Brooks Golden, in August 2012, with the owl mural he painted along the 16th Street viaduct in Pilsen
Brooks Golden, in August 2012, with the owl mural he painted along the 16th Street viaduct in Pilsen Credit: Scott Stewart/Sun Times

> Street Art

Jason Brooks was coughing up blood. He couldn’t stop vomiting.

On April 23, he set aside preparations for a trio of gallery shows to check himself into Stroger Hospital. Placed in intensive care, the veteran Chicago street artist known as Brooks Golden put on a strong public face. “So I’m gonna be out of commission for at least a cpl dAys… lots of test being run to find out why I’m wretchin non stop,” he wrote on Instagram beneath a photo that showed an oxygen tube running into his nose.

Those closest to Brooks say they weren’t rattled because the 39-year-old had for so long struggled with his health. Diagnosed with diabetes at age 19, he went years without health insurance; strapped for cash, he would occasionally choose to buy art supplies instead of insulin. In 2010, he underwent a pair of surgeries to remove a cancerous tumor on his bladder. “Every year for the past few years it seemed he was in the hospital at least once,” says THOR, a friend and fellow artist. “So I thought, Oh, that’s just Brooks getting dehydrated standing in an alley painting. I didn’t think it would be the end of him.”

Three days later, Brooks’s heart stopped. His girlfriend of three years, Natasha Barraza, whose six-year-old daughter, Mariana, looked to Brooks as a father figure, says doctors cited numerous factors that contributed to the artist’s death: diabetic ketoacidosis, a buildup of toxic acids in his bloodstream; failing kidneys; and masses in his spine and one of his lungs—the effects, they supposed, of his cancer apparently having metastasized.

Within hours, the first of several Brooks Golden memorial murals went up. The collaboration between Clam Nation, DIRT, Lucx, Nice One, and Nudnik on Milwaukee Avenue in Bucktown featured Brooks’s tag, 7ist, which continues to haunt walls and newspaper boxes all over town.

More tributes followed during a packed event at the Chicago Urban Art Society on May 4. Fellow artists came bearing booze and food, ready to share tales of wheat-pasting missions with Brooks and to hang work dedicated to their friend and frequent collaborator. Incorporated in many of those pieces were owls, the image that recurs most often in Brooks’s art. “I’m calling it my spirit animal,” he says in a video interview from last year that was projected at the event. The artist liked the various ways he could render the bird: as a lone, nocturnal hunter; a geeky ‘toon sporting a graduation cap; a solemn, intricately patterned totem—a nod to his Native American heritage.

The notion of the owl as wise elder also fit with Brooks’s esteemed place in Chicago’s street art community; he’s remembered as a plainspoken mentor and confidant. “Something that made Brooks important was his tenure,” says Billy Craven, owner of Logan Square’s Galerie F. Brooks’s age and experience, as well as his precision with a Sharpie, commanded respect. More than one piece at the CUAS memorial depicted the artist wearing a hat printed with the affectionate phrase old fart.

Before moving to Chicago in 2001, Brooks cut his teeth in Milwaukee in the early 90s writing graffiti with the crew FCR (Fat Chicks Rock, among other meanings). He skateboarded and listened to punk and metal—influences to which he’d return two decades later to create artwork, flyers, and zines for a fictional band he dubbed DIPSTK. In ’97, Brooks was on work release for a misdemeanor criminal damage to property charge when police again nabbed him; he served a year of his 18-month sentence in the Milwaukee County House of Correction. Though Brooks never entirely gave up graffiti, doing time made legal street art appealing.

Friends say that, having weathered health and money woes as well as a divorce during his time in Chicago, Brooks remained optimistic that his work ethic and resolve would soon pay off. Most recently, he was busy producing pieces for a Portland skate-deck exhibit, the “Alphabet Soup” group show at Galerie F in September, and what would’ve been his first solo exhibition, at the Elephant Room in the South Loop in November. “I thought this was going to be his year,” says Oscar Arriola, one of Brooks’s closest friends.

Now there’s talk of a book, and in early August, THOR, along with muralist Jeff Zimmerman and others, plans to paint a memorial along the 16th Street viaduct in Pilsen, not far from the giant owl by Brooks that’s become an icon of the 25th Ward’s Art in Public Places initiative. The piece is a small step toward cementing the legacy of an artist who worked largely in an ephemeral discipline.

“Brooks’s proper place in the Chicago art world,” THOR says, “isn’t as a footnote.”