Street Dreams: Exploring Chicago’s Street Art Scene With Galerie F

Words by Matthew Vanatta
Photos by Galerie F

Chicago is an urban oasis that juts out of the southwest flank of Lake Michigan, appearing like a studded crown in an otherwise flat landscape. For all the amber majesty of the Midwest, Chicago stands alone as a great city, a triumphant feat of engineering and innovation, a beacon of urban progress surrounded by an otherwise vertically challenged landscape of the great grain dotted plains.

One of North America’s great cities, Chicago is a melting pot, it’s one of the few places in the country where there’s such eclectic array of different ethnicities and cultures. In a place where food, libations, and sports reign supreme there is also a dynamic art community. A community that while overshadowed by cities like New York and Los Angeles has its own unique characteristics, defined by the same pragmatic and humble values that are woven into the fabric of Midwestern virtues.

Billy Craven has lived in or frequented a number of major metropolitan areas including living in New York, but like many creatives who end up in Chicago. family and life drew him to the Windy City. Spending the first several years of his residency in the city documenting the local street art scene, Carven decided to open Galerie F, a gallery and retail space dedicated to street art and gig poster art and artists in Chicago’s Logan Square Neighborhood.

We caught up with Craven to talk about his background in the music and art scene, the need for art spaces that are open to the public, and what it’s like documenting art in Chicago.

Did you grow up in Chicago?

No, I grew up all over. I grew up in a military family so we lived in California, Guam, Texas, and Hawaii. I also live in New York for a while and moved back to Chicago a little over 10 years ago, this is the second time I’ve lived here

What drew you back?

Well my wife is from a suburb of Chicago and we were about to have our first child, so we decided to move back because my wife’s family is all from here.

Did you have any familiarity with what the art and music scene before you moved there, were there things taking place in Chicago’s creative scene before you moved there?

Yeah for sure, Chicago is like the middle coast. When I was living in Hawaii I was managing a record a store, so Chicago has always resonated with me, especially musically and being home to labels like Wax Trax, which in the late 80’s and 90’s was really developing and pumping out a sound that was very new and fresh. It was creating genres like urban industrial techno-goth which at the time was really exciting, I was really into house music, and Chicago is a mecca for house music, so Chicago has always been on my mind.


How did your love of music transpire into you being involved in the visual art scene?

Well, prior to moving here I was documenting street art. I have been documenting that scene for the last 20 years so when I loved here I was really hungry for graffiti and street art and was trying to document it. Chicago is a smaller city and so I had to look a lot harder to find street art to document. I was also shooting film, which is expensive, so I had to be selective and frugal with taking pictures as this was ten years ago before social media made street art so accessible and everyone had a high-quality digital camera built into their phones.

So is the scene a little more underground or underdeveloped compared to cities like New York and LA?

Yeah as strong as it’s been in terms of music and street art it always gets looked over in terms of how it compares to the coastal cities. When international artists come to the U.S. they don’t usually choose to spend time in the middle of America, they usually go to New York, LA, or San Francisco, so it doesn’t get that cross-pollination. In New York where you have 8 million residents an hundreds of thousands of people coming in and out of the city every day you’re going to have a scene that’s constantly evolving. Everything evolves so quickly in a place like New York because you have so much outside influence In Chicago artists really take time to develop and grow their style and are primarily influenced by other artists in their community. It’s a much more tight nit process and community here.

Are the visual art and music scene interconnected in Chicago?

It’s yes and no, in years past Graffiti was always synonymous with hip-hop culture and music. These days you can’t really look at a street artist and just assume they’re into hip-hop because the art community is a lot more accepting and supportive of different styles so you have artists who are into everything from rap to metal. Musical taste has become so broad that it isn’t necessarily connected with just one type of visual art.

How were you getting your work out there, were you making zines or doing exhibitions?

I was really just doing it for myself as social media wasn’t really what it is today, and I haven’t made a zine in 25 years. Eventually, social platforms started gaining some momentum and now I use Instagram and document street art that way. I don’t usually take photos of the murals, because everyone does that, I like to take photos of tags and burners because it’s like the little pieces of the puzzle that build the culture.

I feel like burners and tags are modern-day hieroglyphics.

Yeah for sure, I also like the work in progress photos, because a lot fewer people are there experiencing the process. We all drive or walk by and see this big mural or installation and it might be beautiful and life-changing, but it’s all the things that went into that like concept sketches on a cocktail napkin or in their black book, and arranging their cans and caps on the sidewalk. For me, the little things that make up the bigger picture have always been a lot more exciting. I’ve always liked street art and graffiti to this generations folk art. Folk art in the past isn’t always liked or accepted and was always thought to be made by artists with less skill than the great masters, but to me, the masters never really mattered to me, they never really mattered to me or spoke to me like folk art does.

What inspired you to open a physical space?

I realized while documenting street art that there was a really strong talent pool in Chicago, but I also noticed that there weren’t really galleries that were open full time that worked with the local artists. If you look at most of the independent galleries they aren’t really open to the public, they are only open for private appointments or during the neighborhood art walk nights. For me, as a printmaker and a fan of art, I don’t want to make an appointment. It creates an unfair environment and that’s why we opened the gallery because we wanted something that was accessible. There was also a lack of galleries that were showing work I liked and I sort of figured if I’m into this stuff there have to be other people who are interested in it.

Did you intend to cultivate a community around the gallery?

It wasn’t really my expectation. I didn’t know that we would resonate with the community or become important to the community, it was just something that I wanted to do. It organically happened but I realized that we’re this great liaison between street artists and their fan base that might not know how or where to collect their work. Even with our gig posters, it’s sort of this organic thing where fans of the work might come in and hang out for a few hours flipping through the bins, even if they don’t have any intent to buy anything.

Are there any big shows coming up this summer?

Yes, we have just had a show open with Anna Hasseltine who is an amazing woodblock and screen printer. We also have a great show coming up that Christina one of the gallery staff came up with called Power Couples which will focus on artists who have significant others who are also artists and will feature both a singular piece associated with the primary artists style and a collaborative piece with their partner, and how their partners work ultimately influence what they’re working on. We have a great collection of people for the show and to our knowledge, there hasn’t been a show like this.

Who are the artists from Chicago that we should all be looking out for?

Well, they’re not all from Chicago but they’re Chicago bases. Sentrock is an amazing muralist who’s originally from Phoenix but we’ve been working with him for like five years. JC Rivera who moved here a number of years ago and does a boxing bear character. Baldur Helgason who is amazing, he has sort of an abstract portraiture similar to George Condo and I mean that in the best way possible, and I’d say Anna Hasselstine whose work is much more refined is currently showing at the gallery. Those are four artist whose work is very diverse and who I continue to love and support. That’s always been the mission of the gallery, to work with the artist and help them grow and to give them a platform and for the gallery to develop alongside them.

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