Muralist with local roots adds splash to The Cove

A detail from Shawn Bullen's mural at The Cove, 1750 E. 55th St.
A detail from Shawn Bullen’s mural at The Cove, 1750 E. 55th St.

-Spencer Bibbs

Assistant to the Editor

With only four drinking establishments — five, if one counts The Pub, a U. of C. bar located in the basement of Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th St. — Hyde Park nightlife is a stranger to drastic change.

So for the many who imbibe at The Cove Lounge, 1750 E. 55th St., it had to have been impossible not to notice when artist Shawn Bullen, a neighborhood native, completed his wall-length mural last December.

The artwork, commissioned by the bar, depicts such locally famous figures as President Barack Obama, jazz saxophonist Earl Lavon “Von” Freeman and the Cove’s own Daisuke Miyagawa, rated the city’s “Best Nonegenarian Bartender” by The Reader. A large portrait of Obama stands in the mural’s middle, while “Von” Freeman’s saxophone to his left emits a medley of colors which make way to 57th Street, the skyline, the Point and the block where the Cove stands.

In many ways, Bullen is as local as the places and people his mural depicts. The artist, born in Chicago and raised in Hyde Park for most of his life, also says he participated in AYSO and the Boy Scouts in the neighborhood.

“It’s like a little town that happens to be inside of a city that manages not to be far enough to be like a suburb,” Bullen said.
“All these things make me feel very connected to this place.”

Bullen, who is in currently in San Francisco, where he teaches art to youth, developed his visual arts skills by doing graffiti and outdoor artwork. As a student he would pass by graffiti on the way to school, and he drew bubble letters for schoolmates as well as the cover for his 8th grade yearbook, he said.

But it was not until Bullen’s senior year of high school at Kenwood Academy, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave., that he says he started to consider himself a graffiti artist.

“So that was where I first met people who were actually doing it. I might have drawn it occasionally, but finally I was actually being introduced to people who had some perspective on the outdoor world of graffiti.”

In 2006, Bullen became a member of the tagging crew IDC, an acronym for “I Define Creativity.” Several years ago, the crew spraypainted a decorative truck for grocer Hyde Park Produce, 1226 E. 53rd St.

Bullen says IDC members are still making art in different parts of the country, including with a Brooklyn based collective, Amo Studios, and he considers the Cove mural not his own exclusive work, but an IDC production.

Bullen says there is a distinction to be made between gangs and graffiti crews and he believes that there exists a misconception that most of the graffiti we see is gang related.

“The concept of graffiti is in some ways putting your name, or your tag, or your image, or whatever it is, on as many public places a possible,” Bullen said. Some graffiti may emphasize decoration over a name and vice versa, he added.

“If you think about the intentions behind it, people might not actually consider this when they’re doing it, but it’s kind of a statement against private property.”

“It’s saying like … ‘you own the inside of it, and the outside belongs to everyone, so I’m going to take initiative to make it look the way I think it should look.’”

In Bullen’s eyes, murals are “like a conversation piece for people to relate on.”

The artist based certain figures in his mural on real life individuals, although he says, “When I paint people, they don’t have to be that person.”

Obama was at first painted with a specific neighborhood Streetwise salesman in mind, one who Bullen said motivated him to make progress on the mural. Another person depicted on the wall was based on IDC’s founder, a close friend of his. And two other friends are included in the mural, as well as someone Bullen said he never met but had heard about.

“There’s a lot of personal references, but I want anyone to be able to relate to it, apply it to their own life, feel a sense of ownership of this piece,” Bullen said.

“While working here I met people who probably have been hanging out here for over 20 or 30 years,” Bullen said. “It means a lot to them to see a piece that they can appreciate.”