To hear Norman Alexandroff explain it on a recent walking tour organized by the South Loop Referral Group, the South Loop has spent the last 35 years without a neighborhood identity.
Alexandroff is director of external and internal partnerships at Columbia College, whose campus runs through the neighborhood--and he is the man responsible for the infusion of 30-plus murals that pepper buildings everywhere from the south end of the Loop to the farther reaches beyond Congress, from Michigan Avenue to points slightly west.
Most of the murals are done by solid artists from all around the world, many who started as graffiti artists. Many command large fees for their work.
Some are done by students.
Some artists have painted their work directly onto the walls of well-regarded and highly visible buildings--sometimes battling the elements, and feeling their effects for days or weeks until the work is done.
Some of the murals have been hung on a building instead of painted on for one reason or another. Some of the murals are photographs. Some are semi-hidden in alleys. Some have artificial lighting that allows attention to be bestowed on them past dark.
Some are abstract; some representational. Some colorful; some drab; some gorgeous. Some attract more attention than others. Some are of animals doing odd things like blowing a bubblegum bubble. One is of birds that are going extinct. One is of horses with no eyes.
Hardly any have a base political message. The building owners, who kick in money (Columbia acts as a pass-though/fiduciary) for lifts, artists' commissions and art materials to adorn their real estate don't want that.
The murals have a life-span determined by forces no one can do anything about. From new buildings that cover them up--to atmospheric conditions that wash them out in spite of weather resistant materials.
There is also the necessity of changing them up from time to time to give other artists' work a showcase. Although Alexandroff is constantly identifying new buildings--sometimes salivating over the prospect of big blank walls--and new landlords with whom to make a deal. Sometimes he thinks he has a live one--a landlord who likes the idea and willing to kick in cash for the adornment. But then the communication breaks down and the building walls remain artless.
People have become so emotionally attached to some of the murals that change causes heartache--and the desire (or demand?) for a lost mural to be recreated close by, according to Alexandroff.
Rarely do taggers tag the murals. "Because they are from the same milieu and they respect each other," he says.
Sometimes the murals have extra special touches--like an underwater scene on a wall beneath a building swimming pool. And sometimes artists change their esthetic to one degree or another once on the lift doing their job; perhaps a visual angle doesn't work properly from the street with the idea at hand. So there are adaptations.
Some of the murals have become news hubs because they illustrate something that suddenly becomes newsworthy. The TV cameras converge to explain how this or that mural has an artistic message that parallels the news. The mural becomes famous.
And that, too, adds to a South Loop identity.