COVID temporarily closed his River West tattoo parlor, so Louis Barak turned to murals
Growing up in Rogers Park and Uptown amid violence, drugs and gangs, creating art “was an escape . . . a place where I could make the world I wanted.” He wants to provide that outlet for kids.
Barak Studios had been open for only about a year when Barak shut it down — temporarily, he hoped — in the face of the pandemic.
Barak feared he might never be able to reopen.
To help him deal with the stress, he stepped back from tattooing and turned his focus to a different sort of art: making murals, something he’d first done as a teenager.
Within months, he’d created six of them, including a piece he titled “Jump” that he painted on a viaduct at 49th Street and Western Boulevard on the border of Back Of The Yards and Gage Park — a work he says has a “dark but beautiful duality.”
To start, there’s the hyena foaming at the mouth. Barak says that’s to symbolize the relentless force of nature.
He juxtaposes that with an image of an umbrella-toting child jumping. That’s for innocence, he says.
Then, there’s the rearing horse in the painting, which he says make him think of police horses and instances of police brutality that were reported in that period.
The artist, who lives in Bridgeport, says every element of his art is meant to be symbolic. But he’s fine if people see something in his work other than what he did.
He has murals on the South Side as well as in New York, where he previously lived for 10 years.
“The South Side is screaming for beauty,” Barak says.
Barak, 40, says that, growing up in Rogers Park and Uptown, he was surrounded by violence, drugs and gangs. As a kid, art programs helped cultivate his love for painting.
For him, creating art “was an escape. It was a fantasy. It was a place where I could make the world I wanted.”
“The worst time of my life, I wasn’t creating,” he says. “I wasn’t making. I was swallowed by addiction and poor relationships. I was missing that thing that gave me the twinkle in my eye.”
Now, he says, he wants to help kids with their artistic passions.
“A lot of kids who grow up in the inner city, we don’t have examples,” Barak says. “Our parents struggle, or our parents are incarcerated. We certainly need examples of people who look like us.”
Barak plans to take on a recent high school graduate as an apprentice, someone to teach about creating tattoos and murals — two art forms he says share a need to be consistent and precise.
“I really try to take my tattoo practice and my painting practice and make it one cohesive stratosphere,” he says. “The goal is to look at my painting or my tattooing, and you wouldn’t be able to differentiate the two in terms of their impact.”
Barak says that, since his teens, he’s created more than 50 murals, using spray paint.
His latest can be seen at Port Ministries, a nonprofit in Englewood that offers breakfast and after-school programs for kids, a mental health clinic, adult education and a creative art program.
He painted the mural at a basketball court there. David Gonzalez, Port Ministries’ executive director, says he wanted the mural to be about basketball and be something that people of all ages could connect with.
“We want to be somewhat of an oasis,” Gonzalez says. “When young people come in, when teenagers come in, they should feel like they just walked into a dream.”
Barak continues to paint. But he also has his tattooing business at 751 N. May St. He was able to reopen later in 2020 and says business has come back.
Chicago’s murals & mosaics
Part of a series on public art. More murals added every week.