After city accidentally whitewashes landmark mural, artists and activists demand change | On Culture | Chicago Reader

After city accidentally whitewashes landmark mural, artists and activists demand change 

Sandra Antongiorgi and Marcus Akinlana’s Es Tiempo de Recordar had been in Hermosa for 26 years.

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click to enlarge es-tiempo-de-recordar_wall2_2010restoration_photobyscottthom.jpg

Scott Thompson

Chicago loves the murals of Sandra Antongiorgi and Marcus Akinlana.

In 2017 Antongiorgi's Weaving Cultures, a collaboration with Sam Kirk, was chosen by Reader readers as the best in the city, while Akinlana's The Great Migration (painted in 1995) was prominently featured in the city's Year of Public Art program.

But last month, Es Tiempo de Recordar, a huge two-part mural Antongiorgi and Akinlana had painted with artist Ralph Mueller in 1992, got a different kind of attention from the city. On May 11, a crew from the Department of Streets and Sanitation whitewashed it.

click to enlarge The two guitar players representing the artists - SCOTT THOMPSON
  • The two guitar players representing the artists
  • Scott Thompson

Es Tiempo de Recordar ("It's Time to Remember") was painted by the then-young artists and a group of neighborhood youngsters on both sides of a railroad viaduct at Bloomingdale and Pulaski on the border of Logan Square and Hermosa. They'd been commissioned by the Chicago Public Art Group and Youth Service Project to produce something that would represent the community. "We asked the kids what they wanted, and most of them were Puerto Rican," Antongiorgi recalled last week. The lushly rendered mural celebrated the music, art, and history of the Caribbean, especially Puerto Rico. The south wall depicted a pair of back-to-back musicians (one of them looked a lot like Antongiorgi, who's a musician and singer as well as a visual artist; the other resembled Akinlana). Facing them on the north wall was a mythic giant that Akinlana describes as a "Super Taino [a member of one of the original indigenous Caribbean tribes] aiming an arrow of music their way."

The mural, which covered about 2,000 square feet and had been carefully restored by Antongiorgi in 2010 with funding from the community development organization Archi-Treasures, was completely wiped out—apparently speedily and without consultation with anyone who might care. Neither the artists nor the aldermen were contacted (its 200-foot span bridged the 26th and 35th Wards). "It was such an aggressive act," Antongiorgi says. "I can't imagine somebody not questioning why they're whitewashing 200 [linear] feet of a mural that had been in the community 26 years."

When Chicago Public Art Group executive director Steve Weaver asked the city what had happened, he says he received an e-mail from the Department of Streets and San that said the mural had been covered "top to bottom, and left to right" in offensive graffiti and gang symbols.

But artist John Vergara, who leads mural tours for at-risk kids in the neighborhood and who's painted or restored about 50 murals in Chicago himself, says Es Tiempo de Recordar was on his tour route and looked fine when he saw it on May 7: "There was a small tag on there, but it was no more than a couple of feet, totally repairable." It was a beautiful mural, Vergara says, "but it's an eyesore now, just a big white canvas inviting gang members or taggers to go ahead and destroy."

Vergara says other murals in the area have also vanished, to his sorrow. "But the one that really, really aggravated me was this one. It was one of the oldest murals in this neighborhood. There should be some sort of law or policy in place saying that if a mural's up so long, and has been restored, it should have some sort of landmark status. The city needs to be aware of the difference between graffiti, gang graffiti, and public art."

The Department of Streets and Sanitation, which says it responds to more than 100,000 calls for graffiti removal annually, has owned up to making a mistake in this case. An e-mailed statement from the department to the Reader read: "Unfortunately, during a recent graffiti removal job, crews covered the 'Es Tiempo De Recordar' mural in Hermosa in error. We recognize the importance of public art and remain committed to working with residents and communities to ensure that murals in the City are protected."

And the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events said in its own statement, "We were disheartened to learn of recent events, and have committed ourselves to working closely with our City partners on a plan to protect murals throughout the city."

Weaver and the artists are scheduled to meet with DCASE this week, and Weaver says they have three goals: to make sure there are policies in place restricting painting over public art and that they're clear and followed by the Department of Streets and Sanitation; to bring attention to the pattern of destroying cultural assets in Chicago; and to find funding to restore this mural.

"What we want is some kind of policy to come out of this," Weaver says. "Some kind of directive that they cannot destroy public art without, at the very least, contacting the alderman."   v

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