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INTERVIEW: John Airo Turns Chicago Passion Into Creativity

By Prescott Carlson in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 15, 2012 7:00PM

Many know John Airo as a familiar face at Metro, where he's been holding court for nearly half of the club's thirty years in existence. But we know Airo more as an artist than a drink slinger, and we've watched his work grow from sharply detailed pen and ink comic art to a large variety of mediums and canvases ranging from small sculptures to giant outdoor murals.

Airo's latest focus is on the Chicago flag, incorporating the familiar blue stripes and red stars into a number of different forms, with an almost violent look expressive of somebody with deep—and likely jaded—feelings about our city by the lake. One of his newest flags is part of the sign above the door of Gman, the new incarnation of the Gingerman Tavern. We talked to Airo about his flags, which he is bringing to a new show at Humboldt Park's Division Street Bar and Grill on Friday night.

Chicagoist: What inspired you to use the Chicago flag in your artwork?

John Airo: The flags started one day after getting a parking ticket. I came home with the intentions of working on art, and became frustrated and angry about another ridiculously overpriced ticket. I grabbed a big piece of art board and started scratching away at a Chicago flag. I made it with ink and paint and coffee and diet Dr. Pepper, whatever was in arm's reach. I had no intention of it being an actual piece of fine art, but it looked cooler than I had expected so I posted it online. That piece received awesome feedback, a lot of people seemed to connect with it. It sold immediately, and people wanted to see more flags from me, so I've been making them since.

C: You say the art represents your "love and hate" for Chicago -- what about the city do you love most?

JA: I love this city, my dad immigrated here, I was born here, my son was born here, it's all I know. You can't be thin skinned and live here, there's a camaraderie with Chicagoans based in part on the endurance it takes just to make it through the brutal seasons. Winters that look like the apocalypse and summers like this last one, with 5 straight days of over 103 degree temperatures, but people still gathered at the parks and put on fireworks shows with their own money. People take care of each other here, dig each others cars out of snow drifts and help when accidents happen.

C: What about it do you hate most?

JA: I hate this city because we have to help each other out and put on our own fireworks shows, because the people that run the place continually fail us. It's a $3000 fine and mandatory lock up if you paint a mural on an ugly wall of an abandoned building, but killing a kid on his way to school is a crime that usually goes unpunished. The city is dead broke because Daley sold our souls for the Olympics, and we didn't even get the Olympics. Seventy years from now we will be paying an outside company back for his failed dream, and he's gone and not accountable. Just look at how quickly these guys vanish or separate themselves from the ones who get caught. The entire government, from city to state to our president all act like they never even heard of Blagojevich. There is no accountability, this city government makes you feel unwelcome, like a burden. I think people have responded well to the flags because it's a way for us to take it back. It's our flag, not Rahm's, or the cops', or the courts', it belongs to us.

C: What mediums have you used for your Chicago flag art?

JA: I make all the flags with found objects that I pull from Chicago alleys. I also use all kinds of mediums, acrylics, oils, ink, aerosol, and a variety of stains and shellacs.

C: The Gingerman Tavern was an institution in the Wrigleyville neighborhood, especially for Metro employees -- how did you feel to be a very visual part of its rebirth as Gman?

JA: The Gman sign was a real honor to make, it totally is a second home for the Metro folks and people have responded to me making the sign in a great ways. I sat down with [Metro and new Gman owner Joe Shanahan] a few months back to ask him for some advice on how to succeed as an artist. It was a great conversation, his knowledge on art and artists is even more impressive than his knowledge of music, but he definitely left me feeling like I could do it. I made him a flag to thank him, and not only was it the first piece of art he hung at the Gman, he asked me to make the sign. I know how proud he is to own that place, so to be a part of it means the world to me. That place is a piece of Chicago history, so for one of my Chicago flags to be above the door is pretty cool.

C: What can people expect at your Division Street installation?

JA: For the Division Street show I will be bringing all new flags. This newest series of flags are probably the best looking ones I've made yet, I've been going at these long enough now that I'm getting good results mixing different mediums. I feel like I have better textures and depth with these new pieces than I ever have before. I did a lot of bending and breaking of found metals and wood, and got more physical in the creative process this time. My hands are covered in cuts and bruises, but I think the work is stronger than it's ever been before.

C: What other projects are you working on/planning?

JA: As for other projects, I've been doing a series of robots for a while now, I have pieces up at Spex in Andersonville and at the Jackalope in Bridgeport, and I'll keep making robots indefinitely. They are kind of my personal response to how behind I am with technology, they're busted up robots with teeth and illogical gears and circuitry, like bio-mechanical art made by someone who doesn't understand biology or mechanics. I also have a graphic novel called The Axe Man that came out at the beginning of the year, a small book of zombie art and a finished comic that should go to print before the end of the year called The Gristmill Hanging. Sometime after the first of the year Pabst Blue Ribbon is putting up a Chicago flag/PBR piece I made on a billboard at the Western stop on the blue line, right on the side of the Green Eye, and I will continue to be a part of the Atomic Sketch Event any chance I have. They are a really cool group that does live art events, it's an awesome way to see great art and get art seen, all at crazy low prices. Those guys have been a huge support for years and I always feel honored to be a part of it.

An art show featuring Chicago flags by John Airo debuts Friday, November 16, 2012, at Division Street Bar and Grill, 2525 W. Division Street, Chicago.