Tom Lee wants to make one thing very clear: He’s a blogger, not a terrorist.
In May, Lee launched Bomb Chicago, perhaps the only website dedicated to documenting the local street-art scene. He began posting photos of graffiti taken while riding his bike around the city. Lee had big dreams for the site: scoring interviews with Chicago’s street-art crews, composing downloadable tour guides to permission walls (graffiti-friendly spaces where artists can work without fear of the police), and collaborating with artists on T-shirt designs and gallery events. The 34-year-old Map Room bartender incorporated and submitted Bomb Chicago as an assumed name, the name a corporation presents to the public. (Bomb is slang for covering a surface with graffiti.)
Last month, the Illinois Secretary of State’s Department of Business Services (DBS) put a big kink in Lee’s plan. In a letter dated June 5, the DBS told Lee he was prohibited from operating as Bomb Chicago. The letter quoted a 1996 administrative rule regarding the Business Corporation Act: “A corporate or assumed name shall not contain any word or phrase that would create the connotation that is offensive to good taste or decency.”
Lee was incensed by the rejection but not completely surprised. Almost certainly, Springfield bureaucrats are tragically unfamiliar with street slang. But Lee says the refusal to grant his name request is yet another symptom of the perception of street art as “a blight on the community,” especially in a cash-strapped city that was still able to budget $5.6 million this year for a Graffiti Blasters program.
“It kind of makes me a laugh a little bit,” Lee says. “The graffiti artists that [the site is] following encounter the same attitude. They’re fighting censorship, and we’re documenting their process. In doing that, we became a victim of the same censorship.” (Lee’s first video interview on the site, incidentally, is with Gabriel Villa, the artist whose Bridgeport wall mural was controversially removed in May at the request of 11th Ward Ald. James Balcer.)
Lee reacted to the state’s rejection a week later in a Bomb Chicago post titled “Fear Words.” “Oh shit, ‘Bomb’ something. That must be terrorist related,” Lee wrote, suggesting the possible thought process of the civil servant who processed the request. He added, “I can only imagine the ‘watch lists’ we’re currently being added to as I write this.”
Last week, we followed up with the DBS, explaining Lee’s situation and asking if it was aware that bomb is a graffiti term. “Until you said what you said, I didn’t know what it was,” said Marilyn, a communications supervisor who didn’t give her last name. She explained that the process of determining whether an assumed name qualifies as offensive is subjective. “The final determination is made by our specialists,” she said. “It’s up to, basically, the office.”
So we asked Marilyn to reconsider Bomb Chicago. She put us on hold, talked for several minutes to her supervisor, Robert Durchholz, then got back on the line: “He doesn’t see any reason it shouldn’t go through,” she reported. “He said it’s not really distasteful.”
Thankful to have his assumed name in place, Lee hopes DBS employees “make more informed decisions” in the future. “When in doubt,” he says, “use the Urban Dictionary.”