This mural in an alley in the 1300 block of West 18th Street in Pilsen was a collaboration between artists Michelle Huang and Mario Mena.

This mural in an alley in the 1300 block of West 18th Street in Pilsen was a collaboration between artists Michelle Huang and Mario Mena.

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In a Pilsen alley, filled with murals, this one stands out as, well, creepy and gross

And that’s just what artists Michelle Huang and Mario Mena were aiming for with that part of The Alley Project.

SHARE In a Pilsen alley, filled with murals, this one stands out as, well, creepy and gross
SHARE In a Pilsen alley, filled with murals, this one stands out as, well, creepy and gross
If you could paint a nightmare, it might just look something like the mural you’ll find in the alley in the 1300 block of West 18th Street.

Creepy snail? Check. Bloodshot, disconnected eyeballs? Got ‘em! Half-jaguar, half-human skull? That, too. With lots of blood red also in there.

“I love that feeling of people walking down the street and it shocks them, so they have to kind of stand there for a second,” says Michelle Huang, who painted the mural last summer with fellow artist Mario Mena. “Like, ‘Oh, my god, so gross and so out there!’

“It’s such an intense space to come upon on accident,” says Huang, 25, a native Californian who now lives in Chicago.

The two artists came together as part of what was called The Alley Project, which aims to beautify overlooked alleyways.

The Alley Project is run by David Giron, a third-generation Pilsen resident. So far, nearly 15 murals cover the walls of this particular alley, and more will be added this summer. More than 30 artists have left their mark in the alley.

“You throw away your garbage there,” says Mena, 31. “We don’t really see it as prime real estate for a mural. But we wanted to bring that value to the space, finding an opportunity to beautify the neighborhood even though it’s not the most ideal part of the neighborhood.”

The jaguar-like skull was a nod to Mena’s Mexican heritage. The Aztec god Tezcatlipoca’s “animal disguise” is the big cat.

Huang did the snail, faces and eyeballs.

“Not everybody, I think, connects with conventionally beautiful things,” she says. “Some people connect more with the creepy parts of the world. Or some people connect more with the disturbing parts of the world more. So it’s, like, I like drawing things that are super-, super-intense. Those ugly parts, like, connect with me a little bit more.”

The two artists hadn’t met before, though they’d admired each other’s work. Mena got the OK to use the walls in the alley and got in touch with Huang.

Artists Michelle Huang and Mario Mena met for the first time the day they started this Pilsen mural.

Artists Michelle Huang and Mario Mena met for the first time the day they started this Pilsen mural.

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“We allowed each other to kind of enhance each other’s skills,” Mena says. “Instead of just, ‘You do your part, and I do mine,’ we were constantly going back and forth, getting feedback, giving constructive criticism. It was a very pleasant experience for both of us. It was almost like our personalities were getting along, so the mural just happened.

“It’s sometimes hard to find that connection with other people,” he says.

“I do some cool pieces by myself,” Huang says. “But, when you come together with another person, somebody as talented as Mario, it’s, like, you know, it really kind of amplifies our abilities.”

While they were painting, people came out to see it take form, even bringing out chairs to sit and watch, Mena says.

Mena is from Gage Park and got involved with the art scene in Pilsen starting as a teenager.

“Pilsen is this very special community that really bred me to be the artist who I am now,” he says.

Mena had been wanting to do a piece with a jaguar. Same with Huang doing a snail. They sketched out a simple version, and, from there, the paint just flowed.

Michelle Huang, 25, at work on a mural in a Pilsen alley last August.

Michelle Huang, 25, at work on a mural in a Pilsen alley last August.

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“We’re just trying to beautify our community and make peace and reclaim our public space, especially in a place like Pilsen, which is dealing with gentrification, people not being able to afford rent there,” Mena says. “It kind of shows what the community is, and we’re able to showcase that to other people coming in. Like, ‘Hey, we are here, and we’re reclaiming our public space.’ ”

Murals

Chicago’s murals & mosaics


Part of a series on public art. More murals added every week.

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

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