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‘Explore our creativity’ — street art should not just be saved, but encouraged

Street mural in Santiago, Chile

Street mural near poet Pablo Neruda’s home in Santiago, Chile. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Yes, I was chagrined when I realized Chicago’s historic mayoral election on April 2 would find me up a Chilean fjord on a research ship, gazing at glaciers. Not exactly the ideal place to take the political pulse of the city.

In my defense, when I accepted the invitation, I had no way of knowing the contest wouldn’t be between Bob Fioretti and Paul Vallas, or some similar head-scratcher. Besides, the Sun-Times has a very deep bench, and I knew it would cover the election just fine without me.

Besides, travel is broadening. It gives fresh perspective. For instance, Saturday, I had a few hours to kill before the flight home, so I ducked into Santiago to visit a home of poet Pablo Neruda. En route, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the street art: colorful, dramatic, and everywhere.

The seed of a thought — Chicago has many murals like these, but could use more — had barely been planted when news came Monday that Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) has finally succeeded in creating a city mural registry to list approved artworks so that Streets and Sanitation doesn’t accidentally remove them.

OPINION

The registry was sparked last year when the city, trying to woo Amazon with a flurry of housecleaning, erased several significant murals, including a piece by French street artist Blek le Rat that Cards Against Humanity founder Max Temkin commissioned for the popular party game’s Elston Avenue headquarters.

“Every so often Streets and San would roll up with a soda blaster, and we’d run out and say, ‘Don’t take it down! Don’t take it down!'” said Temkin. “The morning when Mayor Emanuel was touring the Lincoln Yards site with Amazon, they just came in the middle of the night and did a wholesale clean-up.”

Hopkins began compiling a list of street murals, which turned out to have a second use.

“People were saying, ‘How do I access this list of art? I’m going to be in Chicago next week. I want to go see it,'” said Hopkins. “I realized we had a tourism opportunity on our hands. What started out as an attempt to assist Streets and San employees morphed into a cultural phenomenon.”

Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Mark Kelly said the registry not only will protect street murals, and allow people to find them, but also will create a valuable record of what is out there.

“We’re a city filled with public art,” he said. “There’s a lot more out there than anybody realizes. How many murals are in Chicago? No one can give an accurate answer to that. Right now there are about 150 murals on the registry. In a year we could have thousands. There is so much work out there. This database is going to capture that.”

Not removing existing murals is only a first step. One of the challenges facing our new mayor is to bring the entire city along on our march into the future. Street art is the opposite of street crime: it encourages vibrant communities.

“Murals are a positive thing in our neighborhood,” said Carlos Tortolero, president and founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen.

Of course anything involving art is controversial. Tastes differ. Street art often has a political aspect, and graffiti artists are certain to chafe under the notion of official approval. To address this, I circled back to Chile.

“It started before the military coup,” said Jorge Canelas, who lived in Santiago for decades before he became press and cultural affairs officer for the Chilean Embassy in Washington D.C.

Street art in Santiago, Chile

Santiago, Chile is known for its street art —from political statements to entire buildings covered with decoration, sometimes reflecting what takes place within, such as this craftsman and his chairs on a furniture store. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

“There are some aspects of graffiti art which are very valuable. You see complete buildings which they have painted in a beautiful way. Of course, everyone is entitled to his own evaluation. You have beautiful patrimonial buildings which have to be cleaned every time they have a demonstration. This is an ongoing, day-to-day, active debate whether to allow it or not. In some parts it’s valued and it’s nice and it’s good. In some ways downtown Santiago has been invaded by graffiti. In Valparaiso it’s worse; it’s an invasion and not always beautiful.”

That said, encouraging street art seems a way to give power to community residents.

“Who has the right in the city to show you something?” said Temkin. “Companies have ample opportunity to buy billboards and show advertisements. We are bombarded with corporate messages. The city never accidentally takes down a billboard. The people want to claim some of that space by putting up something cool for free for the neighborhood to enjoy. I always feel it is a struggle for the body of the city, even on our private property, to put free up art that is not selling you anything. It’s a tug-of-war.”

For Tortolero, the murals encourage retrospection.

“You’re walking down the street, you have something on your mind — ‘I have to pay this bill, get a haircut’ — whatever,” he said. “Suddenly, there is this art piece. For a moment, you are transformed by the art piece. ‘I wonder what the artist meant by this?’ That makes you think and God knows we need to think in this country. Explore our creativity and think.”