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Graffiti cleanup ‘blitz’ ahead of Amazon visit wipes out street art in Chicago

A work by a French street artist in Chicago was blasted away as the city stepped up graffiti cleanup near some proposed sites for Amazon’s new second headquarters.
(Max Temkin, Renee Barry photos)

A Chicago alderman is planning to introduce an ordinance letting property owners protect graffiti as art after a cleanup blitz near a site being pitched to Amazon claimed an unintended target.

A work by a French street artist on the side of Cards Against Humanity’s headquarters was blasted away as the city dramatically stepped up graffiti cleanup near some proposed sites for Amazon’s second headquarters in the lead-up to the company’s visit to Chicago last week.

The maker of the irreverent card game is on Elston Avenue in the Logan Square area, across the Chicago River from Lincoln Yards — Sterling Bay’s more than 70-acre riverfront site near Lincoln Park and Bucktown.

Department of Streets and Sanitation workers handled 256 requests for graffiti removal around Lincoln Yards during the month that ended Wednesday, according to city data. Among them was the piece Cards Against Humanity founder Max Temkin invited French street artist Blek le Rat to create on the company’s building.

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Temkin offered to let Blek le Rat, known for his stencil art, use the building as a canvas to promote his show at a Chicago gallery about a year ago. Temkin was “incredibly honored” to have a piece by one of his favorite artists on the building, he said in a direct message on Twitter, and Alderman Brian Hopkins helped keep graffiti cleanup crews from taking it down on multiple occasions.

“Obviously street art is meant to be ephemeral but it was a real point of pride for us, and we loved sharing this special thing to the neighborhood,” Temkin wrote.

Hopkins said the Streets and Sanitation workers who typically work in the ward knew it was art and should be left alone. But during a recent “blitz,” when staff from all over the city target one area for cleanup, a crew unfamiliar with the mural removed it, he said.

“We felt pretty bad, and apologized as soon as we found out what happened,” Hopkins said.

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He said he is drafting an ordinance that would let building owners register with the city murals they want protected and create a placard property owners could affix to the outside of a building to warn Streets and Sanitation crews. Hopkins said he’s also looking into whether there are cleanup methods with “a lighter touch” that would be less likely to damage street art when workers attempt to remove graffiti that vandalizes an existing mural.

The cleanup blitzes happen on a “semiregular” basis and are usually scheduled 30 to 60 days in advance, he said.

It “just so happened” that this one coincided with Amazon’s visit, said Hopkins, who said he wasn’t part of that tour.

Temkin seemed unconvinced. “The only thing that can make this right in our hearts is if [Amazon Chief Executive] Jeff Bezos gives us a free piece of priceless art,” he wrote.

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Zumbach writes for the Chicago Tribune.


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