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Photos: Behind The Mysterious, Quietly Beautiful Mountain Street Art Around Chicago

By Rachel Cromidas in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 28, 2017 4:39PM

Depending on where you're standing, if you look carefully you can see mountains in Chicago. Specifically, you can see understated, serene cut-outs of grey mountains with snowy peaks, pasted on the sides of Chicago's nondescript apartment buildings, street signs and newspaper boxes so that they almost blend in with the urban landscape. Almost.

The unlabeled street art is the work of Brian Brain, a formerly Chicago-based tile artist, who spent years gluing the mountain-shaped tiles around the city. And if "you know, that mountain art that's all around!" isn't ringing a bell, check out the gallery above, from the artist's Instagram, to see what I mean.

If you have already had the pleasure of running into one of Brian's mountain tiles in the wild, chances are the image has stuck with you. To pass one regularly on your route home can be a comfort and a small joy—a fake skyline of mountains in the Midwest, adhered to a window-shaped brick wall, feels like a private joke. But to find several of these mystery tiles unexpectedly in seemingly random places can be perplexing, if you don't know where they came from.

This was the case for me in 2015, when I began regularly passing a brick archway near the intersections of California and Armitage avenues in Logan Square on my walk south from the California Blue Line Station. That piece depicts a snowy grey mountain range, with more mountains in the background, lit by a pale full moon overhead. (As of the last time I checked, on Sunday night, it's still there.) I thought of the mountains as my little reward for paying attention to my surroundings instead of always looking at my phone, and I assumed they were unique to Logan Square.

Put up a handful of these around Grant Park for #lolla - have no idea if any lasted tho - 📷 by @jonhamblin

A post shared by brian brain 🗻 (@brianbrain) on

But soon I began to notice the mountains in other places—sitting like a pyramid on a Wicker Park apartment building's front gate, or simply graffitied to the back of a traffic sign, for example—like the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, in which one learns something new and obscure for the first time, and then begins encountering that obscure word or fact again and again.

Thankfully, Brian Brain (his street artist name, not his real name) was not hard to track down on Instagram. Here's the rundown on the mountains: The mountain-shaped tiles are his creation, posted around the city, many in Blue Line neighborhoods, many between 2013 and 2015. If you've noticed them before, but think they've gotten harder to find recently, that's because Brian has since moved out of the city. But if you think you see a new one for the first time, it's probably not deja vu; he comes back into town sometimes and puts one or two more tiles up during his visit.

Brian's inspiration came in part from noticing how tiles laid at an angle resemble mountain ranges, and his desire to depict mountains in mostly flat Illinois.

If you see one, take a picture and let us know, please. But don't literally take them off their walls—they're for everyone to enjoy.