A Chicago mural artist grapples with Kanye West’s antisemitism

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A Chicago mural artist grapples with Kanye West’s antisemitism

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CHICAGO – Black for the pack. White for the pocket square. Silver for the Rolex. The street artist was halfway through spray painting his 14-foot mural in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood last August when people began to recognize the subject.

“Kanye West!” Chris Devins recalled one woman screaming. “I love Kanye!”

Devins, 48, an urban planner who has sketched celebrities on buildings for years, thought this one would be a hit. Ye — the rapper formerly known as Kanye West — grew up here, chanting “Chi-town” in his songs and naming his 4-year-old daughter after the Windy City.

And at first, Devins was right: Passersby that morning stopped to take selfies with his portrait of Ye before the paint was dry. One man recorded an Instagram video of his wife admiring it: #Beautiful.

Devins set out to turn a defunct catering company’s wall into a tribute to the superstar that, with regular repairs, could last decades. He added his Instagram handle so fans could tag him in their photos. Another Ye mural in Chicago was so popular that the creator sold an NFT version of it for around $200,000.

Then Ye began a weeks-long tirade against Jews, and attention suddenly shifted from his creative legacy to his anti-Semitic outburst.

“I’m going to die 3 over JEWISH PEOPLE,” Ye tweeted in October, apparently referring to Defcon, the US military’s defense readiness system. He blamed Jews for the community’s ills on podcasts and live streams. He refused to back down after losing a $1.5 billion sneaker deal with Adidas, among other lucrative partnerships. “I like Hitler,” Ye said in a December interview with Infowars founder Alex Jones. “Hitler has many redeeming qualities.”

The antisemitism reverberates. A group of men raised their arms in Nazi salutes as they draped a banner over a Los Angeles freeway that read: “Kanye is right about the Jews.” A similar proclamation was projected onto the side of a stadium during a college football game in Jacksonville, Fla. Another appeared in red paint on a Jewish grave about 30 miles north of Devins’ mural: “Kanye was rite.”

Now when people viewed the street artist’s work, they saw something else. Friends and strangers flooded his inbox asking if he planned to remove it. One wrote: “You have to take responsibility for immortalizing an idiot.”

Ever since he got involved in graffiti art as a teenager, the Chicago native has bristled at the idea of ​​censorship. He hoped Ye would apologize. The rapper has fueled controversy in the past, attributing some erratic outbursts to episodes of bipolar disorder.

Devins told People, “I think we should leave it as a commentary on modern-day celebrity and the need to handle it responsibly.”

But quietly he wavered. His mother is Black, and his father is Irish. His Irish grandfather disapproved of their union. “I’ve dealt with racism basically from birth,” Devins said.

He did not want to broadcast acceptance of any discrimination. He reminded critics that his wife is Jewish. She also erred on the side of the First Amendment. Ye’s insults upset them both, he said, but neither felt right to erase the mural. A protective instinct flared up instead. When someone sprayed “TRASH” over Ye’s suit, Devins rushed to restore his portrait.

“I don’t think we should censor anything just because someone is behaving ridiculously,” he said.

“I’m sensitive to people’s feelings,” Devins said. “If someone came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m hurt by this’ – that would be different.”

Then he heard from a rabbi.

Across town, another artist struggled with the same dilemma.

Jason Peterson, 53, worked with Ye for nearly two decades: first on a Boost Mobile flip-phone ad featuring the rapper’s lyrics (“I’m Chi-town’s finest”), then on ad campaigns for his Yeezy sneakers .

Peterson, a photographer and creative director who runs a marketing agency in Chicago, once took a portrait of Ye against a brick wall on the West Loop’s trendy Lake Street. As artists worldwide repackaged their work in the form of unique digital copies called NFTs, an idea struck him in 2020: What if he blew up the portrait into a 22-foot mural and auctioned off a cyberspace version?

“Don’t miss the opportunity to be linked to this NFT and the mural forever,” read one cryptocurrency website’s announcement before the roughly $200,000 sale.

Peterson didn’t think he’d ever want to break his own link.

“I loved it,” he said. “I drove there every day and thought: There is my contribution to the city of Chicago. I loved it because I love Kanye. His music. Him as a person.”

When a photo of the men doing Nazi salutes across LA’s 405 Freeway started making waves on social media, Peterson flashed back to his youth as a skateboarder in Phoenix’s punk rock scene. He and his friends, he said, would fight with “racist skinheads”. One guy broke his partner’s arm with a baseball bat.

“The skinheads, the bridge in Los Angeles — it was deeply messed up,” he said. “The effect of what Kanye said … it was to give freedom to a bunch of idiots.”

The owner of the Lake Street building, a Jewish man, wanted the mural gone. One October afternoon, Peterson grabbed a ladder and a bucket of black paint and over the course of an hour darkened his portrait of Ye into a silhouette. (Days later, the owner completely repainted it.)

“When I did, I was almost a little tearful,” Peterson said. “It felt like it was the hard thing to do, but it was the right thing to do.”

He posted a photo of it on his Instagram story and wrote: We need better role models. The image — along with cellphone video someone shot of Peterson on his ladder — went viral.

Down the street, Rabbi Avraham Kagan, co-founder of Chabad River North and Fulton Market in the neighborhood, pondered how to address it all.

Ye’s antisemitic spiral disturbed him. Here was a powerful figure with more Instagram followers than the estimated number of Jews on the planet, saying things like, “Hitler has many redeeming qualities.” Bias attacks are already on the rise: The Anti-Defamation League counted a record 2,717 incidents in 2021, according to its latest audit.

Peterson’s painting over his mural was a welcome development, a sign that people have rejected hate speech. Kagan hesitated to call for anything that could be interpreted as censorship or derided as “cancellation culture.” His strategy against antisemitism? Talk back. Speak better.

“A little light dispels a lot of darkness,” he liked to tell people, quoting a Jewish proverb.

As Hanukkah approached, Kagan encouraged members of a young Jewish professional group to give menorahs to bars, restaurants and apartment buildings across Chicago. The goal was not to back down when anti-Semitism dominated the headlines. He encouraged everyone to light the candles with pride.

Some of the menorahs ended up in tall buildings overlooking Devins’ mural. Towards the end of December, when the rabbi read that the tribute to Ye was still standing, he looked up the street artist’s phone number.

Devins has faced controversy before.

After he was commissioned two years ago to paint a mural of King Von, a Chicago rapper who died in a 2020 shooting, people labeled the work a glorification of gang violence. (He disagreed.) When he painted Michelle Obama in an Egyptian headdress in 2017, basing the portrait on an illustration he found on Pinterest, Devins caught flak for not initially crediting the image’s creator not credited. (He apologized and said he didn’t know who made it — then pushed back: “In retrospect, I consider it collaboration.”)

Both murals remain up. Defending his work usually came naturally, Devins said, but when Kagan called just before New Year’s Eve, he had no desire to argue.

They met for coffee in a posh West Loop hotel lobby. The rabbi spoke about the responsible use of influence, and Devins readily agreed. He thought about it for months. He could no longer stand by the mural of Ye.

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

Now another dilemma: Should he take it off? Or add something fresh to the conversation?

Kagan proposed responding to the vitriol by amending Sec. He shared some teachings that a religious mentor often repeated.

“One must see the world as balanced between good and evil – between positivity and negativity,” he said. “One good deed can tip the scale and bring salvation.”

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

Kagan brought his eight-year-old daughter, Chaya. and one of the young professionals handing out menorahs on the block, 23-year-old Jeremy Kopelman. The street artist arrived with his wife, Jody. They all stared up at the brick wall that Devins had transformed over the weekend.

“What I like about this is — 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 positive to the conversation,” Jody said.

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

“I feel good about it,” Devins said.

He had no control over how superstars used their platforms, but he could do something about this piece of Chicago.

One quote from the rabbi stuck with him, Devins explained. It was short and sweet and perfect for the moment, he said, “considering the darkness these comments have dragged us all into.”

He painted a lone candle by the rapper’s mouth – “where the words come from,” he said – and added a message in yellow: A little light dispels a lot of darkness.

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