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Old dormant grain silos on South Side are an enduring industrial canvas for graffiti artists

Located along the Chicago River near Damen Avenue, the hulking structures dare and draw graffiti writers to their towers and snaking caverns below. The long-time owner of the site — state government — has been trying for decades to sell it for redevelopment.

The long-abandoned Damen Silos on the south branch of the Chicago River near Damen Avenue.
The long-abandoned Damen Silos on the south branch of the Chicago River near Damen Avenue.
Mark Capapas / Sun-Times

The towering, old grain silos near 29th Street and Damen Avenue, on the banks of the Chicago River’s south branch, date to Chicago’s heyday as a hub of manufacturing and food distribution.

While they haven’t been functional for decades, the dormant, weathered structures have long been a draw for graffiti artists and taggers who’ve turned the 24-acre site into something of an industrial canvas.

That includes the silos themselves, adjoining structures that are as tall as 15 floors and a series of cavernous tunnels snaking below.

Not exactly the safest place to roam — and not a legal place to visit, either, as the “No Trespassing” signs inform.

A close-up of the high point of the silo complex near 29th Street and Damen Avenue.
A close-up of the high point of the silo complex near 29th Street and Damen Avenue.
Mark Capapas / Sun-Times
The old grain silos are dormant — except for activity from graffiti artists and “urban explorers.”
The old grain silos are dormant — except for activity from graffiti artists and “urban explorers.”
Mark Capapas / Sun-Times

Nevertheless it remains a popular spot for street artists to ply their colorful trade, whether considered art or an eyesore.

A street artist who goes by Werm has painted at the silos over the years — including on the roof in the mid-1990s when he says it wasn’t such a well known spot.

Part of the allure of the place, Werm says, was that “there’s a lot of walls and it’s abandoned, it’s a place where anyone can go practice, and there’s no rules, and you can take your time.”

The Chicago graffiti artist who goes by Werm is shown painting inside the Damen Silos.
The Chicago graffiti artist who goes by Werm is shown painting inside the Damen Silos.
YouTube

“Before there was no security, there were open gates and people could just walk in, it was a public underground street art gallery,” Werm says, adding security has definitely tightened up since.

Another veteran street artist who goes by Emte said a number of years ago a construction company he worked at was getting rid of hundreds of gallons of old paint, and he said, “I’ll take it.”

He brought it to the silo grounds and “we used it to roll out all the brick walls . . . we were just caking walls and inviting people to come paint.”

“It was some of the best graffiti artists at that time that I pied pipered to come in,” he said.

“It’s an outlet to express ourselves,” he said. “I wanted it to be a super-dope unsanctioned museum, and it did become that, but it only lasted five or six years.”

The Chicago graffiti artist who goes by Emte (on ladder) paints with a friend at the Damen Silos in 2014.
The Chicago graffiti artist who goes by Emte (on ladder) paints with a friend at the Damen Silos in 2014.
Courtesy of @acid_dropz_

Then the site became more widely known and graffiti artists started descending like locusts, sometimes without regard for images created by others.

The “Chicagoist” website once included the “Damen Silos” on a list of “16 Must-See Examples Of Chicago Street Art.”

Chicago photographer Jordan Scott felt compelled to capture the gritty grandeur of the place with his camera in 2018.

The interior of the Damen Silos, as shown in 2018 in black and white.
The interior of the Damen Silos, as shown in 2018 in black and white.
Courtesy of Jordan Scott
Another black and white image from inside the old grain silos along the south branch of the Chicago River.
Another black and white image from inside the old grain silos along the south branch of the Chicago River.
Courtesy of Jordan Scott

In a subsequent online essay, he described the site as “something out of a dystopian Hollywood movie set” that’s “hanging on to existence by some unknown hand that resists its complete demolition and redevelopment.”

A look at the inside of the Damen Silos from this past summer.
A look at the inside of the Damen Silos from this past summer.
Courtesy of @dianaaa.s
A view of the caverns within the Damen Silos, as seen earlier this year.
A view of the caverns within the Damen Silos, as seen earlier this year.
Courtesy of @773slickrick

Three years later, it’s still standing and awaiting that redevelopment.

The view of the Damen Silos in 2016 from a drone camera.
The view of the Damen Silos in 2016 from a drone camera.
Courtesy of @devodare_chicago
Another aerial view of part of the Damen Silos property in 2016.
Another aerial view of part of the Damen Silos property in 2016.
Courtesy of @devodare_chicago

The site is owned by the State of Illinois, which “is committed to selling the property,” says a spokesman, adding that Gov. J.B. Pritzker “continues to look for opportunities to dispose of underutilized assets to spur economic development, generate real estate taxes and maximize taxpayer value.”