Chicago viaducts are notoriously dingy places, often dank and crumbling.
But not the railroad underpass on Peoria Street between 16th Street and 16th Place in Pilsen.
With more than 30 artists working in a variety of styles, its walls were transformed over one long weekend in October into a series of elaborate murals, becoming a colorful outdoor gallery:
- There is a painting of a woman — with no mouth and no pupils but a lot of very blue hair.
- There’s a face with thick eyebrows and neon-outlined flowers in her hair, representing the 20th century Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
- In another piece, reddish skulls are set against a green landscape that includes spaceships lifting off.
- One mural features the masked figure Fray Tormenta — a legendary Mexican priest and professional wrestler — in priestly garb, his hands outstretched, colorful birds flanking him.
- And there are blue- and purple-faced, cartoon-type characters surrounding a purple-bottomed shoe.
The project was overseen by Delilah Martinez, owner of the Vault Gallerie in Pilsen and the force behind the “Mural Movement” that’s been creating “Black and Brown unity murals” across Chicago since racial unrest erupted this past summer.
Martinez says viaducts “connect communities” yet often “have a reputation as dark and scary.”
But, she says, “People want their communities to look good.”
The project was a collective effort, she says, between the artists volunteering their time, and neighbors, donors and city officials.
The area already was exploding with street art. A long retaining wall along 16th Street has served as a concrete canvas for years, with dozens of paintings stretching for blocks and making the strip one of Chicago’s biggest expanses of public art — and one constantly changing and growing.
The artists on the viaduct project came from different places, but all “knew the history of Pilsen and the culture of 16th Street and the murals along that area,” Martinez says.
She says a second, similar project is being discussed.
Mario Mena, one of the artists who painted in the viaduct, says the project felt special given how much “crazy stuff” has been going on.
“It’s nice to have something nobody’s divided on,” he says. “Art unites people. It’s visual healing.”