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Graffiti Wall Where Artists Compete a Casualty of 53rd Street's Rise

By Sam Cholke | October 18, 2013 7:34am
 Artists and residents are wondering what will happen after a public canvas is torn down.
Hyde Park Graffiti Wall
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HYDE PARK — Artists and residents are mourning the looming loss of a public art space as an unfortunate bystander to the redevelopment of 53rd Street.

A wall in the alley behind 1330 E. 53rd St. is crammed tight with abstract typography, macabre caricatures and the names of graffiti artists from across Chicago.

“There really isn’t anywhere else in the city you can go and just paint,” said Doug Frietag, who has painted on the alley wall behind 53rd Street since the early 1990s.

The wall is scheduled to come down in November when Mesa Development begins construction on the 13-story Vue53 apartment building on the site of a former gas station and car wash.

Over the last 20 years as space where graffiti is accepted on private property dwindles, the wall in Hyde Park has climbed the ranks as the premier spot for rogue muralists to rise in the illicit artists’ hierarchy.

“As it stands, anyone can go and do work there,” said Frietag, who paints under the moniker Dwel. “If you go there and do something really bad, it’s not going to stay up long — if you can’t beat it, leave it alone.”

A 20-foot long piece sympathizing with striking teachers in 2012 stayed up for months, but pieces typically stay up for a week or a little longer before someone thinks they can do something better and paint over it.

“These are artists — really they’re artists,” said Hyde Park resident Joe Check standing next to the tagged garbage cans behind his garage.

Check has lived next to the wall for 40 years and watched the evolving artwork over the years.

“I appreciate what they do; they’re kind and considerate — and they tend to clean up after themselves,” Check said.

He said he’s not opposed to the new development, but is mourning the loss of a perennially rotating gallery out his back door.

“It would be good if Hyde Park could provide a wall,” Check said, adding that Hyde Park is a natural home for such publicly sanctioned public art.

Frietag said people are looking for a new spot to paint since Mesa Development announced demolition would start in November. He said the wall has gone through periods of tagging, spray-painting to mark territory more than as art. He said any new spot would likely go through a long phase of graffiti artists fighting taggers until equilibrium is reached.

The developer hasn’t said anything about the wall at numerous public meetings and could not be reached for comment on Thursday.