The Plan for Transformation–Chicago’s demolition of its high-rise public housing–has erased the writing on the walls. The high-rises were texts. Unless recently painted over by the housing authority, every available surface–hallways, stairwells, elevators–was animated by graffiti. It was a mixed bag, including boy-girl stuff (some sentimental, some carnal), gang tagging, religious affirmations and jeremiads, blog-like commentaries and rants. Much of the graffiti took the form of names written by adolescents declaring themselves and their circle of friends to the world. As a friend at the Stateway Gardens development once put it, “When kids hit the streets” (i.e., move out into the world beyond the household), “the first thing they do is write their names on the wall.”
In the fall of 1999, for a period of several months, the graphic landscape of Stateway Gardens underwent a dramatic change. The work of a single sensibility appeared throughout the development; it was on display in each of the eight high-rises. The artist’s name was Vanish. And he had developed a system of patronage to support his work: gang members dealing drugs in a given building would commission him to produce particular images in that building . The going rate, one of them told me, was ten dollars an image.
Vanish’s work was concentrated in the lobbies of the buildings. When I first began working at Stateway in the early 1990’s, the lobbies were like archaeological sites with strata upon strata of failed security measures: grates, plexiglass, metal detectors, and guard booths. After an outbreak of gang turbulence in the course of which members of the Gangster Disciples barricaded themselves in one of the lobbies and shot at the police from behind these structures, the housing authority tore it all out. The result was open-air lobbies that resembled gallery spaces with multiple vertical planes and interesting sight lines. This was Vanish’s venue.
The enduring interest of his work resides in what it reveals about his patrons–what they commissioned, what they wanted represented. The images they requested included many memorials to fallen comrades (often taking the form of a name amid tear drops), advertisements for their product (“Dog Face,” a popular brand of heroin sold in one of the buildings), and macho representations of individual patrons centering on their street names (Cyborg, D-Man, etc.). Each Stateway building was known by a street name (the House of Pain, the Kingdom, Funk City, Tray Ball, etc.), and Vanish was often asked to produce images that, like the totem of a clan, represented the building.
This insurgent ornamentation of buildings doomed to be demolished included an image in one of the lobbies of a figure with a gun in each hand standing in front of that building and the words “That State Nigga Street”–a striking counterstatement to the renaming by developers that is part of the process of “transformation”/erasure (Stateway is now “Park Boulevard,” Ida B. Wells and Madden Park are “Oakwood Shores,” etc.) There were also political statements: “Peace 2 My ‘Incarcerated’ Scarfaces.” And, as if to demonstrate that we are all part of one culture after all, one of the drug dealers commissioned a tribute to Tiger Woods.
While the areas “up under the buildings” were the setting for the drug trade, they were also the commons, the village square, through which residents constantly passed as they went to and from their homes. Among residents, reviews of Vanish’s work were mixed. Some saw it as welcome ornamentation; some as vandalism. One resident leader, actively hostile to Vanish’s patrons, expressed admiration for his craftsmanship. There were also some negative reviews from older gang leaders who thought it unseemly for green young gangbangers to celebrate themselves with public art.
The ultimate critic/censor proved to be the Chicago Housing Authority which painted over all the images in the lobbies. Just before they did so, Patricia Evans and I documented Vanish’s work. The images presented here are drawn from a portfolio of fifty-three photographs.
Vanish remained a presence at Stateway for several years. He volunteered in the Park District art program. And we would seek his services when we needed signage for a community event. Then one day, like his images and the walls on which he drew them, he vanished.