At first glance, the giant bears painted on a Chicago Avenue viaduct seem like perfect replicas of those squeeze bottles filled with honey.
Except that one of the bears in the West Town mural is sporting a fedora.
Another has a Cubs hat.
A third is holding a frying pan.
And one is wearing shades.
The artist behind them — who goes by the professional name “fnnch,” pronounced like the little bird — paints honey bears around the country, customizing them for each city.
So the fedora-wearing bear represents Chicago’s mob history and gangster Al Capone. The baseball hat represents our embrace of sports. The pan is a nod to our deep culinary culture. And the sunglasses — take a close look, and you’ll recognize them as the kind worn by homegrown rapper Kanye West.
“I’m hitting you with the honey bear, which you already may have nostalgia for, and adapting it to your community,” says fnnch, asking not to be identified by his legal name because he’s been involved in illegal street art in the past. “I call the honey bears a universal symbol of happiness. We all kind of get it because it’s been around so long.”
He came to town in 2018, and the Chicago Truborn gallery arranged for him to create a mural in the viaduct — a gritty, ever-changing canvas for numerous murals done by Chicago and out-of-town artists.
Chicago Truborn’s Sara Dulkin says the honey bear mural is a big draw to that spot.
“Everything from families to couples, I’ve seen engagement photos and all kinds of photo shoots down there at the wall, and it’s just a real source of happiness and pride for people,” Dulkin says.
The artist, who’s 33, says he got started with street art in 2013 in San Francisco.
“I didn’t see that much work, and so I kind of complained about it for a while, and then I was, like, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll be the change that I want to see in the world,’ and I went out and started painting on public property,” he says.
Art was a hobby for a few years, and he started painting full time in 2016.
While in Chicago in 2018, fnnch also completed a mural depicting poppies under the CTA’s Red Line Sheridan Road L stop on the North Side.
Both projects were paid for by chambers of commerce.
Though he hasn’t been able to make it to Chicago to paint in the past two years, fnnch says he hopes to be back soon to paint another mural, saying, “It’s definitely one of the greatest art cities in America.”