WICKER PARK — Someone defaced a Wicker Park bench that is being used as part of a public art project that "explores how black identity functions as commerce."
The red markings form all but two legs of a swastika, but a similar symbol is also associated with a late New York rapper, Capital Steez.
The bench sits at LeMoyne Street and Ashland Avenue, and is one of six benches in Wicker Park and Bucktown featuring art by Hank Willis Thomas, a renowned New York City-based artist. The public art project, "Bench Marks," kicked off Sept. 1 in Chicago.
Alisa Hauser describes the art project that the symbol defaces:
The defaced piece is called "The Cotton Bowl." It depicts a person picking cotton on one end of the bench across from a football player on the other. The cotton picker and the football player, both black, have the same crouched posture and appear as if they could be facing off against each other.
The graffiti was scrawled in red ink on the football player's silver helmet.
In the overall project, according to a news release, Thomas "explores how black identity functions as commerce, and the similarities between the exploit of the black male body through the practice of sharecropping during the Jim Crow era and that of the black male athlete in sports today."
The project is also "concerned with the language of advertising and the visual methods it uses to construct the idea of 'Blackness' as a marketing strategy."
Notified of the graffiti early Thursday, a Shakespeare Police District representative was looking into the matter.
Alerted to the graffiti by a reporter, Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) said, "I'll have it removed by noon at the latest."
Moreno said he would be sending a 1st ward volunteer to remove the graffiti and not a city worker.
Thomas could not be immediately reached for comment, nor could Allison Glenn, a curator with the Monique Meloche Gallery at 2154 W. Division St., which brought the exhibit to Chicago. It was funded through a $5,000 grant from the Wicker Park Bucktown Special Service Area No. 33 taxpayer district.
The grant allowed the gallery to buy advertising on the benches to exhibit Thomas' works.
None of the pieces, including "The Cotton Bowl," has a logo or any other way for people to know who is sponsoring the messages, leaving onlookers to speculate what they're about — and who they feature.
"It reminds me of slavery," said Ingrid Monroy, who was sitting on the bench while waiting for the CTA's No. 9 Ashland bus.
Up the street, Jose Gonzalez was sitting on a different bench featuring a piece called "Black Power."
"Maybe it's 50 Cent?" Gonzalez said, speculating that the mouth on the bench, with the words "Black Power" written in silver on gold teeth, belongs to the popular rapper.
Glenn said the mouth in the "Black Power" piece, on a bench in front of an apartment building at 1400 N. Ashland Ave., belongs to Thomas.
A conceptual artist who tackles themes related to identity and culture, Thomas is scheduled to give a talk at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Gallery 400, at 400 South Peoria St. on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.
Gallery owner Monique Meloche said that the idea for Bench Marks was sparked by a bench in front of her gallery, which she thought could be a good spot for taking art "off the wall" and onto the streets.
The gallery's "Off the Wall" series, which began in 2010, features art shows in the window of the gallery, which is lit up 24/7 but limited only to the wall.
"We wanted to engage the public in a broader sense. I love the fact general passersby can just see it," Meloche said of the "Bench Mark" installations.
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