Puerto Rican born and a resident of Chicago since 1983, Christopher Tavares Silva has been a long-time contributor to the Chicago art community. After living in Puerto Rico for the past few years, Silva has made a recent return and planted new roots in his lifelong city. Silva’s career as an artist began with the influence and then eventual practice of graffiti writing and street art. He received a ‘traditional’ fine art education at the American Academy of Art where he constantly pursued artistic and personal development.
Neither of Silva’s art practices—be it the more traditional studio works or his public works—are separate from one another. Instead, (in a way) they coexist, which makes Silva’s work incredibly accessible and interesting to a rather extensive and varied audience. Silva works fluidly where everything is symbiotic and universal to a certain degree. By pulling artistic inspiration from urban city influences and simple humanisms, Silva is able to stay true to his artistic mission.
Silva is revered for his extensive list of mural and public art commissions in Chicago. He has exhibited on numerous occasions at The Chicago Urban Art Society. Silva and his wife Lauren Feece recently collaborated together for an exhibition at the Lorenzo Homar Gallery in Pennsylvania presented by Taller Puertorriqueno and PNC Arts Alive.
In early January of 2011, Silva agreed to sit down and talk about the history and progress of his art-making career. During the conversation, Silva discussed his personal experiences with the beginnings of graffiti writing and street art in Chicago, his strong passion for skateboarding, and the progression of his most recent studio work, future projects, and public commissions. Silva’s art career is truly a constant effort at strategic planning and life-balance.
Meet Christopher Tavares Silva.
Where are you from and when did art first become a significant part of your life?
I’ve been here in Chicago since I was 11, but I was born in Puerto Rico and lived in Washington State for a few months, then Greenville, North Carolina and after that, Rochester New York. I moved here from Rochester when I was 11 so I feel like I’m a naturalized Chicagoan. This is definitely my home at this point. When I first moved here, I have this vague memory of riding the “L” from O’Hare and seeing some graffiti from the highway and that really attracted my attention. That was my first conscious introduction to graffiti art. I also remember time on vacation in New York and seeing the graffiti on the trains there. Around the same time I was introduced to skateboarding. I was 14 when I started doing both. That would make the year 1986.
What was it like then? Why did you decide to become a graffiti writer?
I started doing graffiti in 8th grade when I was going to Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park. It was a magnet high school preparatory program. I think I started skating the year before but really soon afterward I picked up doing graffiti. I saw a lot of stuff when I would take the train from my neighborhood, which was in Lakeview. I met some kids in school— Billy who wrote “Upski,” Prashant, Seth, Joey Iglesias and some others— they all had just started doing graffiti too. Billy was one of the first ones that I can remember doing it. I was processing the stuff I was seeing around me, had gotten a copy of Subway Art and I came up with a name for myself. I tagged it on the desks at school and on the way to and from school. Next thing I knew my friends and I had formed the “Union” crew. My first graffiti names were Sky 5000 & Zooroni but those names didn’t last long at all. Upski gave me the name ‘Elrock’ which I used for a while after that. I sort of stopped doing graffiti for a while when I got more into skateboarding even though I was paying attention to graffiti the whole time.
At some point, I think when I was 17 or 18, I started seeing people doing graffiti which I thought was really impressive and innovative. This writer East was doing some stuff that really caught my eye at the time. Agent, one of the later members of Union, was doing another style, more easily readable and classic typography influenced kind of stuff. But all around there was an energy there that I thought was fresh and it drew me back in. I felt like I had something to add to it as well. It spoke to something, which was in me already that I wanted to explore more. So I slowed down on skateboarding at that point and picked graffiti back up. I wrote Elrock for a bit but not long after that I started writing “Deep” and I reconnected with some other people who I had started writing with, including Agent. He took me out some of the first few times that I actually did stuff illegally after that long hiatus from writing. Then I started connecting more with other writers like Drastic and Antck. There were a lot of graffiti writers who were also skate boarders and were getting into graffiti more actively at that time.
What is the drive behind wanting to be a graffiti writer knowing that there are risks and potential consequences at hand? Is it the community, connection with other writers and possibly the age that some writers begin writing?
When you’re younger I think a lot of the attraction is the idea that you are doing something that isn’t supposed to be done. Before you turn 18 the consequences are not as harsh, so it isn’t something that you have to take as seriously— depending on what kind of consequences your parents might enforce. For me the drive was the urban adventure of being out in the city at night painting on rooftops, and then the joy of seeing it the next morning and knowing that other people are also seeing it. And being part of this dialogue with people who are in on the culture, and those who are not.
It’s hard to speak for everybody in terms of what the motive is. Some of it may be a quest to express themselves through the artwork or maybe more so through the act of rebellion, or both. For me it was an attraction to the adventure, the creativity, and the aesthetic was really cool to me— as well as the fact that it appeared in these places where it obviously wasn’t supposed to be. I thought it was great that people were treating the public realm like it belonged to “the public.” I wasn’t focused on the whole destruction part of it, but I enjoyed the fact that people were making their own decisions concerning how to interact with public space. Some people may think it’s bad but I don’t see it as being that clear cut. I think it’s a natural element of a society where public space is so privatized. People feel powerless and frustrated with the day-to-day things that they have to put up with, or with what they feel their options are, and that’s a reaction to it. I don’t advocate every single form of “vandalism” by any means. Some stuff I think is obnoxious and I wouldn’t do myself, but other stuff which many people find offensive doesn’t bother me at all.
What do you think about taggers randomly writing their alias (name) on buildings in clever or not so clever ways?
It is just part of graffiti. It’s kind of silly and in a way that’s the point of it— it’s another absurd action in a pretty absurd world. It’s hard to find things that make you happy during your daily quest to maintain the basic life necessities. Graffiti is something that some people turn to— creating a superhero identity for themselves, going out and writing their name on things and having adventures to fill that void. Even if a lot of it might be meaningless and counterproductive, overall it’s not that bad to me. Ideally, sure…yeah, maybe you shouldn’t have written on that architectural landmark. But that is an ideal world where all is well and people are walking around considering architectural integrity in this way that isn’t realistic to what everyone’s concerns are in this reality. And maybe that’s the point of it— fighting against the reverence for property and the value of these things as belongings that one person has and another person doesn’t. It’s hard to have any idea of what each person in the street art/graffiti art movement’s drive is. But generally I understand that people are unhappy with the way things are set up in this world and doing things to add their voice to it even if it may not be a conscious political act.
Obviously everyone, myself included, doesn’t have a super clear idea of what to do to make things better, and many people don’t even think that it’s worth trying to make things better. People are doing the best they know how to and figuring it out as they go along.
What is/was your intention as a graffiti writer (placement, style, text, audience)?
I think real early on I got connected to a sense that I was trying to contribute something positive, kind of warm. I felt I had a Robin Hood approach—trying to make the poor walls rich, livening up the environment and adding some color, humanity & hope. I started early on drawing lots of hearts, which is a simple symbol that people universally understand. I tried to put a lot of feeling and focus into it because I think art making is essentially transference of human energy into a creation. I was trying to put an authentic generous energy out there and that process was my own therapy, which I hoped would extend to others somehow.
Back when I was first doing graffiti I was more connected to boosting my ego and that kind of quest to validate myself in relation to my peers. There is definitely a big competitive thing happening in graffiti, but then again I think that people do that with everything in life. As time goes on, that has become less and less of a poison to my art. I’m way more focused on the fact that I want to put positive stuff into the world and to fight whatever negative momentum going on. In that more focused approach I’ve made it my goal to filter ego out as much as possible. It’s one of the things that irks me the most—seeing things done primarily for the sake of inflating one’s sense of self and social status. I understand it in the young kids, but seeing adults still hooked on that is so lame. But that’s the program laid out for us. We’re taught to value winning.
After spending four years in the tropics living a pretty easy life, it’s been challenging to adjust to being back here in the states. I’m trying to advance my career while maintaining a solid foundation of positivism & integrity, but with art being a business or competition all that shady crap is right there waiting to affect you one way or another. The stress creeps back in quickly.
Was there a distinct moment when you decided to start making a separation between graffiti writing and with developing more of a traditional discipline with your art making?
When I was 18 I decided that this graffiti stuff was what I liked to do so I might as well go to art school. But I don’t really separate it. Whether it was graffiti or whatever, it was all about being on an authentic artistic exploration and being true to my voice. It’s all about remaining free to express myself in whatever way I’m inspired to. I try to put the same intention and quality into all of it.
Have you ever had an experience where somebody was your mentor or where you were a mentor to another adolescent?
I feel like I may have had more mentors in skateboarding. With graffiti it has always felt more like a peer-to-peer learning situation—a give and take situation where we were all each other’s mentors on some level. There was a point when I started doing graffiti again and my friend Agent showed me a few things that had developed while I was focusing more on skating. And thinking more about it my friend Drastic may as well have been a mentor since he was an enormous influence on the development of my drawing style. As far as being a mentor myself, I’ve done so on some youth art projects. In the graffiti world, I guess I may have been a mentor off and on to some kids.
What is your relationship with street art versus graffiti?
I don’t pit them against each other. When I started doing graffiti it was still pretty young and there was tons of room for experimentation and that’s why I was so attracted to it. Since then, anything I have done is just a growth of that initial creative spark. I didn’t one day decide, “Oh, now I’m doing street art,” just because I started adding some new materials and approaches to the mix. It’s the same thing to me. To confine myself to one approach would go against my creative mind and desire to keep evolving as an artist.
Quality, creativity, authenticity & intention—those are the things that I’m interested in, and you can find it within any creative genre. It would be easy for me to simply say, “I like jazz music,” but the truth is that I like some jazz and other jazz doesn’t do much for me, or is even annoying to me. Same thing goes for what might be categorized as graffiti or street art, only I don’t bother to separate them as much as some folks do. Graffiti art, spray can art, aerosol art, urban art, street art, whatever you want to call it. To me it’s just cool that people are out being creative and making their marks on the street—legal, illegal, spray paint, house paint, paper, wood, whatever. “All forms of rocking,” as a friend of mine used to say in terms of his approach to graffiti. I still judge each creation on its own merits.
Do you think the separation between graffiti art and street art is a way to validate one over the other? One has aesthetics that, overall, are easier to appreciate and read by a public audience, and the other is a bit more “group centric”?
Yeah, I wouldn’t really say one is necessarily more sophisticated than the other either—but yeah, it’s a common inclination for people to want to find ways to present what they’re into as superior. The same people that will go through great lengths to rally for the merits of their particular genre of art over another one often are the same folks also rallying against racism or homophobia and not seeing what a similar impulse it is. Don’t get me wrong—I’d prefer people to fight something as trivial as art movements, but that shit is still pretty dumb to me.
How do you support yourself as an artist?
At first I had jobs working some cash registers downtown and I worked with a bunch of friends, so I just came home and pursued my own art & music things after work. At some point I started to be hired as an assistant on public art projects run by C.P.A.G. As time went on I started getting my own public art projects and was slowly able to make a living from those and selling paintings when I could.
It has been a combination of things, really. I can’t say I was able to make a living at one or the other. I do this here and that there and it just works out somehow. I worked as a faux finisher for a friend of mine’s dad and that was a really good job for keeping the bills paid and being able to focus on my own stuff afterwards. Those jobs were actually really nice. It is a real catch 22 making a living doing what you love. The job is not only making art, it’s doing all your administrative stuff, website updating, emailing and all of that stuff that comes with just keeping organized and getting your stuff out there. It can really lean hard into the fun parts. That is the constant challenge—to keep a good balance going. Trying not to take on too much too. That was my problem before. I said yes to too much and got burnt out. It started to be a real challenge to feel like I even had room to experiment creatively like I would have liked to. The whole move to Puerto Rico was really driven by a need to step away and reflect on why I was doing all of this. What was the point if it was stressing me out so badly?
How has the Etsy business been going?
We just started it, actually. We made like five sales so far and that feels like a decent start. There are a lot of intricacies to that business that I am trying to learn. I am a really bad self-promoter—not enthusiastic by any means, so I’m trying to be better about that. But yeah, it’s been good so far. I think as long as we keep on it, it should pick up over time. That is the goal, really, just to keep doing what we do and try our best to create different opportunities for income.
What did you do in Puerto Rico? Were you creating there as well?
I was doing a care-taking job for my parents place and that was covering anything that I needed to worry about financially. I did a little bit of art work but I really used the time to get back to music and explore that further, also using it as a general time to rebuild my spirit and get reconnected to my motives. It was really good. I came back here with a lot of renewed energy in terms of understanding that I love to make art and it’s not something that I want to give up. I needed to block out the rat race aspect of it and reconnect to the fun.
What have you been working on since you moved back to Chicago?
Right when we moved back we got relatively settled in and then really quickly I had to refocus on finishing up work for the show me and Lauren just had in Philly. That show went up on December 9th. Since coming back from that we’ve been resuming getting settled for this next stretch of however many years we will be here—just trying to get a flow going and getting organized. So I haven’t been doing that much except for a couple group shows here and there. I’ve been taking the time to set up a solid little base of operations here at our home.
What is your artistic intention as an artist working in Chicago?
My general intention as a human being is described in my artist statement, and that definitely still holds true. Other than that, just trying to keep things as fun and stress free as possible. Having a good time working with friends, being close to family and keeping the bills paid.
Do you think the goal or purpose of street art is to affect people the same way as the studio art you create?
It’s all the same to me with almost everything I create. I get immersed in the creative process, and try to strike a balance between leading and being led by the materials – being led on a worthwhile adventure to a worthwhile destination. In the end, as long as I feel like I’ve created an opportunity for enjoyment, insight, or positive reaffirmation of some sort to my audience then I’m satisfied.
How do you and Lauren (your wife) collaborate together?
It’s been working really well. We tried collaborating here and there several years ago. A couple of things worked out okay, but I guess we have some processes now that work better. Lauren makes a ton of art—she just churns it out. There’s always stuff lying around so there is no lack of material for me to use in pieces and I love making these assemblage pieces. That’s my favorite mode of art making right now and her art just becomes another found object for me to work with. I love moving things around and discovering pleasing relationships, working with wood and tools in the woodshop. I find that process really therapeutic. It balances out the other stuff that I have to do because I am pretty much the computer guy for both of us. So when I’m making art it needs to be therapeutic. I get a lot of shoulder pain. It’s where I hold my stress and drawing just ends up making me more tensed up. It’s really good to be down in the wood shop using different muscles.
Collaboration has also become way more important to me over the years. I love working with other people and seeing things happen that couldn’t happen without those other people’s involvement. That’s another way that I consider the found object usage. These are things that often come from other people’s creative actions and they have these mysterious histories. It is not just about my talents and me. Part of what I want to do as an artist is to reinforce this idea of connection & community. Artistic collaboration is another sort of “conversation” with a person. It becomes a social activity and not this solitary artist in the studio type of life, which is not all it’s cracked up to be, in my opinion.
What kind of projects are you preparing for the future?
I am supposed to do an installation for a show at Chicago Urban Art Society in May. So I am working with a few friends to do that. Then after that, Lauren and I are doing a collaborative temporary art project in Milwaukee with an organization called InSite. They coordinate temporary art projects up there. I did one before with Mike Genovese. There was a really great response to that one so they asked me back to do another one. I have another show at Chicago Urban Art Society in October. That started out as a solo show but I decided to focus it all on collaboration, so I’m currently getting various collaborative projects going for that show. Also, I might be working on a mural commission this spring but it is not 100% solid on it yet.
More information about Christopher Silva:
Featured Image: Mosaic in the California el station on the Chicago Transit Authority’s Douglas Blue Line. 2004. (Photo courtesy by Chris Silva)