How to Explore Public Art in Chicago's Pilsen Neighborhood
A deep dive into this neighborhood’s edgy public art is worth the 20 bucks for a guide.
I was expecting something big, but this mural is monumental, covering a three-story house like wrapping paper stretched from sidewalk to gutters and folded around the corner entrance, where a giant arm reaches toward a painted red sky.
It's one of more than 200 murals in Pilsen on Chicago's southwest side, a community known for its Mexican-American heritage dating to the 1950s.
The neighborhood thrums with an eclectic mix of art galleries, bodegas, resale shops, family-owned restaurants, and, more recently, hipster breweries and upscale eateries. Today, however, I'm here to learn about the murals.
Luis Tubens, wearing a jaunty hat and gesturing enthusiastically, is my guide. A local resident, poet and former arts educator at the Chicago-based National Museum of Mexican Art, Luis is also co-founder of Pilsen Public Art Tours, one of several companies offering group and private tours here. Some are on foot, others by bus or bicycle.
Luis highlights seven murals on our tour ($20 each for a group of five or more), consistently pointing out details I would have missed. "This piece was inspired by Gulliver's Travels," he says. "Here you have a giant, who is obviously an immigrant, tied down with barbed wire."
I lean back for a better look at the stylized image of a man-his face haunted, his body wrapped in barbed wire-as an L train roars through on the tracks overhead. It rumbles off, and Luis continues: "The artist has a question he wants to ask you: Are you tying the man down, or are you letting him go? Which perspective are you viewing this from?"
While many of the murals are commissioned by businesses or homeowners, Luis says, this artist, Hector Duarte, lives and works in the building. With its pitched roof and narrow footprint, the structure reveals the architectural preferences of the working-class Eastern European immigrants who settled Pilsen in the 1870s.
Later on the tour, I spot a cluster of buildings in another mural that reminds me of Duarte's home and others we've seen. It's an intentional reference to the community, Luis tells us. Local teenagers collaborated with artist Joseph "Sentrock" Perez on the piece, which depicts a masked boy facing off against a wolf.
"This mural is about motivating youth to overcome gangs, drugs and negativity," Luis says. "It's a very bright piece, and that's his point. The artist wants the future of youth to be vibrant."
Luis' words stay with me, even after we've parted ways. History and energy are alive here, and I see it everywhere now, in the chatty street vendors and the man chopping meat behind the counter at Carnitas Uruapan. He pauses just long enough to slide me a generous sample of pork-hot and golden, crispy and soft. I carry it with me to eat as I continue my walk. In Pilsen, I want to savor it in the best way possible: with a side of art.