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Photos: Explore The Old School Graffiti Of Mid-'90s Chicago

By Gwendolyn Purdom in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 19, 2016 2:31PM

It's everywhere. Bold balloon letters claiming turf. Political messages scrawled in unexpected corners. Intricate memorial portraits. For graffiti artists, Chicago's alleys, side walls and highway overpasses are the canvas, and have been since the words and images first started appearing in the city in the 1980s. The three decades since have seen Chicago's street art scene expand and evolve.

The art form (or criminal activity, depending on whom you ask) has had varying degrees of public support over the years, and today it can regularly be found in places beyond the parking garage pillar or warehouse wall. Non-profits and galleries often team up with street artists to collaborate on public pieces or community projects. Taggers who started out spray-painting their name on garage doors have had their work exhibited in independent local galleries or at the Chicago Cultural Center. Schools like The School of the Art Institute have taught courses in graffiti's history. And some city landmarks, such as the Damen Silos, are particularly known for their graffiti.

Of course, technically, defacing property that doesn't belong to you is still illegal, and the city of Chicago in particular has a long history of cracking down on graffiti and other street art. In the early '90s, when graffiti was enjoying a heyday across the country and solidifying its place within hip hop culture, the city introduced its Graffiti Blasters program, which, in addition to sounding like a cheap Ghost Busters knock-off, spent millions to remove graffiti from more than 700,000 buildings. That was also around the time Chicago started its ban on spray paint sales, frustrating graffiti artists and DIY crafters (we're assuming here) alike. In 2014, Mayor Rahm Emanuel took the anti-graffiti campaign a step further: vandalism fines spiked from $750 to no less than $1,500 and no more than $2,500 for each graffiti offense, with higher fines for repeat offenders. The mayor also added an extra $1 million to the city's Graffiti Removal Program (apparently, they dropped the snappy "Blasters" moniker somewhere along the way.)

“Graffiti is vandalism that impacts the beauty and vitality of our neighborhoods,” Emanuel said at the time.

While the city's stance undoubtably has some support, others would strongly disagree. Graffiti can also be an expression of self, of mourning, of oppression, of pride, of city life in its most joyous and most tragic aspects. Photographer Matt Tuteur captured 30 images of such messages made in Wicker Park, Rogers Park, Uptown, Evanston and across the city from 1994 to 1997.