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Urban scrawl

The latest wave of graffiti isn't spray paint and tagging. A local underground artist talks about the new direction of street art.

By Kim Ketover |

Territorial gang graffiti has always been a concern of neighborhoodbusybodies and the target of Mayor Daley’s graffiti-blasters. And lately, a rash of non-gang-related tags, such as preston and NIGHT MOVES (which we covered in TOC 49), has concerned residents calling community meetings to address what they consider to be a growing problem.

But where some see only vandalism, others see something more. Take, for example, the elaborate illustrations of the Viking (upper and lower left)—a longtime Chicago street artist, whose work is often accompanied by the more cartoonlike pieces of accomplices Stomach and Goons (bottom center). All three are members of a burgeoning group dedicated to altering the perception of what is considered art. The Viking is one of what he estimates to be 20 artists who use spray paint, stencils, stickers and silk-screens to to alter everyday objects and challenge people’s notion of art. The work is more representational and artistically ambitious than the newfangled tags like preston.

The Viking attaches his illustrations of skulls or animated wind clouds to street poles from Rogers Park to Hyde Park. Some compare the latter to the rain cloud designs prominent in the Wicker Park area (upper and lower right).

We met the Viking—who requested anonymity (“the work is not about [me], it’s about the ideas behind it”)—at the Whirlaway, a Logan Square bar. Despite being one of Chicago’s core street artists, up close and in person the Viking is relatively nondescript—five-nine inches tall with red hair. But looks are deceiving: The DePaul honor student has splashed more than 2,000 images around the city—either stuck, wheat-pasted or painted on walls, the backs of street signs and plywood construction-site barricades. He says his graphics—such as broken bottles and bones—are intended to cause anxiety, to make the viewer stop and reflect.

The pictures often include cryptic poetic phrases (like “The victimsevered his throat so the media would choke”), which The Vikingdescribes as “honest expression of self and identity.” (We suspect it has to do with listening to too much Morrissey.)

The 21-year-old artist, who’s been on the scene for seven years, says his work is part of a movement called post-graffiti (the 1980s were considered the golden age of the art form). “We take from graffiti that we want to put art in the street, but we want to make people think,” the Viking says. “Street artists liberate the idea that work needs to be in a gallery…With these art forms the street speaks.”

Not everyone sees it that way. Graffiti artists caught violating citysanitation regulations can face fines of at least $500, jail time for up to 30 days or up to 1,000 hours of community service. Graffiti blasters, for which Daley has appropriated around $4 million a year since 1993, removes all graffiti—regardless of its artistic merit—whether on public or private property.

Consequently, street art has a short lifespan, but artists have gotten creative. The Viking has been creating his art on boards and attaching them to objects like lampposts, stripping the bolts to keep people from removing them. He says he’ll continue to break up monotony and leave his mark on the Chicago cityscape. “People see the same thing over and over and never ask questions,” he says. “As long as I’m around I want to make sure people are seeing something else.”

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