A taxpayer-funded mural in Chicago was painted over by mistake by the city last week, apparently after someone complained it was graffiti and should be removed, according to city officials.
Chicago-based artist JC Rivera’s signature bright yellow “bear champ” went up earlier this month at a Brown Line “L” stop in the Lakeview neighborhood, on Chicago’s North Side. But the mural, commissioned by the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce and paid for out of a special taxpayer fund, wasn’t long for this world: In fact, it was on display for a shorter time than it took Rivera to paint the piece.
Late last week, someone notified the city’s 311 nonemergency center and reported the mural as graffiti, triggering a request for its removal, said Marjani Williams, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation. The city did not detail the 311 request.
“The Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS) removes graffiti on public and private property in response to requests from residents and to proactively support the City’s anti-crime and beautification efforts,” according to a statement from the department. “Unfortunately, a newly commissioned piece of public art in the Lakeview community was covered after it was reported as graffiti.”
“As many people who ride the Brown Line regularly can attest, the mural had quickly become a beloved part of the neighborhood and we were devastated to see it removed,” according to a statement from the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce. “Lakeview has a strong commitment to public art and we are working with the City of Chicago to resolve this issue. We’ll provide an update when we have more information on the resolution and next steps.”
Rivera told the Tribune he’s still confused about why his mural was removed. As he was painting it, he received messages on social media from people saying it looked “cool” and nearby residents offered him water as he worked.
“OK, this is going to fit here perfectly,” Rivera said he thought.
The local alderman, Ameya Pawar, couldn’t be reached for comment.
It’s the latest instance of Streets and Sanitation workers wiping out something considered public art. In March, the work of French street artist Blek le Rat was blasted away from the side of Cards Against Humanity’s headquarters as the city stepped up graffiti cleanup near proposed sites for Amazon’s second headquarters.
Ald. Brian Hopkins, whose 2nd Ward includes the Near North and Gold Coast neighborhoods, is proposing a city registry for such murals, something crews could check on. The proposed ordinance also calls for some type of designation on the mural to let anyone know it shouldn’t be removed, Hopkins said.
The city is instructing graffiti-removal crews to seek approval from a supervisor when responding to a request that involves public art, according to Streets and Sanitation.
The mural at the Paulina “L” stop had been commissioned by the local chamber of commerce and paid for via a special tax within a designated area for projects like these and other services.
Rivera and the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce would not say how much the mural cost. It had been commissioned as part of the chamber’s “Low-Line” project that is estimated to cost $300,000 with about $60,000 going toward art, according to the chamber of commerce.
In June, the special service area commission approved Rivera’s mural along with two others for the Paulina station, and the total budget was set at $30,000, according to the group’s meeting minutes.
The chamber’s Low-Line project aims to turn about a half-mile stretch of land under the CTA’s Brown Line train tracks from Southport Avenue to Paulina Street into a pedestrian walkway. The project also includes plazas at the Paulina station and Ashland Avenue, and improvements were also made at the Southport Brown Line station. The chamber and Friends of Lakeview have planned seven public art projects for this year as part of the Low-Line, including Rivera’s mural.
Rivera said he worked solo and finished the “Morning Flow” mural in about three weeks, sometimes putting in eight to nine hours daily on it. The mural depicted the bright yellow “bear champ” among clouds of orange, brown and white. The look and flow of the bears were meant to make a commuter’s day “chill,” Rivera said. He’s used the character for about 10 years, which is meant to represent someone overcoming everyday struggles, Rivera said.
On Wednesday, the bright colors that had adorned Rivera’s mural at the CTA stop were covered by brown paint, and graffiti had been scrawled in the area.
“I’m a working artist,” said Rivera, who has painted as many as 30 murals of his “bear champ” character around the city. “This is what I do for a living. I give a lot to the community, I live in Chicago. So I would like people to know that. I wasn’t doing anything bad. I’m trying to inspire people and let people know that, hey, if you want to be an artist, you can make it.”
Rivera has been down this road before. He said another mural that had been commissioned by a private owner in Lincoln Park was later power-washed off a wall after a neighbor complained about it.
“If you don’t think you understand it, it doesn’t mean it was bad,” Rivera said about street art. “We all have an interpretation of what is art.”