The mural that Miguel Del Real painted in 2018 on the site of an old Goldblatt’s department store in the 1600 block of West Chicago Avenue is titled “Embracing Life.”
His biggest work, he says it draws on his main inspirations: old English calligraphy, Native American art and the Mexican art of his ancestors.
There are calligraphic flicks in the hummingbird’s wings. The woman’s shirt resembles a huipil — a woven tunic from Mexico and Central America.
Del Real sees the woman as “this deity-ish, Mother Nature-type figure” but says he’s not religious.
“I’m more speaking to this connectedness that I believe exists,” he says.
The 35-year-old muralist and graffiti artist calls his work “a buffet of what I was exposed to” growing up. He grew up in Little Village, went to school in Pilsen and now lives in Pilsen.
He says the colors in his murals are inspired by his family’s home, decorated with his mother’s embroidered cloth coverings.
“You don’t really pay attention to what people of your culture created, or create, until you start composing your own art,” Del Real says.
He works in spray paint — influenced by the graffiti he’d walk past every day in his neighborhood. He saw gang members tag their names on walls in elaborate lettering resembling old English calligraphy.
But he says he didn’t want to be involved in gangs or anything they represented. Art, he says, was his alternative “rite of passage.”
“There was risk,” he says, “in painting and trying to achieve different locations.”
Gang members would sometimes “assume that I was a gangbanger from [my] neighborhood,” he says.
So Del Real would work with other artists and say, “I’m here to paint with so-and-so, trying to make this neighborhood look pretty.”
Among those group efforts is a mural painted on an underpass at 7391 N. Rogers Ave., done with graffiti artists including Track from the crew CAB 312.
“He had his own unique styles,” Track says of Del Real. “Aztec, indigenous — at the time, he was the only one pretty much doing that.”
Del Real discovered indigenous art as a fifth-grader at what’s now Orozco Community Academy. He saw similarities in the lines used in Tlingit tribal art from the Pacific Northwest and the gang tags in his neighborhood.
But the similarities stopped there. He says that, with gangs, “It’s all about selfishness, completely about power.” With the Native American teachings, he said, “it’s, like, OK, if you have something, what can I add to it?”
Del Real first worked on a mural at 16 with the arts outreach program Yollocalli.
“Yollocalli and school helped me take the skills I got from graffiti and turn it into something more meaningful,” he says.
Graffiti centered around “the ego,” he says. “Like, look at what I can do and what my friends can do. When you paint something for the community, you’re making it something more inclusive than exclusive.”
After high school, Del Real bounced between several colleges before enrolling at Northeastern Illinois University and earning a bachelor of fine arts degree.
Today, Del Real works on commissions and teaches part-time at the not-for-profit arts organization Marwen, saying he likes “passing on what you know to the next generation.”
One of his Marwen students, Ruby Williams, 17, says Del Real has given her “a real appreciation and understanding for any street art I see.”
Del Real says he’s painted around 15 murals and 15 graffiti pieces in Chicago and done murals in New York City and Santa Clarita, Calif., and several in Oaxaca, Mexico.
His work in Chicago includes a mural he did for the Adler Planetarium. Orilla Fetro, a designer at the lakefront museum, says Del Real’s aim of connecting people with his art was in line with the planetarium’s mission to “tie people to the sky, no matter where they’re from.”