In 2009, Chicago-based graphic designer and graffiti enthusiast Tara Lynch lost faith in the advertising industry and sought to scratch a nomadic itch. She quit her job, bought a box truck, christened it the “Hotbox,” and started inviting artistic friends to paint its interior and exterior surfaces. Decorations turned into shows, shows gained organization and ambition, and the Hotbox became a full-fledged mobile graffiti gallery—the first of its kind in Chicago. Jack C., a street artist friend who lives sans-surname for the sake of anonymity, soon joined Tara as partner and co-conspirator.
Today, the itinerant truck-turned-gallery, and its cheeky name (“It makes total sense! Everyone’s getting inside my car, they’re looking at this art, it’s altering their mind”) are an increasingly integral part of Chicago’s graffiti subculture.
Street art in Chicago is not so much a scene as it is a battlefield. The city’s long history of staunch anti-graffiti policy has led to political tensions that often surface as outright hostility. Richard Daley’s “Graffiti Blasters” removal service receives millions of taxpayer dollars each year, and a ban on the sale of spray paint to minors has been actively enforced in Chicago since 1995.
In addition to the logistical difficulties these roadblocks present to would-be street artists, Tara and Jack C. feel that the city’s antagonism enforces a negative public opinion about street art, and insidiously erodes the distinction between vandalism and art. “It’s the way graffiti has been presented to the city of Chicago,” says Jack. “Street artists are sold as a cause for higher taxes, and the reason public spaces need to be cleaned.”
The Chicago street art community is small, secretive, and tight-knit; word of mouth is an essential means of communication, and many artists avoid an Internet presence entirely. Hotbox started as a collaboration among friends celebrating a common interest, but Tara consciously tries to welcome any average passerby. “Bottom line,” she says, “this isn’t just about vandalism or graffiti or street art. It’s an expression of a people and a culture, a common identity of a city.”
The Hotbox aims to play both goodwill ambassador and spokes-vehicle for the art form. “Putting so many talented people in the category of criminals, it’s insane,” Tara adds. “Everyone sees street art as a crime, because there is gang graffiti that they don’t want in their neighborhood. It’s all lumped together.”
Hotbox simultaneously offers artists a way to display their work in a context where it can be celebrated, free from legal consequence, and preserves the communal and ephemeral character of the medium. The truck contains a compact gallery and retail space that hosts summer shows, and the outside panels are regularly painted and repainted to showcase different artists.
By driving throughout Chicago, the Hotbox aims to connect disparate communities. “[Chicago is] so segregated in terms of neighborhoods,” Jack says. “We try to provide a common ground—a meeting place for the high, the low, the in-between.” The two make an effort to bring the truck to less gallery-heavy areas of the city in addition to regular stops in art hubs like Pilsen and Wicker Park.
Not to be stifled by Chicago’s city limits, the Hotbox has hopes for a national tour. At the moment, the plan is just an elaborate Kickstarter campaign, but someday the truck might take a transcontinental adventure in the name of artistic cross-pollination. Stops in each new city would involve recruiting artists to repaint the truck, and each subsequent community would get a chance to see the work of the previous, before, of course, painting over it.
All of this turnover means that Tara and Jack go through a lot of white paint. No mural lasts for more than a couple of months before it is whitewashed into the oblivion of Flickr archives and memory. It’s a bittersweet process, but as Tara explains, a necessary one. “That’s the nature of the Hotbox. If we’re going to celebrate this artwork, then it has to change. It has to keep breathing and moving and going.”