Category Archives: Pilsen


Last fall, I happened upon a new mural created by Yollocalli Arts Reach.  I posted about it and received an email from the staff — with a map to more of their work!

The first piece I’ve checked out is Libertad in Barrett Park at Cermak and Damen in Pilsen.  The mural covers the retaining wall that runs along the playground.  It features a variety of famous faces including Frida Kahlo, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.

As with the earlier mural I’d seen, Jesus “Chucho” Rodriguez led youth in creating this work.  It was part of a mural making class that also included an exploration of the history and tradition of mural making.

I love the mix of people that they youth chose to include.

I recognize Ghandi, Malcolm X and Emiliano Zapata.  Can anyone help me with the other guy?

Ordinary places

One of my favorite mural images continues to be the Virgin of Guadalupe.  Her presence brings beauty and a sense of the sacred to rather ordinary places.

Like the former St. Vitus Catholic Church at 18th and Paulina in Pilsen.

A body shop at 27th and Kedzie in Little Village.

Or the vacant industrial building at 21st and Carpenter in Pilsen.


In 1976 Aurelio Díaz began working with community members to paint the series of murals that make up the Galería del Barrio along the 16th Street railroad embankment in Pilsen.  Díaz came to Chicago from Michoacán, Mexico in the early 1970s and led numerous mural projects around town in the 70s and 80s.  In addition to the murals on 16th, I’ve seen his work at Casa Aztlán and St. Pius V School.

My favorite part of his Galería are the profiles he painted near the intersection of 16th and Blue Island.

The overlapping Caras/Faces display a variety of emotions reflecting a range of Mexican American identities and experiences.

Although I would love to see this mural restored, I actually really like how weathered and cracked and faded it is.  In the first photo, you can see the contrast with the Sears Tower just a few miles away.  The shine and privilege of the Loop reinforces the emotion and power and beauty of the mural, especially as it decays.


Several weeks ago, I took my friend V mural hunting on the south side of Chicago.  On the way home, we took a swing through Pilsen so I could show her some of my favorite work.  I was surprised and excited to find this new mural at 19th and Loomis:

The building is home to San Jose Obrero Mission, a nonprofit that provides shelter and employment services to the Latino community.  The mural, “Wall of Hope”, was painted by artists from Yollocalli Arts Reach, the youth initiative of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen.  Muralist Jesús “Chucho” Rodriguez led the project.

I don’t know much about Yollocalli except that they create opportunities for youth to partner with practicing artists in order to express their individual vision and to build their skills as artists.  I love that they also partnered with a community service agency and created this piece that beautifies the shelter and draws attention to the mission’s work.

Going small

I mentioned before that Jeff Zimmerman is best known for his large scale, photo-realistic murals.  I’ve decided, however, that I actually prefer his (relatively) smaller pieces .  One of my longtime favorites is Sírvales which he painted in 2005 at Cullerton and Ashland for St. Pius V church.  I really like the motion and light in the water.

Recently, I stumbled upon Zimmerman’s 1999 It’s All Knew at Carroll and Ashland.  The faces — human and canine — bring life to an otherwise nondescript warehouse area.

But my biggest Zimmerman surprise was finding this mural he painted at 21st and Blue Island in 1996:

Educación: See y Know is the oldest of his work that I’ve viewed.  I like the glimpse into his early style with its smaller scale and less photographic style.


Putting it all together

So, I’ve traced the roots of community muralism back to William Walker and other African-American artists who created the Wall of Respect in 1967.  And I found the work of John Pitman Weber, a white artist, who founded the multiracial Chicago Mural Group (CMG) with Walker in 1970.  But I still want to know when and how Mexican American artists in Chicago fit into this early history.

Enter Ray Patlán.

In 1970, Pilsen residents founded the Casa Aztlán community center with Ray Patlán as the center’s first artist-in-residence.  He created murals at the center and around Pilsen and was a very influential early member of the CMG.  In 1971 he painted Reforma y Libertad/Reform and Liberty at Cullerton and Blue Island in Pilsen.

On the right side (above) we see Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla who kicked off the Mexican War of Independence with the Grito de Dolores in 1810.  On the left we see Benito Juárez, the great Mexican reformer and 5 term president.

The mural also includes the Mexican flag and eagle, as well as symbols of ancient Mexico.

It seems to me that Patlán’s work links the community muralism in 1960s-1970s US and the Mexican muralism that preceded and informed it.

But can anybody tell me why this mural (painted in 1971, touched up in 1974, restored in 1985) looks so much more weathered than this one (painted in 1971 and never touched again)?  I might need to learn something about technique and materials and weather.

All about the women

In the fall of 2006, I came across Alejandro Medina working on a new mural in Pilsen.  I was too much of a newbie at mural hunting to realize how cool that was.  Next time I’ll hang out to watch and chat up the artist!

Recently, I was down in Pilsen and decided to stop by the mural.  It is located on the side of Rancho Alegre,  a carnicería at 18th and Wood, and it honors famous Latinas throughout history.  After viewing so many images of Emiliano Zapata and Benito Juárez, it makes me happy to see a mural that’s all about the women.

On the left side, there are images of La Malinche, Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

On the right, Gabriela Mistral and Frida Kahlo hang out with Dolores Huerta and Rigoberta Menchú.

And folkoric dancers twirl across the middle.  (If you look closely, you’ll see that Medina hadn’t yet finished the fountain behind the dancers or the area around their feet when I first photographed this mural.  Check it out!)

Medina is active in the Chicago mural scene and teaches young people through Yollocalli Arts Reach, the youth initiative of the National Museum of Mexican Art.  I read a 2008 interview with Extra News in which Medina discusses his art as a way to decrease vandalism and violence in the neighborhood.  He said that gang members in Pilsen had agreed not tag any of the artwork in the area.  That sounds like a pretty good start.


If you have seen one mural in Pilsen, it is probably the one above the laundromat at 19th and Ashland.  Increíbles Las Cosas Q’ Se Ven was created by Jeff Zimmerman in 2001.  My favorite translation of the title (thanks to my linguist-y friend E):  Oh, The Things You’ll See.

Zimmerman trained as a graphic artist and was volunteering with Pilsen kids in the late 1990s when a priest at St. Pius V parish asked him to paint a mural of the Virgen of Guadalupe.  Now he has 4 large scale murals (including this one) in the blocks surrounding St. Pius and many more scattered across Chicagoland.

Zimmerman’s work is instantly recognizable for his use of photo-realistic images of people —  actual people who live and work in the surrounding area.  When I’m viewing his murals, I always keep my eyes open to see if I can spot the subjects  (no luck so far).

He is also known for incorporating political themes that reflect the issues of the surrounding neighborhood.

Zimmerman describes his work this way: “I always hope the murals give you something more to think about than just a bowl of fruit would.  There’s always politics in what I do, and hopefully people get some kind of meaning out of it.” (Chicago Sun-Times, 8.4.07)

Labor leaders and Tejano stars

Cooper Elementary Dual Language Academy is a preK-5 public school in Pilsen, located at 18th and Paulina.  And, you guessed it: the school is covered in murals!

98% of Cooper students are Latino, predominantly Mexican.  The school is bilingual and emphasizes adult education for parents including ESL, GED and family literacy programs.  Between 1991-1999 Francisco Mendoza, an art educator and muralist, led the students in creating dozens of mosaics depicting key individuals in Mexican and Mexican American history.  

The stretch of wall pictured above features indepence fighters, revolutionaries, and presidents.  Nearby we find labor leaders…

and Tejano stars…

and Aztec rulers.

Some of the kids who worked on the project are now in their 20s, and I think about them someday bringing their own children to Cooper to celebrate history and be inspired by a full block of role models.

Under the radar

I love me a high profile, technically perfect, painted by somebody famous mural.  But some of my favorite work  is by artists who slip under the radar (my radar, at least).  My current favorite is at Cullerton and Ashland in Chicago:

I also love this one which is a few blocks west at Cullerton and Wolcott:

I like the act of taking something ordinary, maybe even neglected and rundown, and creating something beautiful and sacred.  I like that the work is public, shared, communal.  And I like the religious subject matter that inspires faith, devotion and hope.