God bless the neighborhood bar. Local dives abound in Chicago, and each is a guaranteed trip to what-the-fuck-land, a place where those guys who normally hang out near highway exits come in to sell tube socks, a punk-rock dude gives in and swigs the packaged goods he meant to take home, it’s OK if Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” comes on the jukebox twice in a row, and a Latino man in a T-shirt embroidered with an American flag knows one word to “Sweet Home Alabama”–and it’s “Alabama.” I like to visit that place as often as possible, so I was thankful when my friend Daniel recently showed me the doors to his local joint: the Two-Way Lounge, so named for its separate entrances on Milwaukee and Fullerton.

At first I was too distracted by Europe’s “Final Countdown” blasting from the jukebox to look around, but once I stopped galloping in my seat and waving my arms around I took in the details. The whole place was dim, covered in wood paneling and mirrors, and there were Christmas lights twinkling above the bar. Over frosted $1.25 mugs of Old Style I started telling my friends about this guy I’d run into at Pizza Metro earlier that night who’d told me that my eyes reminded him of his gorgeous cousin. When I got to the part where he claimed to have had an eye transplant as a child–“My parents gave me brown eyes, isn’t that cruel?” he’d said–a glazed-eyed woman in a padded flannel shirt to my left burst out laughing and didn’t stop for a good two minutes. When we started laughing with her, not at her, she stopped abruptly, stuck her index finger in the air like a philosophizing scholar, and mouthed some words, presumably of wisdom, but no sound came out.

I went to powder my nose in the ladies’ room, where you look at a yellowing poster of a cartoon teddy bear dipping his hand into a giant pot that says HONEY while you pee, and when I came back a short, sweet-faced Puerto Rican guy was opening his wallet for my friends. “See my wife?” he said, flipping through the photos within. “And here’s my kids.” After asking our names thrice and repeating them back incorrectly each time, he walked away, wishing us good fortune in our lives.

The flannel-shirt lady was cracking up again, which started us on another round of cackling. When she stopped, so did we. Then she got up, grabbed Daniel’s half-full mug, poured the beer into her empty one, cheersed us, and shuffled back to her seat.

“Did she steal your beer?” the bartender asked. Daniel nodded, laughing. “She does that all the time,” she said with exasperation, and poured us a round on the house.

The first half of the story of local artist Dzine (born Carlos Rolon) is your stereotypical rags-to-riches dream: Puerto Rican teenager from the south side gets noticed by some big names–MTV and Warner Brothers–for his streety graffiti and gets paid handsomely for doing what he loves. But Dzine gave up the big paychecks to work exclusively with galleries and museums. Graffiti, he says, is too repetitious for him and he no longer identifies much with the teen he once was. In fact, he’s destroyed most of the art he made before 1998.

In his early 20s Dzine, who’s 34 now, did a lot of commercial work: in 1990 he was commissioned to “urbanize” the Batman rides at a couple midwestern Six Flags by covering them with graffiti, and he created the backdrop for 1992’s MTV Video Music Awards. By the time he was 21 he was working in the graphics department at Leo Burnett. That’s when he posed as an art collector for the ad agency, calling galleries that handled artists who’d made the transition from free, public art to selling their stuff and showing in galleries–Keith Haring, Futura, Rammelzee. He’d say Leo Burnett was interested in buying some work, but that he’d need to meet the artist in person. “I never went to art school,” he says, “so I just wanted to talk to them about the art world and the gallery world.” Rammelzee was so impressed with the young man and his work that he flew him out to New York a couple years later to participate in a group show.

When he was 26, Dzine says, he “made a really conscious decision to not do certain shows, not work with certain people, just so I wouldn’t be so accessible.” He started using newfangled materials such as Envirotex, a shiny plastic laminate used on bar counters. More recently he’s been into glass beads, varying in size from tiny caviar to large pearls, which are applied thickly to his paintings by hand and then covered with a layer of clear glue.

In eight years he’s had about 25 solo shows, here and in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Paris, Tokyo, Madrid, London, Nairobi, and the Dominican Republic, among other places. Many of them sold out immediately. “Staring at the Sun,” his first solo show in Chicago in two years, is up until the end of January at Monique Meloche. With clean curlicue graphics and polka dots in a soothing palate of radioactive colors, the work is simple and catchy. The paintings’ rigid lines and immaculate curves are blurred with layers of glass beads.

At Wicker Park’s Hejfina, a fashion boutique that’s upscale without being huffy about it, Dzine’s concurrently showing a line of clothing and accessories based on paintings from the last show he had in Chicago, which he designed with Japanese modern-art star Hirofumi Kiyonaga for Kiyonaga’s label, SOPH.

For those who want to match their outfits–and those of their friends–to their surroundings, Dzine makes plush polka-dotted rugs that go with men’s featherlight short-sleeved button-down shirts, which match a small canvas handbag, which matches a boxy ruched tank top. Dreamy swirls on a floaty skirt match those on small throw pillows. T-shirts that change colors in the sun and pendants and pins match the catalog brochure from the original show, a silhouette of Dzine himself squatting in front of a painting.

Only thing is, you can’t buy the goods at Hefjina. In fact, you can’t buy them anywhere anymore–they were available last spring and summer only, and only in Japan. Most of the line immediately sold out, but when the season was up some pendants were left, so Dzine and Kiyonaga threw them in the incinerator.

“I understand my market,” Dzine says. “I don’t want to overexpose myself.” He says he’s worked his ass off for everything he has, “so if I want to make it limited edition, that’s my prerogative.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Beno.