LINCOLN PARK — The city's biggest new art exhibit is hidden away between factories, storage buildings and a cement yard where eastbound Armitage Avenue ends at the North Branch of the Chicago River — and plans are for it to keep growing.
Turn the corner at the Ozinga Concrete yard behind the Horween Leather Company, and you'll be confronted by a series of outdoor wall murals painted by street artists famed locally and internationally, from Hebru Brantley to ROA.
The works are intended to turn something of an eyesore into a beautiful vista for the office workers soon to be occupying a building being constructed by Baker Development at 2017 N. Mendell St. The art side of the project, labeled the District at the North Branch, is under the guidance of South Side-based 555 International.
James Geier, founder and president of 555 International, said Tuesday on a site visit that it's about "improving not only the building, but the character around the building."
It's an industrial area seeing the first signs of change brought on by the new North Branch Industrial Corridor framework plan allowing mixed-used developments in what had been almost exclusively a manufacturing district.
"What if we could turn this into a lively arts community?" Geier said. "We have some ugly things to block. We want to fill it with things that are more enriching."
The project, also overseen by 555 designer and project manager Lauren Ditka, began just in June with Sick Fisher performing a cross-section mural on the back of the Horween Leather Company, showing everything going on inside from stacks of leather hides on the floor to the finished product in the form of a basketball.
Brantley soon added one of his distinctive goggles-sporting childhood heroes.
Brantley then recruited his pal Max Sansing to fill the wall right next door with a woman in a motorcycle helmet.
Down the street, on the back corner of a storage building, the international street artist of mystery ROA has added one of his distinctive animal murals, this one mixing what is clearly a fish-eating bird above the skeleton of a fish.
The sad thing, for now, is that the works are hidden away on the river side of buildings just east of the three-way intersection of Armitage, Elston and Ashland avenues. But Geier and Ditka hope to make it a destination of its own.
Geier framed the basic question, for both developers and artists, as: "How do you get people to want to come over here?" The concept is to convert a bit of urban blight into "a place where people are going to search this out ... a place where, if you did this right, people would want to come here and hang out."
That may be a stretch, given the odor coming off the leather tannery, which Ditka said is the last of what used to be many in Chicago, especially along the North Branch of the river. But it's a growing concern given the development that's going to be coming to the North Branch Industrial Corridor, including the Finkl Street site just across the river to the east.
And these young artists seek to confront urban blight on its own terms with their graffiti-inspired murals.
"It's important for us to be supporting our local artists," Ditka said.
Especially younger artists, Geier added.
"These artists have huge followings," he said. "You are wrapped in great creativity."
The artists are paid, at very least, in materials and the use of a skyjack to lift them to the top reaches of the work.
"A lot of people just want a place to do it," Ditka said of the artists.
Manufacturers who might once have blanched at their buildings being prettified have proven to be receptive on their end.
"They see basically at the end of the day how cool it is," Ditka said.
According to Geier, it's a growing international trend. He said Denver has used the tactic to brighten alleys. In Chicago, though, Geier said you'd probably have to go to Pilsen to see a similar concentration of street murals interacting with one another and the surrounding neighborhood.
There are a handful now in the District at North Branch, ready to greet workers when the Baker office building at 2017 N. Mendell is completed by the end of the year. But Geier said he envisions 30 or 40 extending in both directions, to the north toward the Mariano's on Ashland and to the south to Goose Island as the area welcomes more new developments, as well as extension of the 606 bike trail.
"The idea is over time we keep adding to it," Geier said. "These kinds of things grow organically."
And if they can get someone to execute a giant scratch-and-sniff mural of Chicago hot dogs and ribs to counteract the tannery smell along the way, so much the better.