Pilsen’s True Colors

My walk of Chicago takes place in Pilsen in an attempt to reveal the communities values, history, and culture through public art murals. I experienced the community and a lot more as murals took on social and political issues facing Pilsen.

Pilsen Map Murals + Highlights

The map is a depiction of North Pilsen, linking murals to general locations to tell the stories of the community not only where each mural is, but how the community is created and identified through the murals. Highlights show some of the historical, cultural, social, and political references. “Resemblance ‘A painting represents on the canvas what the painter observes.’ Maps are not views.” (Krygier, and Wood) It is not only what I saw but what I observed about the community. This works for maps along with the murals themselves. Artists observe, a problem, struggle, past, or something else and manifests it into a mural for the community. The map’s compass rose points north path the concrete wall of murals, which are elevated to show importance and location.

Murals are a recovery of voice, a reclamation of otherwise empty spaces which create a more connected community. A recovery which can be seen throughout history, through marching and creating voice, “In the exhilaration of having recovered their history and their voice, dissidents stepped up their efforts, and … the new Hungarian Republic was born.”(Solnit) These murals birthed a more coherent Pilsen neighborhood and educate the community through stories and voice.

In October I walked the Northern Pilsen neighborhood paying attention to public art on the walls. The 18th street station welcomes everyone to the neighborhood, murals line the walls. Latino vibes, bright colors, and indigenous art design like that of the Aztecs. The stairs bring everyone into the community and also say goodbye to those departing with brilliant designs, different for every step. Unique patterns give life to the stairs as the rumble of the train passes overhead. It is public transit of Pilsen turned art display to attach to Aztec roots and indigenous history.

18th Street Station stairs

Exiting the station a mural appears across the street. It’s a mural portrait of Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist who painted portraits, and works inspired by the nature and cultural objects of Mexico. A common theme in murals, prominent Mexican and latino figures. Athletes, artists, politicians, historical figures. It’s in a way itself a foreshadow of the rest of ones walk, what better to prepare someone for art, than a mural of one of Mexico’s prominent artists? Flowers line her hair and butterfly wings spread behind her, as indigenous jewelry hangs from her neck.

Small businesses line 18th street, Mexican food, flower shops, vintage shops, and much more. Papel picado hang from apartments, colorful cut outs, a traditional Mexican folk art popular around day of the dead. The street is active with families, workers, and homeless walking the streets. Sales people sit outside shops and try to sell food and masks to those who pass.

The graffiti and murals on the side of the elevated rail yard are quite visible from distance approaching 16th street. The murals create an identity for the neighborhood. Public art gives a voice to the artists, groups, and most importantly the community who may struggle with and search for their identity. A lot of the murals in the area are related to cultural latino identity. The murals on 16th Street in Pilsen are more than paint on a concrete walls, it is voices of the neighborhood spanning for about 14 city blocks. It’s different generations and artists speaking. Sharing a range of stories and experiences. They tell the story of the Pilsen community, from its indigenous roots to its growth in modern age.

Mexican influence from days such as Dia de Los Muertos are manifested into art such as that of a woman with her face painted as a skull. Mexican tradition is painted on brick, with appreciation of Chicago not far off as the next mural displays the words, “Love Chicago.”

Dia de Los Muertos by “Vampiro”

16th street is quiet, not many pedestrians, just the occasional dog walker. The smell is not pleasant and garbage lines the grass along the concrete. Beat up cars with parking tickets line the side of the street. With no murals this one side of the street is but a concrete wall. Murals are an attempt to repurpose and recreate the surface. Sidewalks disappear time and time again, forcing pedestrian along the other side where the houses are sitting, blocking the art with obstructed views from cars. The street itself is not super active, with the occasional SUV passing by or large truck starting and stopping. Mexican flags hang from windows and roads intersect under the concrete every once in a while, trains move in the yard overhead but the murals stay and stand proudly.

Religious murals are throughout the different artworks as well. One reads rest in peace, to a community member, and other tells the story of Adam and Eve. Religion has influence over the community, you can see two towers of a church under construction stand within the community. Bible quotes are scripted on one mural, Mary makes appearances in many murals as well. Church and religion seems to be a strong influence of belief throughout the community, “to know good and evils.” The mural creates community values.

It is not just the past but present. Murals attempt to answer the question: What is it like to live and grow up in Pilsen? Children under books show the education system, gentrification speaks up about their neighborhood not being for sale. Childhood homelessness is also brought up through abandonment. How could children be left behind, forgotten like balloons being released, let go. Balloons become broken just like humans, the mural asks: do balloons cry when you let them go?

Mural taking on social issue of homeless youth

Along with religion and social issues there is a strong Mexican influence in Pilsen as well as influence from other latin american groups. Many murals make cultural references which can be relatable to the community, helping create a connection. Chicago is the city of neighborhoods and through art, the community is making a claim about its community and values. Social issues were also very present in murals through immigration, gentrification, education, and many more issues.

My experience was more than marking murals on a map, it was showing the story of immigrants. The mexican-american experience, the struggle of transition and gentrification in a community. The idea that “Reclamation of the city begins with the realisation that ‘that’ place, whatever its problems, is in fact ‘our’ place,” (Hollis) is what makes the public art special. Pilsen reclaims these places which are concrete walls, an ugly door, or the side of a building. Art is the reclamation of the community into storytelling and beautification. Pilsen reclaims its empty walls, and community values because it’s theres to do so, it belongs to the citizens who call Pilsen home.

Many murals commemorate the indigenous people of countries such as Mexico, seen through the traditional art and patterns. Quick research reveals the mural of changing faces to be one of the most iconic murals. The face of an indigenous man changes each time in emotion and color. Showing the struggle of being a Mexican American from historical roots, and what it feels like to adapt to a new place like the United States or more specifically Chicago. Anger, crying, laughing, smiling, a mixture of emotion and change.

Changing indigenous faces, emotions
Political commentary on immigration

Political statements can help portray how an artist and their community feel. Created by a group of youth, they state how immigrants are treated like illegals. That the United States is a nation of immigrants and immigrants are attacked by tension created by national security. Walls, deportation, the use of word “illegal” demonize groups of immigrants and push a nation apart instead of together. In a community of immigrants it is an important statement to show the community welcomes immigrants, and each butterfly has a different flag, not just south or central american countries. It tells the story of diversity and peace.

Murals on doors give light to different historical groups and people.
Wall of honor, Peace Project

Different groups such as JDEF peace project use art to honor the community. This mural honors community members one of whom was a police officer shot and killed in the line of duty on 18th street in 2001. Brian Stouse, quotes under pictures are motivation and ask of change, “Stop killing each other start coming together” one reads.

As I stood reading the mural ‘peace project’ a crossing guard spoke with a shopkeeper about their children. I continue walking west, a car rolls up to the sidewalk next to me, I continue walking not thinking much of it. The door opens “Hey white boy!” a man yells from behind me. I ignore him and he laughs in the distance.

My map may not fully go in depth about the story behind each mural or show where every single mural is, but it is a proposition that Mexican Americans have gone through a struggle. Indigenous, to immigrants, and fighting off gentrification. The neighborhood celebrates its past and culture in order to let stories not go unforgotten. Murals reclaimed Pilsen and through this community of Pilsen and their artists told their story. (1597)

Work Cited

Hollis, Leo. “Cities Thrive When Public Space Is Open to All — Leo Hollis | Aeon Essays.” Aeon, Aeon, 23 Oct. 2018, aeon.co/essays/cities-thrive-when-public-space-is-open-to-all.

Krygier , and Wood. Ce N’est Pas Le Monde. 6 Nov. 2009.

Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust: a History of Walking. Granta Books, 2014.

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Ross Dillon

Experience @ Publicis Sapient | B.S. in UX Design | Writer & Speaker | Portfolio www.rossdillon.me