A Chicago mural artist grapples with Kanye West’s antisemitism


CHICAGO – Black for clothes. White for pocket square. Money for a Rolex. The street artist was halfway through painting his 14-foot mural on Chicago’s West Loop last August when people started noticing the subject.

“Kanye West!” Chris Devins remembers a woman crying. “I love Kanye!”

Devins, 48, an urban planner who has drawn celebrities into buildings for years, thinks it’s a challenge. Ye – the rapper formerly known as Kanye West – grew up here, calls his songs “Chi-town” and named his 4-year-old daughter after the Windy City.

And at first, Devins was right: Passers-by stopped to take selfies that morning with his portrait of Ye before the paint dried. A man posted an Instagram video of his wife praising her: #Nani.

Devins hopes to turn the wall of a restaurant business into a tribute to the superstar, with a constant touch, which can take years. He added his Instagram handle so fans can post him in their photos. Another cartoon was so popular in Chicago, the creator sold an NFT version of it for $200,000.

Then you start a week-long debate about Jews, and the focus quickly shifts from his founding heritage to his antisemitic comments.

“I’m going to death con 3 on the Jews,” you posted in October, referring to Defcon, the US military’s preparedness system. He has blamed Jews for society’s ills on podcasts and live streams. He refused to back down after losing a $1.5-billion sneaker deal with Adidas, among other ventures. “I like Hitler,” Ye said in a December interview with Infowars founder Alex Jones. “Hitler had many characteristics.”

of the said antisemitism. A group of men raised their hands in a Nazi salute while placing a banner over a Los Angeles highway that read: “Kanye was right about the Jews.” A similar advertisement was posted on the side of the stadium during a college football game in Jacksonville, Fla. Another was found with red paint at a Jewish cemetery about 30 miles north of Devins photo: “Kanye is a rite.”

Now when people look at a street artist’s work, they see something else. Friends and strangers flooded his inbox, asking if he planned to open it. Another wrote: “You need to take responsibility for perpetuating such ignorance.”

Ever since he got into graffiti art at a young age, the native Chicagoan has been fascinated by the idea of ​​censorship. He hopes you will forgive him. The rapper has courted controversy in the past, adding some misunderstandings to bipolar disorder events.

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Devins told People: “I think we should leave this as a message for today’s celebrities and the need to use them wisely.”

Slowly, however, he weakened. His mother is Black, and his father is Irish. His Irish grandfather did not approve of their union. “I’ve dealt with racism since birth,” Devins said.

He doesn’t want to advertise accepting discrimination. He reminds critics that his wife is Jewish. He was also on the side of the First Amendment. The diatribes threatened both of them, he said, but didn’t feel good about removing the mural. Of course, a sense of protection was raised. When someone painted “TRASH” on Ye’s shirt, Devins rushed to take his picture back.

“I don’t think we should argue about something because someone is funny,” he said.

“I’m used to what people think,” Devins said. “If someone comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, I’m hurt by this’ – that’s different.”

Then he heard from a rabbi.

Across town, an artist wrestled with the same problem.

Jason Peterson, 53, has worked with Ye for nearly two years: first on a Boost Mobile cell phone commercial featuring the rapper’s lyrics (“I’m Chi-town’s finest”) , then in advertisements for his Yeezy sneakers.

Peterson, a photographer and creative director who runs a marketing agency in Chicago, once posted a picture of Ye on a brick wall on Lake Street in the West Loop. When artists around the world were recording their work in the form of unique digital copies called NFTs, he had an idea in 2020: What if he burned the image to inside a 22-foot photo frame and sell a cyberspace version?

“Don’t miss the opportunity to be forever connected to this NFT and digital art,” read a cryptocurrency website ad before selling for around $200,000.

Peterson didn’t think he wanted to cut his link.

“I loved it,” he said. “I ran there every day, thinking: Here is my contribution to the city of Chicago. I wanted it because I love Kanye. His music. He as a person.”

When the photo of the Nazi-salutting men on LA’s 405 freeway flashed across social media, Peterson flashed back to his youth as a skateboarder in Phoenix’s punk rock scene. . He and his friends, he said, fight against “racist scalps.” A man broke his friend’s arm with a bat.

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“The skinheads, the bridge in Los Angeles – it’s completely polluted,” he said. “The end result of what Kanye said … was to give freedom to a bunch of idiots.”

The owner of the Lake Street house, a Jewish man, wanted the mural removed. One October afternoon, Peterson grabbed a ladder and a bucket of black paint and, at one o’clock, his image darkened Ye into a silhouette. (A few days later, the painter painted.)

“When I did it, I almost cried a little bit,” Peterson said. “It’s supposed to be a difficult thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do.”

He posted his photo on his Instagram account and wrote: We need good role models. The photo — along with a cellphone video taken by Peterson on his stairs — went viral.

Along the way, Rabbi Avraham Kagan, founder of Chabad River North and Fulton Market in the neighborhood, wondered how to fix it all.

He was affected by the antisemitic spiral. Here is a powerful image with more followers on Instagram than the estimated number of Jews in the world, saying things like, “Hitler has many healing qualities.” Attacks are on the rise: The Anti-Defamation League has raised a record 2,717 incidents in 2021, according to its latest analysis.

Peterson’s painting on his mural is a welcome sight, and sign that people reject hate speech. Kagan hesitated to call anything that could be interpreted as censorship and derided it as “destroying culture.” His strategy against antisemitism? Last word. Say goodbye.

“A little light dispels the darkness,” he likes to tell people, quoting a Jewish proverb.

As Hanukkah approaches, Kagan encourages members of a Jewish youth business group to deliver menorahs to bars, restaurants and homes across Chicago. The goal is not to back down when antisemitism dominates the headlines. He urged everyone to light the candles with pride.

One of the menorahs landed on the heights overlooking Devins’ statue. In late December, when the rabbi read that the tribute to Ye was still standing, he looked for the street artist’s phone number.

Devins has faced controversy before.

After being hired to paint a mural two years ago of King Von, a Chicago rapper who died in a shooting in 2020, people criticized the work for embellishing it. to violence. (She disagreed.) When she painted Michelle Obama in an Egyptian headdress in 2017, basing the image on a photo she found on Pinterest, Devins caught flak for the lawsuit disrespecting the creator of the image. (He apologized, saying he didn’t know who did it — then retracted: “I think it was a conspiracy after the fact.”)

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Both portraits remain intact. Defense is his usual practice, Devins said, but when Kagan called before New Year’s Eve, he didn’t want to argue.

They met for coffee in a West Loop hotel bar. The rabbi spoke about using power responsibly, and Devins readily agreed. He thought about it for months. He couldn’t stand Ye’s portrait anymore.

“He crossed the line from free speech to extremism,” Devins said.

Now the next problem: Should he take it down? Or add something new to the conversation?

Kagan intended to respond to the vitriol through art. He shared some advice that a religious teacher often preaches.

“One must see the world in balance between good and evil – between positivity and negativity,” he said. “A good deed can increase weight and bring healing.”

Nine days later, on a blustery January morning, the rabbi and the street artist agreed to meet again at the mural.

Kagan brought her eight-year-old daughter, Chaya, and one of the young entrepreneurs who donated menorahs on the block, 23-year-old Jeremy Kopelman. The street artist arrived with his wife Jody. They all looked at the brick wall that Devins had replaced over the weekend.

“What I like about this is that you made a point,” Kagan said. “You say: We don’t stand for negativity, and you did it with a positive message.”

“It really adds something nice to the conversation,” Jody said.

“It’s not fighting hate with hate,” Kopelman said.

“I’m fine with it,” Devins said.

He has no control over how superstars use their platforms, but he can do something about this part of Chicago.

One quote from the rabbi stuck with him, Devins explained. It was short and hard and appropriate for the moment, he said, “considering the darkness those words cast on all of us.”

He painted a single candle in the rapper’s mouth – “Where do the words come from,” he said – and added a letter in yellow: The light dispels the darkness a little.


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