James Emmett Jankowiak wonders why hip-hop got a bad rap. “People assume hip-hop is all bad,” he says. “The hip-hop music I grew up with didn’t mention guns or violence. ‘Rapper’s Delight’ talked about improving yourself as a person.” Even when a song glorified guns, “it didn’t make me want to go out and buy one.”

As a teenager in Back of the Yards, Jankowiak became a tagger. He’d spray paint his nickname, “Casper,” on buildings and el trains. Though he knew graffiti was illegal, he thinks it was far from destructive. Hip-hop kept him out of gangs, he says, and put him in touch with creative types. “It’s a certain frame of mind more than anything, and it includes everyone from the get-go, including blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans.”

After graduating from Quigley South in 1987, Jankowiak took a few painting classes at Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute, though he had to drop out when he ran out of money. Over the last eight years he’s supported himself by working in advertising and selling an occasional painting. His work as Casper has been exhibited at Beret International Gallery and the South Shore Cultural Center, and he even rated a mention in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s book Art in Chicago 1945-1995. Two years ago he opened a studio on State Street with Nick Fury, a fellow former tagger who took his name from a Marvel Comics character. The pair had been part of the art collective Aerosoul, which also included painters Dzine, Solo, Disrok, and Tsel. Last year Jankowiak was able to quit his day job and dedicate himself to being Casper full-time.

Though Casper may now create legitimate murals for clients like Leo Burnett, Jankowiak hasn’t forgotten where he came from. This Friday night he and Fury are holding an open house, and they’ll donate a portion of the proceeds from sales of their artwork to the Active Element Foundation, which provides arts grants to urban youth programs. Pamphlets and copies of the foundation’s manifesto will be distributed at the door, but there will be “no big push.” New York performance artist Danny Hoch has agreed to match their donation up to $50,000.

Jankowiak is a bit reluctant to talk about his street past–he hates the term “tagger,” preferring “writer” instead–but it’s very much alive in his paintings. He still uses sharp diagonals, bubble letters, and vibrant colors. The brick and steel that once served as his canvas are re-created with layers of paint and torn paper. One of Nick Fury’s installations provides a historical perspective on his own graffiti days. Featured under glass are about ten different markers he used to decorate walls and trains around the city. He used spray paint–now outlawed in Chicago–as well as Speed Stick deodorant and shoe dye, which is difficult to remove.

Most of that graffiti has been covered over, weathered away, or blasted off by Mayor Daley’s Graffiti Blasters. But two years ago Fury saw an el train emblazoned with something he’d done ten years before. “It was a real rush,” he says. “Apparently they weren’t able to get it all off.” Fury is quick to add that he and Casper are looking to the future, not the past. “We’ve taken the graffiti to another level,” he says. “We want to show other subcultures that there is a step beyond the streets.”

Recent paintings by Casper, Nick Fury, and Colin DeBose will be on display Friday from 5 to 9 at 202 S. State, suite 710. There will also be a poetry reading by Dr. Groove, who usually reads on the subway platform at Washington and State. Admission is free. For more information, call 312-362-9165.

–Marcia E. Gawecki

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.