PORTAGE PARK — Steve Vrettos and his customers don't quite know what to make of the bright orange wildcat prowling over his parking lot. But that's not the point, he said.
"People are coming in all the time asking me what it means," said Vrettos, owner of Jeff's Red Hots, 3901 N. Cicero Ave. "But it's art, I don't think it means anything. And that's what's nice about it."
The 45-foot acrylic mural, painted on the side of the State Farm insurance office next to Vrettos' hot dog stand, is the latest in a bevy of art installations to pop up in the Six Corners Shopping District this year, and the second in the immediate area by artist Tony Passero.
He painted it over the course of six days, he said, finishing it Oct. 8.
Once a solid gray wall marked by the occasional graffiti tag, the edifice is now a rainbow of bright stripes, each dotted with alien-looking symbols. Crouched in the the corner is the eponymous "JagLeo" — a cross between a jaguar and a leopard, Passero says — snarling at the parking spaces below its feet.
Defensive as the animal may look, the artist said, it's meant to convey a message of peace and cultural understanding.
"It is surrounded by bars filled with symbols that seem foreign and can overwhelm if taken in at one big chunk," Passero wrote of the mural on his blog. "Yet if you step back you see each bar is a column filled with a vibrant color and the symbols, while different, actually share elements and seem to make a harmonic pattern."
No matter the meaning, the mural has already drawn the eyes of passersby and prospective businesses alike, said Kelli Wefenstette, executive director of the Six Corners Business Association. That's part of the reason why the association brought Passero and Vrettos together to help make the mural a reality, she said.
"That wall had been largely unnoticed beyond the parking lot, and now there's just so much color and vibrancy, you can't miss it," Wefenstette said. "The entire corner is lit up now. It's amazing to see."
The JagLeo is just one character in a concerted effort to bring more unique design to the district, she said. A host of new sculptures and installations has found its way into the area in recent years, including another of Passero's mosaic-style murals, painted in March above a new Divvy station at the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Cuyler Avenue.
And the wave of new public art, ushered in part by Ald. John Arena (45th), is about more than aesthetics, Wefenstette said.
"It's a pretty exciting time now for Six Corners — we're starting to gain national attention as a leading example of how to leverage the arts for economic development," she said. "It not only makes people want to be here, but it helps attract potential businesses by showing them that someone really cares about the physical space."
That sense of civic stewardship was part of what drew Passero to making public art in the first place, he said.
"I've always had this philosophy like when you see that someone hasn't shoveled their driveway, you should step up and help out," Passero said. "That's what I feel like art in the public arena can do. You can go to an area that's starting to come back, and try to revitalize things."
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