Chicago muralist Uprizn Ikpemi grew up around dogs and always enjoyed painting them.
So when the artist moved to Chicago four years ago from Lagos, Nigeria, and saw how artists signed their work, he had an idea.
He would put his name to his work, like other artists do. And, when he could, he’d also include his dogs in them, finding a way to get his 3-year-old bullmastiff Peppo or his 2-year-old American bulldog Risky somewhere in the mural.
“Most artists out here have a unique style or have a unique symbol or have something that they’re known for,” Ikpemi says. “I could just be the dog guy who paints the dogs.”
Over the years, featuring a dog became his signature element as he got better at drawing them.
He started doing that after noticing that other artists often develop a signature element they often feature. So he decided that his dogs would be his personal symbol.
Ikpemi has worked on murals across Chicago, most of them on the South Side.
In one that he painted at 63rd Street and South Racine Avenue in Englewood, a seated woman is wearing a shirt that reads, “Black culture influences the world,” with a dog in front of her. That would be Peppo, the dog Ikpemi most often features in his work and his oldest pet.
Ikpemi says his style is influenced by his African background, with bold color and abstract elements as seen in the mural at 63rd and Racine.
He’s also partial to using a graffiti-like technique known as wildstyle, interweaving shapes.
He also ties in elements from ancient Benin art, tying back to where he’s from.
Born in Benin City in Edo State, Ikpemi grew up in Lagos. He says he learned a lot about art on the Internet, where he was first exposed to graffiti and mural art.
And the dogs? Well, Ikpemi says he always had dogs growing up.
“Sometimes, I could just sit down, and I just start sketching something freehand, and I’m just drawing a dog,” he says. “It’s natural to me.”
His father lived in Chicago while Ikpemi was growing up. The rest of the family immigrated over the years. Ikpemi, the last, says it took nine years to get through the immigration process.
Ikpemi was a professional artist in Nigeria for 12 years and did murals for commercial brands and companies.
In Chicago, he started doing street art after meeting Chicago artist Rahmaan Statik, for whom he is an apprentice.
Statik says it’s been nice having Ikpemi’s dogs around to provide “an extra set of eyes” on the street while they paint.
“They’re almost like natural motion detectors,” Statik says. “In a number of situations, we’ll actually use those dogs for security.”
Ikpemi also works full-time as a kennel coach and is studying art and animation at Columbia College Chicago.
He says he didn’t have street art to inspire him when he was growing up in Nigeria. But he hopes that’s what his murals will do for people in Chicago.