PILSEN — Two of Pilsen’s most iconic murals are being restored to their former glory — and one is being updated to include images of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Both are legacies from the mural renaissance that took off in the 1970s in the United States and in Chicago and brightened up many viaducts in Pilsen, including on 16th and 18th streets, where the two murals are located.
Pilsen’s most politicized artist, Marcos Raya, is re-touching “Prevent World War III” for the third time since 1980 at 18th Street and Western Avenue.
He was one of more than 10 artists from the North, South and West Sides of Chicago who collaborated on the provocative anti-war mural organized by the Chicago Public Art Group. The others included Carlos Cortez, José Guerrero, Celia Radek, Gamaliel Ramirez, Rey Vasquez and Roman Villarreal.
But only Raya kept returning to maintain the wall because he lives on 18th Street and finds that the mural messaging still resonates with him.
The 60-foot wide mural resembles an unfurling film strip that rallies viewers against invasive foreign policy. Each artist worked on individual panels and Raya was assigned the most prominent one.
His section illustrates a massive statue of U.S.-supported Nicaraguan dictator, Anastacio Somoza, toppled by working and middle-class rebels who are waving Sandinista and Che Guevara flags. Somoza was assassinated only days after Raya finished “The Fallen Dictator” and pictures of the mural have circulated as far as Germany and France.
As public canvas, murals allowed the Mexican community to convey larger ideas about identity, self-sufficiency and justice when the political process was out of reach or insufficient, artists say.
When the mural was going up in 1980, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were running for the presidency.
“No different from today,” Raya said. “It’s like deja vu. We have Trump on one side and Clinton on the other, and both are talking the politics of fear and war.”
He will add new elements to the wall, like the faces of Trump and Clinton, as well as a skeletal bureaucrat from Mexico’s ruling party. He will add the words "Stop Plan Merida" in reference to an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico designed to fight drug cartels and corruption but which critics have said has escalated violence and further militarized Mexico.
A giant spider on the other end of the mural represents corporations taking over the world, including neighborhoods like Pilsen, he said.
“Gentrification — or globalization, to use a more global term — is destroying communities and swallowing up entire nations. A lot of the Chicago we knew is going to change,” he said.
Raya felt moved by the residents that stopped by the restoration to reminisce about the 1980s and the '90s. While he painted, he gave them a quick history lesson shared the political context.
Sam Kirk is restoring an iconic Pilsen mural on 16th and Blue Island. [DNAinfo/Jackie Serrato]
'Galeria del Barrio'
“Galeria del Barrio” was painted at 16th Street and Blue Island by 20 youth from St. Procopius Church under the direction of lead artist Aurelio Diaz. The 1976 piece consists of 22 male faces in succession that express dramatic emotional states of anger, grief, and euphoria. The profiles culminate with a face spitting out its internal turmoil in the shape of a fetus.
The Chicago Public Art Group, with assistance from Ald. Danny Solis (25th), commissioned 34-year-old Sam Kirk to undertake the restoration. Diaz couldn’t be located for the project, as he set aside his brushes many years ago to practice a fusion of Native American spirituality in Mexico.
Kirk, a self-taught artist of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage, said she felt honored to direct this effort because her early memories of growing up on the South Side and seeing such murals inspired her to pursue art on her own terms.
“I always wondered what those expressions were about, what do they mean? Who did them? Why did they choose an indigenous face?” said Kirk, a Little Village resident who has an art studio in Pilsen.
Roberto Herrera, 54, said the faces were modeled after him when he volunteered with Diaz as a youth.
“The faces are supposed to be me when I was like 16 years old and wore long hair and bandanas,” he told DNAinfo by phone. “I didn’t realize they looked indigenous, but I guess I am.”
The retiring Chicago firefighter said the mural crew was on a time constraint at the time, so he quickly made a preliminary design for “Galeria” by sketching the subject he knew best: himself and his feelings as a young man living in 70s-era Pilsen.
Kirk relied on old pictures and Herrera’s memories because the wall was crumbling and much of the paint was faded. She believes it’s important to archive public art if the community wants to preserve it, and she wants to properly document this and her upcoming work on 16th street, which will complement “Galeria Del Barrio.”
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