The corrugated iron wall that borders one side of the all-female graffiti artists’ space that artists Bel and Phina have created, as seen from the entrance at 2725 S. Sacramento Ave. in the shadows of the Cook County Jail.

The corrugated iron wall that borders one side of the all-female graffiti artists’ space that artists Bel and Phina have created, as seen from the entrance at 2725 S. Sacramento Ave. in the shadows of the Cook County Jail.

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2 Chicago graffiti artists create an all-female ‘space of our own’ in Little Village

In a male-dominated graffiti scene, artists Bel and Phina’s all-female graffiti-painting events have created a maze of murals in the alleys in the shadows of the Cook County Jail.

SHARE 2 Chicago graffiti artists create an all-female ‘space of our own’ in Little Village
SHARE 2 Chicago graffiti artists create an all-female ‘space of our own’ in Little Village

In a no-man’s-land behind the Cook County Jail in Little Village, two Chicago graffiti artists have created a space for female artists to express themselves.

Chicago’s murals and mosaics sidebar

Chicago’s murals & mosaics

Part of a series on public art in the city and suburbs. More murals are added every week.

The size of a football field, the space is an old railroad right-of-way. It includes a cinderblock wall down one side and a metal wall down the other that runs into an alley.

And it’s all covered in graffiti murals — large-scale, carefully curated productions that change two or three times a year.

An array of murals snakes through unpaved alleys in the shadow of the Cook County Jail.

An array of murals snakes through unpaved alleys in the shadow of the Cook County Jail.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

The art started seven years ago, with an all-female graffiti jam called Splash started by two women who, for their art, go by the names Bel and Phina.

Part of a cinderblock wall near 26th Street and Sacramento Avenue, painted with graffiti art this summer.

Part of a cinderblock wall near 26th Street and Sacramento Avenue, painted with graffiti art this summer.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

Women have to “work harder than the guys to paint with them,” says Phina, 41, who grew up in Little Village. “So we were, like, well, that’s not fair.”

An alley jutting out from the main outdoor gallery space includes murals from Splash and another painting event called Meeting of Styles.

An alley jutting out from the main outdoor gallery space includes murals from Splash and another painting event called Meeting of Styles.

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So Bel says she and Phina set out to create “a space of our own.” They found it in 2013 — land near Sacramento Avenue and 26th Street where the walls were either as gray and drab as the Cook County Jail across the street or covered in graffiti.

Since then, the space — which Phina and Bel call “County Walls” because of the proximity to the jail — has been the scene of more than 20 graffiti productions.

xHow the current alley mural space in Little Village near the Cook County Jail looked before the first Splash event.

How the current alley mural space in Little Village near the Cook County Jail looked before the first Splash event.

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The venue offers something for artists to aspire to, Phina says: “Like, ‘Oh, I wanna get to paint at Splash one day.’ ”

The organizers are open to anyone female-identifying.

Zeye, a Splash artist since 2015, painting an Aztec woman for this year’s Splash, as her sister watches her work.

Zeye, a Splash artist since 2015, painting an Aztec woman for this year’s Splash, as her sister watches her work.

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Being next to the jail wasn’t intentional, but the artists have found they love creating “color around something that’s so negative,” says Bel, who is 33 and lives in Little Village.

The murals can’t be seen from inside the jail, but jail visitors sometimes pass by, said Bel.

A section of the Mario Brothers wall painted at Splash 2015 by artists Fay, who painted her name, and Lisa Gray, who painted Mario and the background.

A section of the Mario Brothers wall painted at Splash 2015 by artists Fay, who painted her name, and Lisa Gray, who painted Mario and the background.

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The space is a popular shortcut through the neighborhood. Kids will come by and recognize the characters in the paintings and occasionally have asked the artists to spray-paint their bikes, too.

It creates “positivity, a lot of helping each other out,” Bel says.

The Splash event — one of several group painting gatherings the two organizers hold there every year — happens during the summer, usually over a long weekend.

Over the years, the art has grown from one wall to now stretch over four walls as Bel and Phina got permission from property owners.

The artist Flor paints at far right at Splash 2019.

The artist Flor paints at far right at Splash 2019.

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Phina and Bel fund the art themselves. They look for discounted paint but “have never got anything for free,” Bel says.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s Splash was more restrained than last year’s festivities. Still, it attracted the most artists yet — 19 women, most from Chicago, others from Indianapolis, Detroit and Wisconsin.

Phina and Bel chose unity as this year’s theme, Bel says, “because of all that’s going on.”

Artist Sueño in front of her mural combining the faces of Breonna Taylor and Vanessa Guillén, painted on the cinderblock wall this summer at Splash 2020.

Artist Sueño in front of her mural combining the faces of Breonna Taylor and Vanessa Guillén, painted on the cinderblock wall this summer at Splash 2020.

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Bel and Phina decide who paints where.

Making her Splash debut this year, Wisconsin artist Sueño painted images of Vanessa Guillén, the soldier from Fort Hood, Texas, who was killed earlier this year, and Breonna Taylor, the woman killed by Louisville police.

Another artist, who goes only by Jane, came from Indianapolis to paint at Splash for the first time, creating an outer space-style work.

Jane, from Indianapolis, in front of her mural of girls sitting on her name.

Jane, from Indianapolis, in front of her mural of girls sitting on her name.

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Artist Liz painted her name next to a character in the style of the cartoon Powerpuff Girls saying, “BLM” — Black Lives Matter.

A Powerpuff-girl style character saying, “BLM” — Black Lives Matter — painted by Liz, an artist who joined Splash in 2017.

A Powerpuff-girl style character saying, “BLM” — Black Lives Matter — painted by Liz, an artist who joined Splash in 2017.

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Some artists painted words instead of their names, like “PODER” (“power” in Spanish), “Hope” and “One” or friends’ names.

Phina’s section of a wall says “La Unidad Es Poder” — Spanish for “Unity Is Power.”

Phina’s section of a wall says “La Unidad Es Poder” — Spanish for “Unity Is Power.”

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Stef, a Humboldt Park artist, wrote “PODER” to “speak to Spanish people in the neighborhood.”

The word “Poder” by artist Stef in her signature botanical style, which pays homage to her Costa Rican heritage with Costa Rica’s traditional floral-painted oxcarts.

The word “Poder” by artist Stef in her signature botanical style, which pays homage to her Costa Rican heritage with Costa Rica’s traditional floral-painted oxcarts.

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Bel says she painted the word “Hope” in darker colors because she believes hope is often “in your deepest darkest times.”

Bel says she painted the word “Hope” in darker colors because she believes hope is often “in your deepest darkest times.”

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“Unity,” painted by Shan, a graffiti artist who has been with Splash since its beginnings.

“Unity,” painted by Shan, a graffiti artist who has been with Splash since its beginnings.

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Artist Bims, who’s been part of Splash since 2018, painted the name of her friend Atmos, who recently died.

Artist Bims, who’s been part of Splash since 2018, painted the name of her friend Atmos, who recently died.

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Gloe, an artist and activist from Little Village, painted “One” — with flowers around it — to signify the unity of people living in Little Village and Lawndale.

Gloe, an artist and activist from Little Village, painted “One” — with flowers around it — to signify the unity of people living in Little Village and Lawndale.

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This year also saw Phina’s two daughters — Meleena Monarrez, 15, who goes by Melee for her graffiti, and Jaleela Monarrez, 13, who goes by Jalee — take part for the first time in the painting. They were the youngest participants.

A mural of two women painted by Phina’s daughters Meleena, who goes by Melee, 15, and Jaleela, 13, who goes by Jalee.

A mural of two women painted by Phina’s daughters Meleena, who goes by Melee, 15, and Jaleela, 13, who goes by Jalee.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

The murals typically last around three months before being painted over.

“I think that’s what makes it extra-special,” Bel says.

Bel and Phina also host other artists and events throughout the year, including one last year called Meeting of Styles, an international graffiti gathering. The alley’s metal section is the last strip from 2019’s event.

The alley’s metal wall is the last remaining strip from Meeting of Styles, an international graffiti event held in 2019.

The alley’s metal wall is the last remaining strip from Meeting of Styles, an international graffiti event held in 2019.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

On the brick side of the alley is art by Chea, a Chicago artist, showing a woman’s hair that resembles a doodle on a notebook page.

On the brick side of the alley is art by Chea, a Chicago artist, showing a woman’s hair that resembles a doodle on a notebook page.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

Yame, whose first Splash was this summer, wrote her name. To the right is a piece by artist Aleon, who also wrote her name.

Yame, whose first Splash was this summer, wrote her name. To the right is a piece by artist Aleon, who also wrote her name.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

Phina works on her painting of a doctor for the first Splash in 2014.

Phina works on her painting of a doctor for the first Splash in 2014.

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A graffiti piece painted by the artist Zeye, who is from Chicago.

A graffiti piece painted by the artist Zeye, who is from Chicago.

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A piece by Tova, who painted an anime-style character from Splash 2018.

A piece by Tova, who painted an anime-style character from Splash 2018.

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For Splash 2019, artist Chea painted her name into the ice cream cone held by her girl character.

For Splash 2019, artist Chea painted her name into the ice cream cone held by her girl character.

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The word “Flwr” and a cartoon troll painted by artist Flor, one of Bel’s art students who joined Splash around 2016.

The word “Flwr” and a cartoon troll painted by artist Flor, one of Bel’s art students who joined Splash around 2016.

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Bel and Phina hope to expand and are hoping the city’s plans to create the El Paseo bike trail in the area, running from Pilsen to Little Village, perhaps along the railroad right-of-way, won’t stop that.

“We’re hoping that it’s still going to stay a community space,” Bel says.

Click on the map below for a selection of Chicago-area murals

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