Tucked in an alley beneath the CTA Green Line’s 47th Street stop, the mural paint on a rusty metal wall has faded a bit in the six years since artist Paul Branton oversaw its creation. But the vibrant colors are still just as loud as the L trains that rumble overhead.
And the meaning behind the artwork hasn’t faded at all, Branton says.
Born and raised in Chicago, the softspoken Branton says he has always seen art as a way of expressing himself.
Growing up in West Chatham during the 1970s and 1980s, Branton was heavily influenced by hip-hop culture. As a kid, he’d practice graffiti in scrapbooks, though he says he never actually tagged a wall before getting the 47th Street commission.
Branton’s passion developed into a career as a fine artist. He says he feels most comfortable when he puts paintbrush to canvas at his home studio.
But when the Quad Communities Development Corporation asked him about doing a mural below the Green Line in 2014, he couldn’t pass it up.
“That might’ve been one of the first times I’ve ever painted on metal,” Branton says.
Figuring out how his paint would react to the metal was difficult. But the design of the mural came effortlessly, inspired by Bronzeville, the South Side neighborhood where he lived at the time, and its people.
“It was a statement about being proud of who you are and where you live and how you fit into that environment,” says Branton, who now lives in Beverly.
The most significant element of the mural, he says, is the image of a little girl with a green complexion reaching for a bouquet of colorful balloons. It says she loves the skin she’s in.
“It talks about being comfortable in your own skin,” says Branton, who turns 47 this month. “And that goes back to years and years and years of people being degraded and not being able to love themselves because they were taught that the definition of beauty didn’t match how they looked. So I wanted to make sure people looked at themselves every day and saw themselves as beautiful.”
Why green skin? “Because I wanted it to represent not a particular race on this planet or ethnicity. I wanted to show that this could be anybody. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an Asian person. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an African American person. It can be anybody.
“Just know that you were created for a specific purpose, and in your creation there’s beauty in that.”
Branton’s mural took about four months to complete. Done as part of the Chicago Transit Authority’s “adopt a station” program, it’s one of many murals in the area that offer a glimpse of the neighborhood’s character and history.
There are two others — one across from the other — at 47th Street and Calumet Avenue. One is a snapshot of the neighborhood’s history. The other pays homage to its jazz legacy.
“These are signs and symbols,” says Thomas Sanders, a longtime neighborhood resident. “It’s not just painting walls or just beautifying the neighborhood. Whether it’s a vacant lot, there’s garbage in it, they see an empty space — they’re turning something that’s looking ugly into something that’s beautiful with their paint.
“But it’s really giving a history about the neighborhood and the community. And it’s actually really signs and symbols of what people are experiencing in the urban community, in the poor community, in the minority’s community, where economics are not flourishing where they would be in other areas.”
Branton says murals are an integral part of the urban landscape.
His art hangs in homes across the country. But the mural off 47th Street is his only public work in Chicago.
“They’re needed,” Branton says of murals. “Myself, as an artist, I’ve always tried to dwell into truth and to have a true reflection of ourselves and to create dialogue and connections between people.”