[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #1 in August 2005]
by Amanda Torres and Anna West
On June 18th, 2005, twenty teenagers from Young Chicago Authors (YCA) walked next door to face the “Axe Effect” ad erected not even a week after the YCA Mural , a series of nine huge panels created by the artist Chris Silva in partnership with community youth , was torn down by developers who are putting up a condo where the great mural once was. Our rag tag group of teenagers, armed with only tape, marker and construction paper stepped outside to talk back to this ad, emblematic of the process that has engulfed our block , leaving our building windows bricked up, our mural stripped down and an encroaching feeling that YCA’s days renting the two colorful, messy apartments on Division St. are certainly numbered. Our youth come together from all corners of the city every Saturday morning to study the meaning of the written word and write in community with one another. The Saturday program has been housed on Division St. , between Damen and Hoyne , for over nine of its fourteen years .
We at Young Chicago Authors have admittedly made the mistake of carrying on our work in recent years, with our busy schedule of workshops , open-mics, slams , magazines and youth advocacy, without playing much of a role in what has been going on in our geographic community. We could have been there through the long process of debate about what would happen to the city-owned lot next door where the latest condo is now being erected. We could have gone to meet our alderman and expressed our concern about being edged out of the neighborhood through this surprisingly fast process of gentrification that has slurped up the buildings and faces of this street, spitting ou t newer, shinier ones by the day. But we were too busy building programs that carry forward the movement for youth to bring their voices into public spaces. It wasn’t like we had a shortage of things to do. For this and other reasons, when this advertisement, disguising itself as a community mural with a hip hop graffiti aesthetic , was spray painted on the front of the neighboring building, the youth and staff of YCA felt the overwhelming need to act .
This advertisement featured the giant , faceless silhouettes of nearly naked women, powerless to the snaking black arrows of AXE SPRAY slithering up their trembling thighs. The words overhead read “IT CAN HAPPEN ANYWHERE , ” as a giant spray can emits the perfume over a multi – layered urban landscape . The only thing that gets you to even glance at this monstrosity, as compared to all of the mindless insulting billboards we see everyday , is that this ad appropriates a medium that holds tremendous power. Writing on walls , whether done by a graffiti writer or a community muralist, is a medium that has always been, since cave men tagging up walls, about people claiming the spaces where they live . It has been about the non-land-owners grafting some space to say their own names and paint their own images, even if those were not the names on the deeds that hold the property. It is this very inventiveness, this boldness and speaking of truth to power, this claim for representation that has given the medium its power. To see this medium co – opted by corporate interests is to see the cultural identity of a people who are struggling to claim their own public spaces packaged and sold back to them with alarmingly little respect for the youth-driven tradition from which the medium and aesthetic is born. How could this group of young participants in the culture not respond ?
We wanted to turn this offensive ad into a positive community mural , a visual forum of discussion. We had about ten minutes of discussion before we got to work. We taped pages and pages of responses over the ad. One kid wrote “when art ceases to be criminal / commit crimes to make art . ” Another girl pasted RAPE over the well known Axe Effect slogan “it can happen anywhere . ” A group of bikers saw what we were doing and stopped by to add to the mural. For the whole day, before some ad police came and tore it down, people stopped and read, adding their own words to what we had written. It accomplished what YCA sets out to do whenever we are in a space, to create discussion initiated by the intelligence of our youth.
Chris Silva, the artist who painted the formal YCA mural, said in his mission statement: “It is my goal to find more ways to expose the general public to art that they can respond to, and be inspired by. I want to create progressive, quality public artworks as visual alternatives to the soulless clutter of advertising in public space.”
The overriding questions that we hold in our teeth concerns the responsibility of the artist. The person who was paid to paint this ad, in a conversation on the street with a YCA staff member, claimed to be an artist who needs to pay the bills somehow. He also claimed that he is not crossing any line, that advertisement has always been “subversive.” To subvert is to undermine the authority of an established system or institution. Last time we checked, the dignity of women and youth-culture were not established systems or institutions. What exactly is Axe undermining except for women who do not want to be painted as erotic, easily lured outlines without faces ? Or communities struggling to claim space that is quickly being demolished by developers who see an opportunity for money to be made? Axe is only neatly co-opting the image of subversiveness without the message and thinks that we are not critical enough to decipher its thievery .
We say to this “artist” that certainly , we all need to make money to pay the bills . But what is the cost to the culture that has fueled this aesthetic ? What is the cost to women? What is important to say with your work , in spite of the penalties ? Can an artist release all responsibility to the world and still call himself an artist ? Is art just a lot of nicely shaped figures and pretty words? If you don’t know what we’re talking about – stay out of the streets, please.