Even before he knew what his mural would look like, Belgian street artist ROA knew he wanted that wall.
The wall--on 16th Street near Laflin Street, close to the busy intersection of 16th Street and Ashland in Pilsen--isn't the first wall most artists would choose for a large-scale mural. It's actually two walls joined by a harsh angle, where the wall dips back and becomes a little more rounded underneath the Metra train tracks. But as soon as ROA drove past that section of 16th Street, it "just jumped out at him," said Lauren Pacheco, co-founder of the Chicago Urban Art Society and one of the organizers behind a new initiative to bring more public art to Pilsen.
"As soon as he saw it, he knew," Pacheco said. "Most artists wouldn't be able to work with a curve [in the wall] like that in such a unique way." He chose the wall, thought about it for about a day, and then he started to sketch, she said.
(See a photo gallery of the mural here.)
The bend in the wall turns what could have been just one painting into two paintings: the first, when you stand from one angle, is of a opossum crouched with its nose low to the ground, its paws close to its head. But when you walk a few steps to the right, you can see the possum is split open--there is an entire chunk missing from the middle of its body as if chewed out by another animal, with its red and black innards on display. The rocks under the wall and some of the street below have also been sprayed red, either intentionally or by accident, looking as if the blood dripping from the possum's scooped-out stomach has fallen onto the ground below. Despite the missing chunk, the possum's gaze is unchanged, as if it has no idea what has happened to the rest of its body just inches away on the adjoining wall.
The result is a mural that is shocking and startling to experience in person. Cars that pass the mural slow down to get a better look at it while they are driving by. One older woman in the passenger seat of a car actually pointed her finger out of the window at the mural.
When 23-year-old Nick Barrera from Bridgeport, who biked down to Pilsen to see it in person, first saw the mural on the website Juxtapoz, he thought it was a rat. It's an easy mistake to make--the illustration looks similar to the TARGET: RATS! posters in alleys all over the neighborhood. He saw the mural as a metaphor for some of the darker aspects of Chicago.
"I feel it represents Chicago--the politics, the mob action that happens, all the gangs," Barrera said. "It's like someone ratted on the rat and it got a chunk taken out of it. I think [the mural] wakes people up."
ROA's possum is similar to his other work, which features lifelike depictions of animals like rabbits or birds that can be found on the walls and streets of cities all over the world, like Stockholm, London, Santiago, and New York City. Pacheco worked with Nick Marzullo from Pawn Works to get ROA to do a Pilsen piece while he was in town for Lollapalooza. Pacheco and Marzullo have also partnered with the National Museum of Mexican Art and local youth organization Yollocalli to involve youth in some of the murals. They obtain the necessary permission from the property owners, which is often a hurdle for street artists who want to do larger-scale pieces.
Artists are not paid for their contributions, but the alderman's office pays for the equipment and materials needed for each project. In October, during Chicago Artists Month, Ald. Danny Solis (25th Ward) has committed to providing a trolley for people to tour the art on 16th and 18th Streets and experience the new public art additions to the neighborhood. Right now, there are about seven murals on the 16th Street wall, but Pacheco said by the end of the August she hopes to have 12 to 15 murals completed. There also are plans in the works to update the older cultural murals from 30 and 40 years ago.
So far, Ald. Solis has been financing all of the projects--which up to this point have cost about $8,000 to $9,000 total--himself, but Pacheco and Solis had plans to meet with the city's Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Michelle Boone on Thursday to discuss funding proposals for future projects.
"We can do a lot of projects for little money," Pacheco said. "You can give us $50,000, and we'll turn it into $150,000. The alderman's big thing is that public art is a really unique way to combat graffiti in the neighborhood, but also to use the [16th Street] wall as an asset for our community to put us on the map culturally."
It took ROA only three days and three colors--black, white and red--to complete his piece. Pacheco said immediately after he finished, people were already walking back and forth to see the painting at its two angles--to see the illusion and watch the illustration change as they walked back and forth.
"After it was finished, he was like, 'That's exactly what I wanted,' " Pacheco said of ROA's delight in viewers' response to the mural. " 'This is the most unique space of the entire wall, and it's mine.' He was head over heels."
Artists interested in taking over a section of the 16th Street wall can submit a pitch and application to the alderman's office. According to Pacheco, "there is more than enough space to go around."
Erin Vogel is a RedEye special contributor.Copyright © 2015, RedEye