Photo: Hispanic Chicago Artist Turns Gang Graffiti into Cultural Art
A street artist is dedicated to repainting the graffiti daubed by street-gang members around his Chicago neighborhood, transforming the vandalized walls into naturalistic landscapes, comic-strip characters and historical figures of the United States and Mexico.
“Our community needs more art that reflects the culture of the area,” said Epifanio Monarrez, a 28-year-old graphic designer who for the past nine years has dedicated part of his time to Little Village/La Villita, a neighborhood mainly inhabited by Mexican immigrants.
Himself the son of immigrants from Mexico, he grew up in a neighborhood where gangs like the Latin Kings mark their territory with symbols scrawled on walls, garage doors and any free space they can find.
The city government’s work to combat graffiti costs millions of dollars a year.
Monarrez also combats graffiti, but instead of trying to erase them he repaints and transforms them. And he does it for free.
“I look for ideas in comic strips and children’s books, and also in history books. People don’t like graffiti, but if you transform them and give them some meaning, you give them something they can understand,” he said.
When the owner of a wall agrees to collaborate with the transformation, Monarrez asks him to contribute some money for the paint.
“The payment I receive is for the material, the rest I do for the love of art,” he said.
Strangely, his murals are not destroyed by the street gangs, nor has he received any threats.
“Sometimes they find me painting and ask me for some of my paint, but I try not to play along with them because I don’t want them scribbling all over the neighborhood,” he said.
Monarrez’s talent has been acknowledged by Chicago’s Hispanic community, while the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization has invited him to collaborate on the recovery of land that was occupied until several months ago by two coal-fired electric plants.
The plants were demolished and the property is being cleaned up by the city government to be used for real estate projects and community parks.
In that project, Monarrez will be charged with painting a series of murals to recall the struggle of environmentalists for clean air in Chicago.