From graffiti to galleries

Big cities have long been places where artists flock to for inspiration. Russian-born Mark Rothko fled to New York's lower east side for its gritty street culture. And some of Chicago's most treasured artists, like Archibald Motley and Edith Altman, migrated here for similar reasons.

Victor Lopez is not that kind of artist.Born and raised in Logan Square, he was a kid with America's third-largest city for a backyard, and his first canvases were the overpasses and El structures favored by graffiti writing.

'It was like growing up with a group of artists,' Lopez, 31, says of his old graffiti friends. Amid the threat of gangs in Logan Square and Humboldt Park, Lopez avoided peer pressure to join a gang by focusing on graffiti writing.

'There were gangs in every neighborhood,' Lopez remembers. 'Older gang members were always trying to recruit kids to join -- it just wasn't for me.' While Lopez and some of his friends may have dodged the gangster lifestyle, many of his friends did join, opting to spray-paint gang symbols rather than the personal graffiti name they had practiced for so many years.

Starting out as a basic tagger, Lopez and his crew rode the trains and buses all over Chicago, painting their names on any available surface. Often referred to as bus bombers or street bombers, Lopez, half Puerto Rican and half Honduran, was part of a close-knit group of graffiti writers who spent years traveling through the city, picking up ideas for new graffiti styles.

'It was everywhere -- a culture, people trying to get their name up,' Lopez says of his former graffiti days. 'It was like hip-hop is now.'

He first discovered graffiti at twelve, while riding the el and hearing about it from neighbors. From there, he sought out hard cover books that displayed photographs of New York graffiti, which led him to become more serious about creating graffiti.

'Back then, we didn't have the Internet -- there were no graffiti magazines like you see today and the media in general either didn't care about graffiti or hadn't caught on yet.'

Inspired by the books he saw, Lopez surged forward in the Chicago graffiti community and began creating graffiti pieces, which are large murals filled with color, depth, shading and detail.

After a brief stint at Columbia College, he later dropped his courses to pursue painting full time. He's showed his work at Polvo, a Pilsen gallery, with a group of other former graffiti writers turned fine artists. The 2005 exhibit focused on paintings inspired by the graffiti style of unpredictable curves, changing lines and shapes, and rich color. Lopez's paintings are currently on display at the Michigan Avenue ad agency Energy BBDO through October 24th. The international agency began exhibiting one artist each month in Chicago, to show people what's new in the art world.

'We didn't want to be so saturated in advertising,' explains Lauren Fay, Energy BBDO's Chicago art buyer, about why they started the artist program. 'What really drew us to Victor's paintings were the vibrant palettes and the fact that it gets people talking. We wanted something really energizing and Victor's paintings display that.' Fay also was intrigued by Lopez's graffiti past, and how he's applied its style to his paintings in a fresh and innovative way.

While the rat race of urban artists try to make a name for themselves, Lopez sits quietly in his Logan Square apartment, tuning in to Salsa legend Eddie Palmieri, as he slowly works his way across the canvas. Always spotted wearing a classic grey wool cabbie hat, Lopez says his focus is on the progression of a painting, and not necessarily its final outcome.

'I have no motives,' Lopez says of his art. 'If no one ever bought a piece of my work, I'd still be here making it.' Lopez creates art for art's sake, which some art lovers enjoy because of its purity. The soft-spoken artist chose painting on canvas because he was familiar with creating objects on a blank space, all of which he learned to do while graffiti writing on the streets.

Beginning with a basic outline drawn on a canvas, he moves inward, filling in the canvas with bursting color and blended shadows until the center of the piece is complete. Although the process is much like graffiti writing, his paintings don't contain words, symbols or recognizable images. Instead, Lopez focuses on individual shapes and the detailed development of red, green and yellow hues. The results are similar to his old graffiti writing style, with flowing and bulbous images, mixed with sharp diagonal lines.

On first glance, there may not appear to be anything recognizable when looking at his main body of work, although some visitors to his Northside studio think otherwise. During one visit by a friend, Lopez recalled being asked to bring out 'that painting of the alien.'

'I was like, alien? What alien?' Lopez laughed. 'I've never painted an alien.'

From friends to fellow artists to family members, those who visit his apartment often point out objects in his paintings, telling him about what they see.

'People come up with the weirdest stuff,' Lopez says, chuckling under his breath.

Although his illegal tagging days are over, he recently contributed to The Meeting of Styles, a movement that began in New York, and later branched out to Chicago and other urban areas. Its purpose is to bring together artists from all over the world to communicate a positive and vibrant message to their community through large-scale graffiti art.

While creative people from around the globe continue to flow into Chicago to pursue art careers, Lopez's work is organic, from the city itself. His inspiration comes not only from what he's seen in Chicago, but also from what he's lived through in the metropolitan Midwest.

Lopez's future dreams? To open a gallery one day near his parents' home in Puerto Rico, to showcase his work and to give rising Latino artists in Puerto Rico a space to display their art.

More of Lopez's work, along with contact information, can be found at