Local art wall hidden casualty in wake of Vue53 development

Staff Writer

When demolition begins on the Mobil station on 53rd Street later this summer — to make way for the Vue53 development — the whole site will be leveled. That includes one of the most varying and accessible artistic venues in Chicago.

The long, low wall that extends from the eastern edge of the car wash to the western edge of the building that houses the Sit Down Café, has for more than 20 years been the site of a rotating art exhibit of sorts.

The wall that faces the alley behind the Mobil gas station, 1330 E. 53rd St., between Kenwood and Kimbark avenues and across the street from Nichols Park, changes from week to week, or even day to day.

Doug Freitag, one of the first artists to paint the wall, has been painting there for so long his hair is starting to turn grey. He painted under the name Dwel for most of his adolescent life, before he decided to pursue art as a career under his given name.

Freitag isn’t sure exactly when the graffiti community received permission to paint the wall. To avoid excessive hassle from police, painters could show a letter from the property owner saying they had permission to paint. Freitag said he theorizes that at least the first letter or two that painters shared was forged.

“I don’t know if they made the letter up, or if they got permission,” Freitag said.

Called a “permission wall,” graffiti artists from across the city have come to paint on this wall since the early 1990s. A permission wall is a place where graffiti artists can paint freely, without fear of being arrested, because they have permission from the owner to paint.

Permission walls were more common across Chicago before Mayor Richard M. Daley began a campaign to stamp out all graffiti, with the intended purpose of eliminating gang graffiti.

Daley started the Graffiti Blasters initiative in 1993 with a set goal of erasing as much gang-related vandalism, street art or graffiti as possible using a mixture of baking soda, pressure washing and ugly, brown paint. Its initial budget was around $4 million; in 2010 its budget was $9 million. Mayor Rahm Emanuel increased its budget from $3.3 million in 2012 to $3.8 million in 2013.

The group of artists that first began painting the wall was Spray Brigade, including Ravi Raven.

“This is one of the few walls where writers can convene,” Raven said. “It was a wall where anyone with talent could paint. You could be an up and coming writer with any talent and skill.”

Raven said Hyde Park has generally been supportive — or at least tolerant — of the wall.

“Hyde Park is a strange place but it’s a special place on the South Side,” Raven said. “It’s one of the only integrated communities on the South Side … that means kids from the South Side come in contact with community members or an international community. Hyde Park is a great social sphere for expanding beyond what your South Side consciousness might be as a Black child surrounded completely by Black communities.”