My garage becomes an unofficial graffiti permission wall

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Members of CSU Crew: Rels, Huey, Onik, Das-1 and Slare (going by their graffiti pen names) relax beside their finished product.

Last February, I met Brandon beside a huge hole in my basement floor. To be sure, I’d met him before this day of grand plumbing misfortune, but standing over a collapsed subterranean water pipe, I learned that our master plumber’s assistant was a graffiti writer, and he had another name, a pen name he used for his art, Onik. (Scroll to the end of this post for info on how the initial conversation took place.)

When I asked to see images of his work, his customary polite warmth exploded into light so bright that I offered him, on the spot, our garage door.

He’d been sneaking around a lot, painting out-of-the-way underpasses, asking convenience store owners deep on the South Side if he could paint over the dueling gang tags on the outside walls, working under the cover of night in places no one might ever see, in places he might never go again, just so he could get the ideas out of his head and onto the big, cool canvas of the city’s unwanted, long-forgotten walls.

He said he’d be back when the weather was warm. I hoped he would. Unexpectedly, he called on a spring day with ideas. He asked if he could bring friends. He said they were really talented, even better than him. I said yes. “But it needs to get a little hotter out,” he said. “We’ll talk again when it’s summer.”

It’s hell having words to say, or images to convey, but no place to express them. Graffiti is not an art that’s generally respected or understood, at least by my demographic. Graffiti tends to blur together and look like gang symbols to those of us who didn’t grow up in an urban culture. And, even though Onik and the crew of 30-plus artists ranging from age 16 to 30 years, who call themselves CSU, which stands for Chicago Stand Up, all chose art over the gangs and violence that continually tapped them on the shoulder and bade them to join up, their work is still routinely misunderstood. Onik and his buddies risk safety, harsh judgment and even arrest to get their art out.

I can feel (or imagine feeling) their plight, and thankfully my husband could, too. But apart from all that, my gut reaction to give over our garage probably stemmed from a combination of the following personal passions: for art in unconventional forms, for the bold colors used in urban art, for humans choosing peace over violence, and for encouraging people in their self-expression. Also, I couldn’t help but turn toward Onik’s beaming light when he spoke about his work.

I may not be in a position to be the magnanimous benefactress I someday hope to be, doling out money and support to the causes that inspire me, but in the light of Onik’s glow, I knew Brian and I could do something, a little tiny something. We could give these kids some cans of paint and a canvas.

I had three rules:

  1. It can’t look remotely gang-related. No symbols, no tags, no personal names.
  2. It must be family-friendly. No adult words or images.
  3. Feel free to build your design around anything you want, but if you choose words, but I must approve them first.

Last Saturday, Onik returned and, along with an incredibly gracious, professional, seamlessly team-working group of friends, he conceptualized and created a work of art that transformed my garage from Honda slum dwelling into an urban masterpiece.

The words Onik and CSU chose: Love (in the design of the Chicago flag), Peace and Unity.

“Love, peace and unity, they’re all synonyms for each other,” Onik explained. “And we see them joining with each other and with all parts of the city, from the lakes and parks to the skyline and sunset.”

Thanks, Onik and CSU, for teaching me so much about about so much. And for bringing the gift of your art to our neighborhood.

And now, the story through images…

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Onik talks about his plans for the garage door.

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Slare gets started sanding the garage so they have a smooth surface on which to paint. (Clearly, it was in sore need of some TLC.)

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The cans of paint arrived in Onik’s duffle bag.

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To conserve energy for a full day of work, Onik and his crew work on sanding and painting in shifts. Throughout the day, at least one of the group was always standing in the shade resting. Then, like basketball players coming in the game, but without a buzzer, one would drift in, get to work and another would rotate out. Meanwhile, Charlie looks on.

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Onik lines up the paint, categorizing it by color hues, to see what he’s got to work with.

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Rels tests his sprayer beside a makeshift stereo setup. While painting, they listened to everything from vintage Kanye to local Chicago rapper, Oncore, for whom Onik DJs.

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Rels, who has more than 2,000 followers on Instagram for his art, gets started outlining the words while Onik and Slare offer feedback. Their interplay about the work was almost always silent, except when coaching each other on how something could look better. It was like they had a quiet, gentle language known only to them, no doubt from countless nights making art together into the wee hours.

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Huey (in the foreground) joins in as the outline starts taking shape.

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Cans of paint.

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Slare consults with B-Rad/G while Huey and Rels fill in with color.

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Rels is bathed in warm tones as he paints the word, “unity.”

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Onik at work.

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The mural comes together with Onik and Huey.

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Slare puts on some finishing touches.

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The kids couldn’t wait to check out the garage the next morning. Our only regret: that the garage doesn’t face the back of our house, so we could look at it more often.

Get to juking, Chicago. Pride Week is upon you.

This weekend begins the 44th Annual Chicago Pride Week. As such, I would like to come out in support of my queer pals, and offer up a devastatingly vivid visual of this mama letting it all hang out at a big, gay dance party a few weekends ago.

How long has it been since you’ve danced with reckless abandon? Your own hands weaving through your hair like the fingers of a lover lifting the locks off your neck at 1 a.m. when the music is so loud and you’ve been dancing for hours and the new air on the skin of your nape feels like heaven.

A particular sense of freedom rises, uncaged after God knows how long. And you’re picking up the beat or the melody, or sometimes both, and moving without once worrying what everyone in the club thinks of you. You don’t even pause to consider what you look like, who sees you or whether you actually have any business dancing like no one’s watching, because you magically feel unconcerned that your body wasn’t built for music videos, and you can’t wipe the smile off your face. Your hips shake, your head tilts back and a hand laces in yours, pulls you in close, chest to chest and now you’re face to face.

I’m going to take you away. Just escape into the music. DJ let it play…

You haven’t felt this way in public in…maybe not ever. It’s ecstatic without X, drunk without drunkenness, sexy without sex. You laugh. And then you break it the hell down with the warm body pressed up against yours like you’re on Soul Train. No, more like Save the Last Dance, but the imaginary version starring a straight girl and her gay male friends.

You learn a new word, “juking,” and you’re not sure what it means, but you are pretty sure you’re nailing it. You find out later juking* is “A frequently used word by the Chicago urban scene meaning to dance, party, get crunk, get buck, get loose, and just simply have fun,” and you know you that’s what you did.

This is not how you spend most Saturday nights, not anymore. Usually you’re snuggled in the hammock with your husband after putting the kids to bed. Sometimes you’re out to dinner for a girlfriend’s birthday. Sometimes you’re already asleep. But Saturday night is rarely about unleashing your best attempt at Shakira hips, unless in front of your dining room mirror, and, if you do happen to be out dancing with actual people in public, it’s never to a gay bar because you’ve had too many wonderful friends mention they’re not fond of the bachelorettes who storm into the only place some gay people feel comfortable publicly revealing their sexuality with penis necklaces and cameras as though they’re visiting the circus. “I’m not your clown,” comments one of your friends. So, with respect as your intention, you stay away from Boystown and Andersonville’s dancey bars. You let your gay friends and their gay friends have their space, knowing that, as a heterosexual person, comparatively, the whole world is your space.

But these generous men talk you into joining them one night, this night, and you don’t feel like you’re dressed for a night out in white shorts and a top you’ve had for ages, but you throw on some heels and go anyway. You talk, you laugh, you dance together, the world slips away with the spinning DJ, you get told you’re gorgeous approximately 105 times by people who want nothing from you, no one so much as looks at you with disrespect and you smile the entire night. You wonder if, you being you, you could experience this kind of euphoria at a regular dance club, and, if you were out with your girlfriends in a typical hetero club, would you be ducking around, trying not to let loose for fear of a.) looking foolish, b.) not being as good a dancer as the glamorous chick in the sequins, or c.) attracting attention inappropriate for a married woman to entertain?

You brush the thought away because you’re here and not there, and your new favorite song is playing. Don’t you worry, don’t you worry, child. See Heaven’s got a plan for you…

You watch one of your friends, a particularly tender soul, fall into conversation with a handsome stranger. And it makes you smile, like, huge, because he really needed someone to just notice him tonight. Whoa oh oh oh oh oh oh. See Heaven’s got a plan for you…

Despite all the joy, it’s late and you’re losing steam, so two friends wait with you on the curb to see you safely into a cab. You go home and fall asleep wrapped around your husband with your hand on his heart. You wake a few hours later pinned between your man and your five-year-old, who’s saying, “It’s morning, Mommy.” You tell him you’re super tired because you were out very late dancing in one of those places where grown-ups dance all night long. He responds by saying, with a quivering lip, “You’re making me feel a little jealous, Mommy.”

You know that it was a fluke of a night, and that it’ll be a while before you enjoy another dance party like that one, but you feel the sense of freedom lingering. And you pause to consider whether that freedom was accessible to you before this night, and before the two other nights of your adult life in which dear friends invited you to dance with them amid a sea of some of the free-est-seeming people you’ve ever seen.

But whether it happens again doesn’t really matter.

Your hypercritical inner mean girl got a little bit smaller tonight because your appearance-conscious self was juking without a care in the world. What else is there to say?

…A prayer. Yes. You can say a prayer.

Dear God,

May all queer people of the world feel as free to be their true selves as I felt in the safety of their space. You made us all, and we’re all perfect in your image. Thank you, God.

Amen

Happy Pride Week, Chicago!

*Note: “Juking” may also have a slightly more risqué connotation, and I can assure you what I was doing on that dancefloor didn’t remotely resemble the juking you might find on YouTube. How I’d love to be able to make my body do that.

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Sometimes you can’t even believe how blessed you are to count these guys as your dear ones. They have treated you to innumerable joys, but for context of this blog post, they’ve facilitated two of your life’s best dance parties. And by facilitated, I mean they have made a sandwich out of you for the entirety of “Hungry like the Wolf” and not laughed at your serious efforts to pretend you know how to samba. Here, you prepare to break it down to 80s cover tunes at Midsommarfest.