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:
- It can’t look remotely gang-related. No symbols, no tags, no personal names.
- It must be family-friendly. No adult words or images.
- 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…
Onik talks about his plans for the garage door.
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.)
The cans of paint arrived in Onik’s duffle bag.
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.
Onik lines up the paint, categorizing it by color hues, to see what he’s got to work with.
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.
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.
Huey (in the foreground) joins in as the outline starts taking shape.
Cans of paint.
Slare consults with B-Rad/G while Huey and Rels fill in with color.
Rels is bathed in warm tones as he paints the word, “unity.”
Onik at work.
The mural comes together with Onik and Huey.
Slare puts on some finishing touches.
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.