The fruits of Canadian artist’s ‘spray-cation’ in Chicago? A 40-foot mural of an iguana
Jerry Rugg’s public art begs to be looked at. But the artist who goes by ‘birdO’ prefers anonymity, allowing himself to be photographed only in a bird helmet to hide his face.
Native to parts of Mexico and South America, those lizards can grow to more than six feet long.
Rugg’s iguana, though, is considerably larger — spanning more than 40 feet across and high on a brick exterior wall of the El Nuevo Mexicano Restaurant, 2914 N. Clark St.
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Part of a series on public art in the city and suburbs. More murals are added every week.
Rugg, who as an artist goes by the name “birdO,” says the 2018 painting has gotten him a lot of notice.
“I am constantly messaged or tagged on Instagram or contacted because of that mural,” says Rugg, 39, of Toronto. “I think Chicago has a really, really keen community that appreciates public art.”
Rugg used spray paint to create the iguana and geometric shapes that are a “recognizable motif” in his works. He likes to feature animals in his murals.
“There’s usually a specific way to connect a community or individual to a particular animal,” he says. “I liked that you sort of had a reptile being a warm-weather creature in regards to the business that runs in the place is a Mexican restaurant.”
Maria Rodriguez, who owns El Nuevo Mexicano, says of the painting: “I often find people standing in front of it and someone else taking a picture.”
Besides his recognizable art style, Rugg’s also known for the bird helmet he wears to mask his identity.
“I’m a surreal painter, so I’ve always remained a surreal artist,” he says. “Being in the world of all of us putting stuff out there in the digital space, I’m pretty old-fashioned. I love my privacy, so I’ve really opted and stuck with keeping the disguise on. And I quite enjoy it.”
The artwork was commissioned by the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce and the Chicago Truborn art gallery to “spruce up the area” and make it more “art friendly,” according to Maureen Martino, the chamber’s executive director.
Rugg, long a fan of Chicago, says he was excited to visit for what he calls a “spray-cation” to create the iguana mural and see the sights of the city.
“I like painting big,” he says of the massive scale. “There’s an exhilaration to it.”
As a teenager in Canada, Rugg says he did graffiti art, painting words and letters, as well as painting “patchworks and patterns” on freight trains.
“I couldn’t wait for trains to come by,” Rugg says. “I used to sit under a bridge and watch trains go by for hours and hours. That was my humble beginnings.”
He’s also done a mural that can be seen on the wall of a Chicago Avenue viaduct west of Halsted Street, where Metra trains rumble overhead, near other works of public art.