As news of Rod Blagojevich’s federal indictment broke in late April, stenciled graffiti portraits of a fearful-looking Blago wearing his signature track suit appeared in Chicago alleys and underpasses, as well as a few more prominent locations, like the wall outside Wicker Park bar the Violet Hour. We thought the stencils were bleepin’ golden—a perfect blend of pop culture, public disdain for crooked Illinois politics and guerrilla street art. Three months later, they remain visible (and illegal) all over town. Is the city quietly tolerating the Blago stencils?
“No,” says Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation spokesman Matt Smith. Reached via e-mail, Smith claims many of the Blago stencils have been removed—and those that haven’t probably “have not been phoned into 311, are pending removal or have been removed by us and reapplied by the vandals.” He says the city has removed an astonishing 91,866 graffiti this year alone, which means the Graffiti Blasters are on track to exceed their 2008 total.
“They just haven’t gotten to [the stencils] yet,” agrees the man who designed them, Chicago artist Ray Noland (a.k.a. CRO). Best known for the pro-Obama posters he made during the presidential campaign, Noland emphasizes that he has “no control of the stencils on the street.” He says his images are frequently appropriated, to the point where they’re sold for a profit without his authority. “Folks take my images all the time,” Noland tells us. “As far as the stencils on the street, I get a kick out of them and I feel honored someone would put them up.”
From Friday 24–Sunday 26, Noland’s Creative Rescue Organization hosts a juried exhibition of Blagojevich-themed art, “Run Blago Run!,” at 1925 North Milwaukee Avenue. Participating artists include Noland, photographer Amanda Rivkin and local muralist Jeff Zimmerman. Ten percent of the show’s proceeds will be donated to Street-Level Youth Media, a West Town nonprofit that teaches young people video and audio production, Web design and other creative skills.
Terry Alexander, the Violet Hour’s co-owner, let an image of Blago being chased by a dog remain outside his bar until July 9, when he covered it with a graffiti mural commissioned from the Bots Crew. Alexander believes graffiti gives life to a neighborhood. “I can’t explain why the Blago stencil has a longer lifespan [than other graffiti],” he says, “but I smile any time I see one.”
If you want to preserve street art (solicited or otherwise) on your property, Smith recommends contacting your local alderman to fend off the Graffiti Blasters. What if your alderman is James Balcer, who, in May 2009, ordered the Blasters to destroy Gabriel Villa’s commissioned mural of police surveillance cameras? Smith acknowledges that incident was a “communication mishap.”
“Run Blago Run!” opens Friday 24, 6–9pm, at 1925 North Milwaukee Avenue.