Growing up on the Southwest Side, the Chicago artist who goes by “Tubs” says he wasn’t allowed to go play with his friends until he’d practiced his penmanship.
He isn’t talking about the regular sort of handwriting you’d learn at school, either.
“My mother actually taught me calligraphy at a really young age,” the 37-year-old artist says. “When all the kids were outside playing, I’d have to practice. Once I was done with that, I could go outside and do what I want.”
That discipline stuck with him. It also evolved over the years and now plays a big part in his artwork — including a mural that he painted in late October on the Near West Side as a nod to the Day of the Dead holiday celebrated by many of Mexican heritage, as he is.
He created the mural on the side of a former wheat mill at Carroll Avenue and Ada Street. It features a giant skull against a backdrop of names painted in an elegant “mixture of calligraphy and graffiti.”
They’re the names of people who have died of the coronavirus.
Tubs, who’s married and has three kids, the oldest one 9 years old, says he “grew up in a few neighborhoods, Brighton Park, Pilsen and Midway.”
His parents came to Chicago from Mexico decades ago.
“I was born in Chicago,” Tubs says. “I’m first-generation.”
His parents are artists, too.
“My father’s more traditional, I guess — portraits, landscapes,” he says. “My mother — calligraphy, script, different types of crafts as well. My sister’s a photographer.
“When I was about 6, I guess, I started noticing graffiti. And that was a whole ‘nother chapter in my life. That’s when I started getting influenced by the streets. I went hard into graffiti, painting all types of different things across the city.”
He says he was maybe 12 or 13 by then.
“There’s a difference between gang graffiti and ‘graffiti art’ or ‘graffiti tagging,’ ” Tubs says. “I was never in a gang. But, at the same time, I was influenced by the gang graffiti because of the style of lettering.”
He says street artists “were just super-talented guys who wanted to express themselves. These poor areas, they don’t have access to these art programs. If you have an artistic soul, that’s kind of the way to do it.”
One benefit of that, he says, was that there’s nobody “censoring you.”
He remembers a harrowing night when he decided to tag a closed-down drive-in movie theater.
“I actually climbed to the top of it and painted the back of the screen,” Tubs says. “It was like early October, and the wind picked up, and it was the scariest thing ever. It was swaying back and forth.
“The screens are huge, maybe four stories. Thank God, I’m still here. I’d never want my kids to do that — I’d kill ‘em!”
He describes his work today as, “at first glance, Mexican-influenced.” The style of his painted words, though, well, that’s drawn from his mother’s long-ago calligraphy lessons and also his later research on the written word in different cultures and faiths, including Islam, where Koranic writing can be a thing of great beauty because it’s seen as glorifying God.
The skull Tubs painted in his Day of the Dead mural he calls “El Campesino” — the field worker.
“It ties into my family history in Mexico,” he says. “It’s kind of a symbol that represents them, and I wanted to do that character for the Day of the Dead.”
That’s a festive holiday in Latino countries and communities that’s celebrated at the beginning of November. It’s a time for families to remember and pray for relatives and friends who’ve died.
Delilah Martinez, who owns the Vault Gallerie in Pilsen, secured the spot where Tubs painted the mural at the former mill, now owned by the Sterling Bay development company. Martinez is a leader of the Mural Movement, a group that’s been painting “Black and Brown unity” murals around Chicago.
“She deals with different businesses that give their wall space,” Tubs says.
Martinez’s group also solicited names on social media of people who died of the virus, and about two dozen were passed along to Tubs to paint. When the mural was finished, some of their family members showed up for a vigil.
“I hope it gave some solace and peace to the families,” Martinez says.
Beside doing murals, Tubs says he also does “gallery work” and has also done marketing-driven art for Adidas, NASCAR and other brands.
Graffiti-influenced art was once looked down upon, he says, but “now companies are catching onto it.”