PULLMAN — A few years back some of my neighbors started hanging weird junk — crossed badminton rackets under a Tony Toni Tone poster, for instance — on garages, telephone poles and fences in an attempt to establish alley art galleries.
As things turn out, those first few random artifacts, landscape paintings and waterproof portraits inspired other folks to join in the neighborhood's growing bedazzle-your-alley movement.
The latest trend in Pullman alley galleries is to add the hieroglyphics-inspired folk art mural by local artist Ian Lantz to your garage door.
"It's refreshing. We all walk through alleys, and from a beautification standpoint it adds a lot of value to areas that for the most part are wasted space," said Michael Manika, whose garage is one of four adorned with a Lantz mural.
"It shows there's a lot of life in Pullman and creates another avenue to exploit what we have going on in the neighborhood ... in a unique fashion that's different from what you would find in places like Lincoln Park or the Gold Coast."
Lantz, a Los Angeles transplant, found his way to Pullman by not taking the advice of new co-workers in Chicago.
"When I got here they told me, 'Don't go south and don't go west,' " Lantz said. "I guess, I didn't listen."
While living up north, he met the owner of Carey's Lounge, who commissioned a painting to hang at the West Rogers Park tap.
And that painting ultimately scored Lantz a live-painting exhibition at a nightclub and then at a River North art show, where he met Marcus Nettles, a former minor league baseball player. Nettles invited him to Pullman for a party celebrating the launch of "Jarrett Payton's All-American Wheat Ale" at Argus Brewery.
"I was so impressed with the neighborhood. It reminded me of a back lot at the original Paramount or Warner Bros. studios where I grew up," Lantz said. "I did my homework and kept coming back to get a sense of the place. I was blown away by the history, the architecture and the houses. I couldn't believe you could pick one up for 15 or 20 grand."
So in 2012, he bought a house facing the park on Langley and, somehow, persuaded his girlfriend to move there with him.
"I saw all the potential of Pullman, and she really didn't get it," Lantz said. "Now, when I try to invite people down to Pullman for a visit, they don't get it either."
In some ways his garage door murals — which he paints as an event meant to get neighbors together — have become alleyway billboards advertising Pullman's growing artist community.
His first mural was on the half-red garage door Anne Marie Alspaugh never finished painting.
"Alleys are so boring that blue recycling bins have been the best thing to happen alleys because of their bright color. Unexpected alley art adds more interest to our historic neighborhood, which has had such a history of craft people and artists all the way back to the Pullman Palace Cars that it's just nice to have some artistic expression in an unexpected space," she said. "The night he did it, we had five or six neighbors there who all contributed, and it was a fun neighborhood event."
Lantz says that's part of his mural-painting mission.
"One thing is a must. The owners of the house have to be involved with the creation of the work," Lantz said. "We make a party out of it. I get a bunch of paint and let everyone add something to it. It's a way to get people together."
Last month, Lantz lured some of his North Side pals down to tour Argus Brewery just to get them close enough so he could show them around his neighborhood.
"We were painting a garage and made it a full-blown party. I asked my friends to come for 15 minutes just to check it out," he said. "And they wound up staying for hours, talking to people about the neighborhood history, asking about the housing. The alley art parties get neighbors involved, show a sense of community and could even be the thing to draw more people to Pullman."
Lantz says he's already booked to outfit other neighborhood garages with his colorful custom murals to expand the neighborhood's collection of alley galleries.
But his artwork isn't confined to Pullman alleys.
On Thursday, he'll be part of Chicago Loop Alliance's pop-up art experiment that aims to transform the alley alongside the Chicago Theatre into a pop-up art gallery.
It's part of "Activate," a program that's "part spectacle, part happy hour" to convert three iconic Loop alleys into "pop-up urban experiences."
Lantz, 38, has been commissioned to paint one of his signature murals, which he calls "contemporary outsider art," on a bus during the pop-up art party.
Whether it's an alley in Pullman or in the heart of the Loop, Lantz says that something special happens when a person discovers beauty in such an unexpected place.
"When you think of art, you don't think of an alley," Lantz said. "But when you add art, an alley can become a common area that builds a sense of place where neighbors can interact. It can draw other people from different areas down to see Pullman. And maybe they'll love it like we do."
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