Murals in Chicago: an Open Conversation concerning Immigration History, Civil Rights and Cultural Identities
Author: Chuqing (Louisa) Zhao
Program of Study: SSD MAPSS
Three years ago, when I first came to the United States, I was deeply impressed by murals. The city is a big and living canvas for people coming from different corners of the world. Paintings on walls vividly tell stories about race and immigration, hope and inspiration. Through a city tour, I found murals are commonplace in Chicago—tens of thousands of square feet of murals are shown on buildings, train stations and even bridges. This weekend I spent a sunny afternoon checking out murals in Chicago; thanks to the technology, it is a lovely and high-efficient tour on Google Map and Google Image. When I quickly moved from Pilsen to the South Loop and then to Bronzeville, the diversity of murals in the city made me start to think about why Chicagoans are so fascinated with murals? Specifically, what role does it play in communities and their life? What are the similarities and differences in the way individual neighborhoods treat them?
Pilsen and Little Village
When I think about Mexican murals, perhaps the first thing that might occur to me is famous Mexican painters like Diego Rivera. Murals play an important role in Native American culture. Mayans used them to preserve knowledge and history for future generations. Mexicans are fond of these self-expression arts to depict daily life (LaWare, 1998). In the 1920s and 1930s, popularity of murals rebounded in Mexico and massive expansions of public art and secular education access to rural areas in Mexico (Scannell, 2018). Harboring hopes and dreams, Mexican immigrants came to the United States in the 1910s (Pupovac, 2010). They start to embrace more opportunities and bring Latin arts into American society.
Murals in Pilsen, a walking museum of Latin immigration in Chicago, appear at the height of immigration wave and civil rights movement in the 1960s (“Street art & murals in Chicago’s neighborhood”, n.d.). Dating back to the 19th century, Pilsen was firstly inhabited by Czech immigrants. In the 1960s, although there was a great increase in the number of Mexican Americans in Pilsen, Latinos were considered a minority in the neighborhood (O’Berry, 2019). “Metafisico (Peace)” is the first Mexican mural in Pilsen painted by Mario Castillo in 1968 (Scannell, 2018). Through the photographs I saw online, I was wondering why the painting is called Peace and borrows a lot of Mayan elements? The painter has two identities – like most Americans, Castillo expressed the protest of anti-Vietnam war (Scannell, 2018); like most Mexican immigrants, he kept a strong relationship with traditional Mexican culture. In an attempt to give validity to the Mexican identity, many muralists tried to combine two identities together.
Mural painting has become a multicultural community activity collaborating with different artists. Artists from different backgrounds are passionate to beautify the communities in Pilsen. In 1971, Chicago Public Art Group, a cultural organization to promote the creation of mural arts, was founded in the notion of supporting the mural movement and expressing their political views (“History of Chicago Public Art Group”, n.d.). Then, in 1976, Auerlio Diaz, with the help of 20 children from St. Procopius Church, painted “Galeria del Barris (Gallery of the Neighborhood)” (Scannell, 2018). Walking along 16th Street, the mural stretches for miles, which consists of 22 Chicano men of varied colors with the dramatic evolution of emotions. The complexity of the emotional changes attracts me a lot. Compared with early murals in Pilsen, this mural includes less Mexican cultural elements and tends to be more abstract in pop art style.
Galeria del Barrio by Aurelio Diaz, restored by Sam Kirk; © WTTW Chicago
Spirituality is a lasting theme in Pilsen’s murals, which represents hopes for the future and a shared cultural heritage (Delgado & Barton, 1998). Murals depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico, can be found on many street walls, remaining a powerful symbol of justice and love in Mexican culture (LaWare, 1998). Jeff Zimmermann, a native mural artist in Chicago, takes Our Lady of Guadalupe as an iconic image in the theme of immigration very often. Near St. Pius V Catholic Church, there are three large-scale wall paintings—one depicts Our Lady of Guadalupe and immigrants sailing across the sea to the United States; two others represent the industrious and successful Latino immigrants. According to Chapell (2020) in the Chicago Sun Times, the majority in the neighborhood take this mural as one of the most popular murals in Pilsen— “it is definitely a mural that most people believe in the faith of it” (paras.8). With the blessing of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexican immigrants work hard to survive and then thrive on the land of immigration.
The Mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe by Jeff Zimmermann; ©Robert Herguth, Chicago Sun Times
Mural arts embrace a new norm in globalization, modernity and cultural diversity in the South Loop, where Chicagoans welcome artists from all over the world.
Along Wabash Avenue, the Wabash Arts Corridor invites different artists to show diverse art forms. Feminist arts prevail in the Loop. One example, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s Stop Telling Women to Smile is probably the most eye-catching contemporary mural along Wabash Avenue. On the wall, several women stare at me. It is one of an art series to address gender-based street harassment, which is an issue in many big cities like Chicago (Fazlalizadeh, n.d.; Wellen, 2015). Across the corner, some creative images appear. Same as a feminist mural, French artist Kashink’s Be the Change You Wish to See depicts men rather than women. Compared with the previous mural that delivers a clear message, this mural made me look into more information on her website to understand the notion. Different from traditional feminist arts with female qualities, Kashink’s murals expects viewers to jump out of the stereotypes of what it means to be a female artist (Kashink, n.d.; Wabash Arts Corridor, n.d.).
Stop Telling Women to Smile (left) and Be the Change You Wish to See (right) on Wabash Avenue; © Brianna Wellen, Chicago Reader
Another interesting aspect attractive to me is Wabash Arts Corridor’s sister cities mural painting project. An artist from Chicago will go to Casablanca, Morocco to do some paintings, while an artist from Morocco will come to Chicago each year (“Sister Cities: Dynam”, n.d.). The exchange is a bond connecting two cities that share affection for public arts. On 1306 S. Michigan Street, a young Moroccan is working on a mural named Dynam. The portrait of a Moroccans elderly man on the wall tends to be more like a pop cartoon guy in American comic books. With a more realistic backdrop of Casablanca’s most famous square, Place Mohammed V., the mural is exotic and aesthetically appealing. Through the peaceful expression of the man, I could feel the passionate muralist is full of confidence to cross boundaries between nations, cultures and races.
Sister Cities: Dynam on Wabash Avenue; © Sandra Steinbrecher, Wabash Arts Corridor Project
Nowadays, murals in the city are not only channels to convey messages from artists, but also play important roles in public arts education. An increasing number of students and community members participates in changing urban canvas and city living experience. According to the Green Star Movement in Chicago, more than 10,000 students with mural arts programming have helped in transforming the interiors and exterior over 140 public spaces (“Mission & Vision of Green Star Movement”, n.d.). Young students learn how to paint on walls, how to make unique mosaics and how to turn bare walls into fascinating images. Mural arts have been made accessible to everyone in the city.
During the pleasant virtual mural tour, I feel like I had several conversations with friends from different time periods and places. Mural arts in the city is like an open conversation engaging all citizens, regardless of our races, cultural identities and genders. From political related art pieces to cartoon faces of the young generation, it is a city’s memoir of neighborhood changes and urban developments.
Chappell, Mary. (2020, July 31). Spirituality often a theme of murals and mosaic in and around Pilsen, Little Village. Chicago Sun Times.
Delgado, M., & Barton, K. (1998). Murals in Latino communities: Social indicators of community strengths. Social Work, 43(4), 346-356. Fazlalizadeh, Tatyana.(n.d.). Stop telling women to smile.
History of Chicago Public Art Group. (n.d.). Chicago Public Art Group.
LaWare, M. R. (1998). Encountering visions of aztlan: Arguments for ethnic pride, community activism and cultural revitalization in chicano murals. Argumentation and Advocacy, 34(3), 140-153.
Mission & Vision of Green Star Movement. (n.d.). Green Star Movement. Retrieved August 20, 2020 from
Pupovac, Jessica. (2000, September 15). History of Pilsen. WTTW Chicago.
KASHINK. (n.d.). Bio of Kashink. Retrieved August 20, 2020 from
O’Berry, Rhiannon. (2019, June 13). Galeria del Barrio Mural. Clio. Retrieved August 20, 2020 from
Scannell, Kaitlynn. (2018, September 24). Pilsen Murals Blend Art and Activism. WTTW Chicago.
Street art & murals in Chicago’s neighborhoods. (n.d.). Choose Chicago. Retrieved August 20, 2020, from https://www.choosechicago.com/articles/museums-art/great-neighborhoods-for-chicago-street-art/
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Wellen, Brianna. (2015, September 16). A South Loop mural wants you to stop telling women to smile. Chicago Reader.