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A Mile of Murals

Ride your bike down Hubbard Street in West Town and once you pass Milwaukee your peripheral vision fills with a riot of colorful images: A luchador, a howling wolf, African masks, Moammar Gadaffi, squids, butterflies, the Chicago Water Tower. Like most people, I usually zip on through, glancing briefly at the near mile of images along the railroad embankment while on my way home. Hubbard street, however, rewards the careful observer.

First painted by Ricardo Alonzo, graduate of SAIC, with the West Town Community Youth Art Center in the early 1970’s, the murals along the south side of Hubbard Street stand in varying states of decay. The 40-year-old murals have cracked and faded, some overgrown with vines. They depict wildlife, endangered species, different cultures, and scenes of the city. The blank areas of concrete suggest that some of the images have disappeared entirely, but of those that remain, a few are quite striking. Heading towards Ogden, the murals grow brighter and more stylistically diverse. These newer paintings are part of an effort in 2000 and again in 2008 to add new life to the embankment by an organization known as the Hubbard Street Mural Project (HSMP). As I headed west on Hubbard, an elderly woman noticed me taking interest in the pieces. “Wonderful aren’t they?” she commented, “Over the years they’ve changed, and I’ve got all sorts of pictures of them.”

According to HSMP the new murals follow the four main themes of the originals. The variety of artistic styles and imagery is exciting, with some paintings so bold and bright, I can’t believe I never noticed them while riding by. The artists seem to have enjoyed the opportunity to paint in such a large-scale; from the bare-chested Mexican wrestler to the dodo bird, there’s a sense of joy in much of the work.

Accenting the murals is a variety of wheat pastes and other street art that appear on empty parts of the embankment and within the underpasses that break up the wall. They tend to stay up for months, decaying slowly over time. During the Rod Blagojevitch trial there was an image of the former governor on the run. Now there stands a stencil of Moammar Gaddafi and a prayer for Trayvon Martin. The street art along Hubbard and the blocks north and south add energy to the murals, as they’re constantly vanishing and being replaced.

Overall, it’s an exciting mixture of public art, old, new, and ever-changing. Next time you’re near the intersection of Grand, Halsted, and Milwaukee, walk over to Hubbard and take a look at what our city’s artists have made for you.

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