Leer en español
Rafael “Rafa” Rojas loved graffiti, especially bubble lettering. As a young artist who grew up in Pilsen, he was eager to learn about the fundamentals of letter structure and color theory. His art decorated the walls of Pilsen, Little Village, and Logan Square, and inside the galleries at the Chicago Cultural Center, Galerie F, Chicago Truborn, and Young Chicago Authors.
Rojas also went by Roswel, his graffiti name. He graduated from Benito Juarez Community Academy and the Yollocalli Arts Reach program, funded by the National Museum of Mexican Art.
“He became pretty popular not just for his graffiti art, but because of his yeti street art character,” said graffiti artist Kane One, who was also Roswel’s mentor. “It’s a part of the iconography of his identity.” His pine-tree-shaped character in flaming colors, Kane says, was similar to a self-portrait.
In August, Roswel’s health began deteriorating rapidly from complications related to the COVID-19 virus. He passed away at 28 years old on August 3. To honor him, a group of young artists from the graffiti collective he was a part of organized a mural project with tributes to Roswel painted throughout the city. One of the spots they chose was along the wall of murals on 16th Street in Pilsen that hadn’t been touched in years.
It was at the same spot 25 years ago that Pilsen artist Oscar Romero painted La Casa del Sol—a mural depicting the Aztec calendar surrounded by Aztec deities. The 60-foot-wide mural was commissioned by the nearby private Catholic school St. Procopius, and it was one of the first to coat the wall on 16th.
Since then, the Aztec mural has deteriorated. So Roswel’s friends decided, a few weeks after his death, to paint his tribute mural on the left side of the wall, separated from the Aztec calendar by a vertical crack. The tribute stayed up, undisturbed, for two months.
Then the weekend of Thanksgiving, Romero began restoring the Aztec mural. In an interview with the Reader, the 67-year-old said he did this to grant his mother’s last wish before she passed away late last year. He kept putting it off until his friend and spokesperson Julia Rendon, a Greektown resident, suggested he restore it to combat the graffiti art in Pilsen. In our conversation, she asked multiple times if I was a real journalist.
In his first attempt to restore the Aztec mural, Romero painted over half of Roswel’s tribute. He told the Reader he didn’t know the significance behind the name. A few of Roswel’s friends noticed and approached Romero about it at the site of the mural.
Roswel’s friends said they politely explained the significance of the tribute and asked Romero if he could move his mural slightly over to make space. Romero insisted on keeping the same spot to honor his mother’s wishes. Roswel’s friends then suggested that Romero save his paint because they were going to restore the tribute. Romero took this as a threat.
That night, Romero’s newly restored Aztec mural was tagged, or drawn over with graffiti art. The next day he restored it. Then it was tagged again. The misunderstanding, Kane One says, is that Roswel’s friends didn’t tag the Aztec mural. He says it was anonymous graffiti artists who were defending the tribute.
Nearby residents came to Romero’s defense. A few people posted about the defaced Aztec mural in the Pilsen neighborhood group on Facebook, with no mention of Roswel’s tribute. The comments under one Facebook post suggested the taggers had no appreciation for Mexican culture and were gang-affiliated. Some threatened the taggers with physical violence.
“This [piece of shit] needs to be violated,” wrote one commenter.
“All taggers are low lives,” wrote another.
Photojournalist Mateo Zapata, who documents his work on Instagram, wrote a post about the situation from Romero’s perspective. “Oscar had no clue who or what he went over,” he wrote. He said Romero wanted to mediate a solution with anyone willing to do that and encouraged his followers to reach out.
The post ignited even more online harassment toward the young Roswel artists. Zapata later apologized for only sharing Romero’s perspective and said he meant no harm.
A few days later, Roswel’s friends went back to restore his tribute, but were harassed by onlookers. One video shows a man in a navy-blue jacket smearing black paint over the Roswel tribute and writing “bitch” across it. In another video, Rendon, Romero’s spokesperson, is seen approaching the young artists and asking if they intended to kill her and her children.
For over a week, the public conversation seemed to center on the defacing of the Aztec mural, and was sympathetic to Romero. Kane One said he was determined to correct what he considered a flawed narrative. He said the general sentiment against graffiti art is nothing new—older Mexican muralists like Romero have perpetuated the negative stigma toward the art form and the artists.
The dismissive attitude toward graffiti as an art form with little significance is likely attributed to tough-on-crime laws that penalize such activities with the false notion that it deters crime.
In 1993, former Mayor Richard M. Daley introduced the Graffiti Removal Program, also known as the blaster program, which uses trucks that spray baking soda under high water pressure to remove graffiti. The program still exists today and as of this year costs the city four million dollars. The streets and sanitation department also works closely with police to catch individuals writing graffiti.
Chicago also has a ban on spray paint which was close to being tossed in 2018 by southwest-side aldermen Ed Burke and Matthew O’Shea, who were more concerned with businesses in their ward profiting from the sale of spray paint and issuing large fines for minors caught in possession of it.
“How can we say that we’re a city that supports nurturing young artists and giving them a career path into becoming paid graffiti and street artists,” asked Kane One, “if we still have city laws that don’t allow individuals or organizations to buy spray paint within city limits?”
Since the initial encounter, Roswel’s friends said they haven’t heard directly from Romero. The 25th Ward office and the Pilsen Arts & Community House facilitated a mediation between all parties. Romero was not able to attend since he’s been caring for his wife at the hospital, so instead, Rendon went. After the attempted mediation, Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez told the Reader that Rendon continued to harass the young artists.
For now, an ideal resolution for Roswel’s friends is for both murals to coexist. “We don’t need to like every piece of art in public space,” said Kane One. “But there should be equitable access to making public art for everyone in Chicago.”
Romero told the Reader he wants to maintain peace and harmony. “I think it’s possible for all of us to coexist and still respect each other,” he said.
A couple weeks ago, I walked over to the mural on 16th and Allport. Roswel’s friends were close to fully restoring his tribute mural. The black letters with magenta roots spelling out his graffiti name stood firm. Next to it was Romero’s defaced Aztec mural, separated from Roswel by the crack on the wall. I could hear the familiar sounds of friendship, joy, and laughter. As I approached Roswel’s friends, two passersby snickered. The artists barely paid them any attention. All that seemed to matter was making sure there was enough paint and perfecting the outline of Roswel’s name.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Julia Rendon did not live in the 25th Ward. Rendon is a 25th Ward resident living in the Greektown neighborhood.
A short investigation into the disappearance of news boxes
Caught in a systemic cycle of incarceration, addiction, and homelessness, how do you make room for the possibility for hope?
For roughly five years graffiti artists have brightened up an ignored section of Logan Square just off the Blue Line, but part of the property is now up for sale.