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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Artist Liz painted her name next to a character in the style of the cartoon Powerpuff Girls saying, “BLM” — Black Lives Matter.
Some artists painted words instead of their names, like “PODER” (“power” in Spanish), “Hope” and “One” or friends’ names.
Stef, a Humboldt Park artist, wrote “PODER” to “speak to Spanish people in the neighborhood.”
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.
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.
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.