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Street Artist Don't Fret Tells Us How Chicago Really Feels, On Gentrification, Winter & More

By Lisa White in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 10, 2017 3:14PM

In our city of Big Shoulders—a constant changing eco-system, whether its residents desire change or not—Chicago’s creative community might be one of the largest and last vocal critics of this rapidly transforming town.

One of the most visible and vocal critics is Don’t Fret, an artist who for the better part of a decade has pasted up around town his wry, somewhat trippy critiques of Chicago’s collective identity, from surviving our brutal winters to the pains of gentrification. His work explores universal themes of adulthood, but that Chicagoan edge always shines through. Even if you aren’t familiar with the name, most residents are surely familiar with his imagery, with large scale murals and pieces dotting street corners and alleys across the city. The born-and-raised Wicker Park native hasn’t lost his humor yet, but has seen a lot change in his hometown.

“I always say that Chicago is a meat and potatoes town, and I think what that means is changing a little bit,” Don’t Fret told Chicagoist. “I value hard work and I value the DIY mentality. And I guess my biggest fear is that some of the characteristics and charms that make us who we are are just going to vanish with time.”

The somewhat incognito artist, who describes himself as a “vaguely anonymous human” has been busy living up to those hard work and DIY values a little more publicly this summer with a recently extended gallery show, Don’t Fret: Big Shoulders, at Johalla Projects until Sept. 3, a pop-up apartment show in Wicker Park that focused on Chicago artists, and the return of Light Times Club, another pop-up concept that focuses on “the deep culture of Chicago corner bars” that also saw Don’t Fret reuniting with Publican Quality Meats.

The most recent Light Times Club, located in the parking lot behind Publican Quality Meats, offered up PQM sausages, a jukebox curated by Chicago rapper Vic Mensa and shots of Malort served up next to framed photos of the old Rothschild Liquor and dearly departed Judy Baar Topinka, true touchstones of Chicago that are gone but not forgotten. There’s nostalgia but also a sense of coming to terms with the changing city and how its long term residents fit into this mix—particularly when it comes to urban developments.

“I think a lot of my work is just reflective of what's happening around me,” Don’t Fret says. “I guess for me, I just wish that there was more trying to sustain what’s left rather than just knocking it over and building a cheap piece of s***. Cause that’s what I have to look at. All I can do is kind of get my perspective and make sense of it for myself first and foremost, and I think that a lot of aspects of coming to terms come out in the work.”


One topic Don’t Fret tackles in his work is finding creative spaces to showcase art in neighborhoods rapidly being taken over by high-rises and high-rising rents.

“I just wonder if I was following the trajectory that I followed, what would the outlets be and where could I show my work that isn’t a Red Bull event? I definitely think that Chicago has a fantastic arts community and art scene, and there's people doing amazing stuff on every level, but I do have a lot of nostalgia for the experiences I had as a teenager and through college of this incredible array of DIY and abandoned spaces. People not giving a f*** and doing exactly what they wanted to do and this attitude of ‘if you wanna have an art show, let’s clear out a room and have an art show,’ or like, ‘if you want to start a band, let’s clear out a room a start a band.’ And obviously, I’m a little out of touch. I’m sure there are a ton of kids doing apartment shows. But in the context of Wicker Park, obviously Wicker has changed a lot and a lot of the spaces no longer exist.”

The collaborative projects and pop-ups are one way Don’t Fret has found balance straddling the DIY scene and commercial work, including large scale commissioned murals, which frequently landing on his plate due to his rising popularity.


“I would say that there's maybe five people doing illegal work in Chicago and I would definitely put myself among them. I think that aspect is important and not just doing legal murals. And even with the legal murals, there's definitely commentary. My general attitude with all of this has been it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. And I’ve been fortunate for the most part that people on the commercial side just understand that if they’re asking me to do something, this is what they’re gonna get. As I do more work outside of Chicago, it’s been an honor to represent the city and what I think are the values that this city represents. And I’ve been very fortunate to have the home audience be very receptive of that as well.”

So after a busy summer, what’s next for Don’t Fret? “I don’t have a date on this yet, but I am releasing another book this year, it’s gonna be my third book. The first were kind of project based, this one is going to be a larger book, kind of an overview of my street work and large projects from the past seven years.”

And since he has some upcoming free time, we asked if there are any Chicago institutions he’d like to collaborate with. “I don't know if I have a bucket list. I love working with Publican. I guess Vienna Beef would be kind of cool. Superdawg would be great, I love Superdawg. The Billy Goat would be fun too, the OG Billy Goat on Lower Wacker.”

A true Chicago answer, not that we’d expect anything less from Don’t Fret. It's your move, Superdawg.