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Former Graffiti Artist Returns to His Roots to Paint North Mayfair Viaduct

By Patty Wetli | August 22, 2014 5:32am
 Anthony Lewellen, a well-known graffiti artist in the '90s, is back painting walls — with permission. He stands in front of his latest canvas at Cicero and Lawrence avenues.
Anthony Lewellen, a well-known graffiti artist in the '90s, is back painting walls — with permission. He stands in front of his latest canvas at Cicero and Lawrence avenues.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

NORTH MAYFAIR — Is graffiti art?

"I thought that question had been answered," said Anthony Lewellen, who back in the 1990s was better known by his graffiti handle ANTCK (pronounced "antic").

"What is graffiti? I think it's literally 'markings on a wall,' which would make any mural graffiti," he said.

Now in his early 40s, a married father of two with a mortgage, Lewellen went legit years ago, spending a decade in advertising and currently working as a freelance designer and illustrator — "A little bit of anything and everything," he said.

But his latest project — a commission from the North Mayfair Improvement Association to paint a mural on a Union Pacific viaduct near the juncture of Cicero and Lawrence avenues — has Lewellen, under his own loose definition of graffiti, returning to his roots.

 Anthony Lewellen's design for North Mayfair's viaduct mural features various takes on the neighborhood's bungalows.
Anthony Lewellen's design for North Mayfair's viaduct mural features various takes on the neighborhood's bungalows.
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Anthony Lewellen


Criss-crossed by expressways and railroad tracks, North Side neighborhoods including Irving Park and Jefferson Park have long used murals to neutralize the ugliness of their concrete viaducts, as well as to create a sense of unity in areas physically divided by infrastructure.

"You've got people investing in their community in a way that will last — it's recreating connection," said Cyd Smillie, who heads up Arts Alive Chicago (formerly Arts Alive 45), the force behind numerous murals on the Northwest Side.

"When you get out on the street, people come out with food and water, people honk their horns, hoot and holler," she said. "People have met neighbors they never talked to in 20 years."

She recalled the dedication of one mural, held in a neglected park adjacent to the viaduct, that spurred a clean-up effort and the formation of a neighborhood association.

"All of that came out of that mural," said Smillie. "Almost half the ones we've done have created that ripple effect."

North Mayfair is tackling its first, and only, viaduct this fall, an effort spearheaded by the improvement association's president, Lynn Burmeister, before she was even elected to the board.

"I'm so beyond excited that we have the neighborhood mobilized," Burmeister said.

She called on Smillie's expertise to help navigate the mural process, including assistance in posting a limited call for proposals from artists.

Lewellen, a North Mayfair resident, was among those who submitted a design. His concept, "Neighborhood Elevation," was one of three finalists the mural committee selected to put before the community for a vote.

"It was by far the No. 1 choice," Burmeister said of the final tally in Lewellen's favor.

She praised the design for capturing the community's pride in its bungalows and green spaces.

"We can be identified by something beautiful — our architecture and our parks," she said.


Anthony Lewellen remembers the first wall he ever painted.

It was a rooftop, at Clark and Roscoe streets, along the Red Line, under the cover of night.

"It was always kind of important to paint things along the train," said Lewellen, whose reputation earned him a mention in the book "History of American Graffiti."

Was he afraid of getting busted by the cops?

"When you're young, you're too dumb to be scared," he said. "There's so much adrenaline. It's like planning a little mission."

Instead, it was the height that got to him.

"I've always been afraid of heights. My knees kind of buckle. I still haven't gotten over it," said Lewellen of his phobia.

But the urge to paint proved stronger than his fears.

As a kid, Lewellen — who grew up in Wrigleyville though, he said, "I never called it that" — went to Lake View High School and was was always into art.

"You work in isolation most of the time," he said. "When you did graffiti, you got almost instant feedback."

Though graffiti has been called the language of youthful political statement by some, for Lewellen it was simply another artistic medium.

"I kept a low profile," he said. "I just liked painting."

Describing himself as a quiet, nerdy kid who was into comic books, sci-fi and skateboarding, Lewellen said he would often head to Chinatown, camp out at a viaduct and paint all day.

"The perspective you got on the city, on a roof in the middle of the night, looking up at the stars — you just got to see the city in a very different way," he said.

Lewellen says he never tagged people's houses or engaged in vandalism, explaining that he often felt at odds with Chicago's graffiti culture.

"I didn't have that bravado," he said. "Mostly what I painted was characters. That's more accessible than a lot of the letter form stuff, it gave it a little bit of validity."

Graffiti, skateboarding and other forms of street art such as stickers and stenciling kept him out of, rather than got him into, trouble, Lewellen said.

"It was a practical way to express all that energy," he said. "It's a creative way of appropriating your environment."

In 1989, Lewellen was among a group of high school students chosen to participate in the creation of a 432-foot-long mural in Grant Park, a project led by influential New York artist Keith Haring, widely credited for bringing graffiti into the mainstream.

"That was a definitive moment for me, getting to meet him and see what he did," Lewellen said.

In the '90s, the CTA held a mural competition, giving graffiti artists walls to paint legally. Lewellen and his friends won, earning him a scholarship to Columbia College. Though he dropped out after a year, he eventually went on to earn a degree in graphic design from the American Academy of Art.

"The thing I liked about school was the concerted focus," Lewellen said. "You went to class every day and drew every day."

He credits graffiti for serving as a stepping stone to a place where he's now able to make a living as an artist.

"It still defines me in so many ways. I'm not sure what my life would have been like if I hadn't done that," he said. "I have no idea what I would be — it was one of those things that anchored me."


Cyd Smillie understands the conflicting opinions people have about graffiti.

"If the intent is just to scrawl your initials, grow up," she said. "When there's no aesthetic to it, it makes me crazy."

But a number of murals she's shepherded have come directly out of meeting with taggers, including some drawn with spray paint, which she prefers to call "aerosol art."

"I would much rather help all of those artists find ways to express themselves. I do believe it's a primal need," said Smillie, pointing to cave painting as evidence. "I want to help those guys find walls."

Some of those up-and-comers may even be recruited to contribute to "Neighborhood Elevation," which will be painted, in part, by members of the North Mayfair community.

Lewellen, who said he normally likes to have complete control over his designs, is prepared to loosen his grip.

"One of the things I bring from graffiti is you kind of just have to freestyle when you get to the wall," he said. "You have to be flexible."

He may even pick up a few new tricks.

"I see some astounding work from people half my age," Lewellen said. "I'm open to learning from people younger than me. I think I've told myself I'm always going to remain teachable."

The North Mayfair Improvement Association is holding a fundraiser Friday to help defray the costs of the viaduct mural: 7 p.m-10 p.m., Marie's Pizza, 4127 W. Lawrence Ave. Admission is $25, which buys you two drinks and appetizers. Deacon Blues Lite, a Steely Dan tribute band, is slated to perform.

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