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Muralist Hector Duarte in front of his home in Pilsen.
Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times

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Pilsen muralist Hector Duarte’s house is a home and also a work of art

House murals are fairly rare in Chicago. But when you see one, the shimmer and swirl of color makes them a source of wonder and admiration.

Some admirers have asked Hector Duarte whether he’d consider painting naked women or idyllic beach scenes on the outside of their homes.

The money would be good. But the Pilsen muralist always tells them no.

To better understand why, head to Duarte’s home at West Cullerton Street and South Wolcott Avenue. Surrounded by unremarkable red- and beige-brick homes sits a former tavern with an orange-on-black sign in a window that reads: “NOT FOR SALE.”

Stretching about 100 feet along the entire east side of the house and wrapping around the front is a mural of a man ensnared in barbed wire. His cold, black eyes suggest he’s given up the fight, though that’s open to interpretation.

So, no, Duarte doesn’t do pretty beaches or comely nudes.

Home murals are fairly rare in Chicago. But wherever you do see one, the shimmer and swirl of daring color does more than disrupt the monochrome of brick walls or plank siding. The homes become reference points, places to meet, a source of wonder and admiration.

Duarte is small and lean, a package that belies the scale and sometimes violent collision of colors in his work.

He’s from the Mexican state of Michoacan, and his work explores the hopes and fears of the immigrant experience and the particular struggles of those who have come to Chicago from Mexico.

The man portrayed on the outside of his house is a Latino “Gulliver,” trapped at the U.S.-Mexico border not by Lilliputian ropes, as in Jonathan Swift’s story, but by barbed wire.

“The figure could be seen as falling down and being tied up by the barbed wire, or it can be seen as him getting up and getting off the barbed wire,” says Duarte, who, in the studio attached to his home, is surrounded by paint buckets, rolled-up canvasses and jars holding paintbrushes.

Hector Duarte painting the mural that decorates his house.
Hector Duarte painting the mural that decorates his house.
Provided photo

In his home’s original plain siding, Duarte saw a blank canvas.

“I’m always looking for walls to paint,” he says. “Here, it was fun because I didn’t have to ask permission to do it. Usually when I paint a wall, I paint it and leave. I never thought what would happen after.”

Begun in 2001, the mural took Duarte about four years to paint. That was mostly because his paid work came first.

Inside muralist Hector Duarte’s home in Pilsen.
Inside muralist Hector Duarte’s home in Pilsen.
Rick Majewski / Sun-Times

At first, people walked past the mural-covered home, taking little notice of his artwork — not entirely surprising for a neighborhood that is awash in outdoor art.

But as Duarte’s reputation has grown, so has interest in the piece.

“I’ll get up in the morning, like on a Saturday, and look out my curtains, and there is often a whole group of people looking at the house,” says Duarte’s wife Linda Lutton, a reporter for WBEZ Chicago.

Hector Duarte’s home mural has become an attraction.
Hector Duarte’s home mural has become an attraction.
Rick Majewski / Sun-Times

Duarte’s work has appeared in travel guides, drawing visitors from overseas.

Last fall, 1,300 people came there during the weekend of the Chicago Architecture Center’s Open House Chicago, according to Lutton.

Fortunately for the couple, visitors tend to knock on the studio door, not the entrance to the home, which is out of the way, up a set of narrow, wooden steps.

Over time, sunlight has faded the mural’s original earthy reds and golden yellows. And paint now curls up from the window frames in spots.

Hector Duarte inside his studio.
Hector Duarte inside his studio: “I’m always looking for walls to paint.”
Rick Majewski / Sun-Times

Asked whether he has considered painting over his mural and starting again, Duarte is adamant. Definitely not, he says. Murals, he says, unlike graffiti, are meant to be permanent. That’s why he has always refused offers of work to paint over other artists’ murals.

He and Lutton have no interest in selling their home, despite skyrocketing prices in the neighborhood, though they worry rising property taxes someday might leave them no choice.

The house next door — gutted, rehabbed and painted a fashionable gray — recently sold for about $1.4 million.

But something has been lost, Duarte says. Immigrants from his home state of Michoacan once lived in the first-floor apartment next door. Their kids tore up and down the sidewalk on Big Wheels and helped Lutton plant flowers.

“A new crop of kids just came in,” Duarte says. “It’s hard to create community. They come and go.”

As if on cue, a young woman emerges from the house and hurries toward an idling car.

Asked what she thinks about the mural that looms over her, she’s surprised: “I just moved in yesterday. I haven’t even seen it.”

Click on map below for a selection of Chicago-area murals

CLICK TO HEAR REPORTER STEFANO ESPOSITO TALK WITH WCIU’S THE JAM

Reporter Stefano Esposito speaks about Hector Duarte’s house mural with Brandon Pope on WCIU’s “The Jam.”
Click to hear reporter Stefano Esposito talking about Hector Duarte’s house mural on WCIU’s “The Jam.”

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