Back of the Yards, Pilsen, and elsewhere, Lopez said she has seen street art’s effects on a community. Trash gets picked up around a mural, she said, and grass is trimmed. Her more realistic pieces, drawn from Latinx culture, also teach people about indigenous cultures they don’t often learn about in school, Lopez added. 

“Now that I’m in my mid-thirties, and I’ve learned more about my Mexican and my Puerto Rican culture, I feel now that I appreciate it a lot more, and I do paint with a lot more love and pride,” she said.

For Lopez, who is supported by her husband’s tattoo business and her growing art sales—she recently sold a piece for $400—there’s no pressure to constantly churn out new art. But Chicago is her canvas, she added, and opportunity can strike at any moment.

“For the street art, every time we’re in the car, even if we have to go to Target and get diapers for the kids,” Lopez said, “we’re looking out to see what wall looks good.” 

Before she begins painting, though, she always gets permission.

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Maura Turcotte is a journalist from Los Angeles studying at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She tweets at @mcturcotte. This is her first piece for the Weekly.

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