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The Man Behind the Murals

After first glimpsing the work of Mental 312 from the Green Line in the winter of 2010, I’ve been on the lookout for more of the street artist’s large artworks. On foot, El, Metra, and CTA bus, I’ve come upon Mental’s bold colors and distinct style all over the city. Last month I finally caught up with the man behind the murals and talked to him about his process, inspiration, and ideas for the future.

Zachary Johnson: How did you first get into this type of work?

Brett: I started doing graffiti in the city [but eventually] it just kind of wore off. That lifestyle…really [wasn’t] a healthy lifestyle. It’s one of the worst things I could do to myself. I just burnt out. So basically I just took the idea [of graffiti] and did something completely different.

[With] graffiti I walked around the city. I rode the train and saw all the people’s work up on the rooftops, their names and different styles. I’d think, “Aw, yeah, he was up last night” It was a lifestyle. It was a way to express myself.

ZJ: How did you develop what you’re doing now out of that practice?

B: Basically I saw kids doing graffiti one morning on a train side and I thought, “Man. Is this what I really want to be doing?” It just got old. [At that time] I was working in an office building and it was tough being locked up everyday. Nine to five’s tough on people, on their minds, especially artists. So, I started doodling just with a piece of paper and a sharpie. Then I saw [Exit Through the Gift Shop] — before I even got out of my chair after the movie was over, I said to myself, “I gotta go bigger.”

A little time went by, and I saw these big brown walls that covered the city. Just these big brown walls. I’d seen work in books where a whole wall was done, and it looked so good. People were doing graffiti that was only a third or fourth [the size] of [these walls]. When I saw graffiti on the scale the kids were doing it, I thought, “This is nothing. This is chump change.” So I took it to the next level.

ZJ: What’s your process like?

B: On average, it takes me two to three hours each. Only because I take my time, and it’s big too. The main concept is contrast.

I want to be in and out. There’s no permission. It’s the opposite of graffiti basically; As opposed to going out at night time, I thought, “You know what? I’m going to do it in the middle of the day.” So, I walk up to a wall clean cut. I use a drop cloth, bring a cup of tea, just chill out. I look at the wall and balance it, split it from right to left, and just go at it. Sometimes I listen to music; I turn my car up or something.  Once I start doing it, and I’m 20, 30 minutes into it, I’m not nervous anymore. Then I get loose. It’s a nice way to be relaxed.

A portion of Brett’s work. Pilsen, Chicago, IL. 2011. (Photo credit: Zachary Johnson)

I use my graffiti eye [to choose the walls] — peeping spots, looking at rooftops.  I wanted to [make work] so people could see it. My favorite thing about [putting up work] is that it’s an exchange. Setting up and taking a spot is not just for me. I’ve found walls that were reflective of the area, that were visible from the train — just high traffic areas.

ZJ: Do you have any street artists in Chicago that you like? 

B: You know I wasn’t even into street art. Others put me into this [category]. When I started doing the walls, there was this book that came out called Chicago Street Art that was celebrating the past ten years of street art in the city. There were great artists in there and a lot of variety. I was blown away when at the last minute someone called me to see if I wanted to be in the book. It was quite a compliment. I was really taken back by it. It felt good.

ZJ: Do you have any new plans moving forward?

B: I really want to use more colors. When I first started doing it I liked the contrast of the brown walls and applying a simple color to them. Now, I’d like to go back to some of the walls and add another color, but I’m going to do that when I’m ready. I started doing those walls basically as art therapy. I was going through some things in my life, and I did them when it felt right to do them. It’d be cold in the winter, but it’d be beautiful out and sunny, so I’d gear up and think, “It’s a beautiful day I’m going to do it” and just knock ‘em out. So now, I feel like when it’s time for me to do [add other colors], I’ll do that. Maybe I won’t, maybe I will.

Recently I’ve been sketching more and taking the walls a little more seriously. [I think], “Ok, I’m an artist now. I have to sit down and prep.” Recently I did a proposal for a wall. It was my first time. I was really nervous, and it took me a long time to actually sit down and do art. It was rough, but I did it. I knocked it out. In the end, what’s next is next.

To see past articles about Brett’s work as Mental 312 click here.

A wall in Bronzeville, Chicago, IL. 2012. (Photo credit: Tempestt Hazel)


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2 Responses to " The Man Behind the Murals "

  1. spudart says:

    Mental312 is my favorite street artist in Chicago. Kudos for Zachary’s interview with him. Thank you.

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