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Rafael “Rafa” Rojas loved graffiti, especially bubble lettering. As a young artist who grew up in Pilsen, he was interested in the basics of letter structure and color theory. His art adorned the walls of Pilsen, Little Village and Logan Square as well as in the galleries of the Chicago Cultural Center, Galerie F, Chicago Truborn and Young Chicago Authors.
Rojas also called himself Roswel, his graffiti name. He graduated from the Benito Juarez Community Academy and the Yollocalli Arts Reach program, funded by the National Museum of Mexican Art.
“He became quite popular not only because of his graffiti art, but also because of his Yeti street art character,” said graffiti artist Kane One, who was also Roswel’s mentor. “It’s part of the iconography of his identity.” His pine-shaped character in flaming colors, says Kane, resembled a self-portrait.
In August, Roswels health began to deteriorate rapidly due to complications related to the COVID-19 virus. He died on August 3rd at the age of 28. To honor him, a group of young artists from the graffiti collective he was a part of organized a mural depicting tributes to Roswel, which was painted across the city. One of the places they chose was along the wall with murals on 16th Street in Pilsen that hadn’t been touched for years.
In the same place, 25 years ago, the Pilsen artist Oscar Romero painted La Casa del Sol – a mural depicting the Aztec calendar surrounded by Aztec deities. The 18-meter-wide mural was commissioned by the nearby Catholic private school St. Procopius and was one of the first to paint the wall on Nov.
Since then, the Aztec mural has deteriorated. So, a few weeks after his death, Roswel’s friends decided to paint his tribute mural on the left side of the wall, separated from the Aztec calendar by a vertical crack. The tribute remained undisturbed for two months.
Then, on Thanksgiving weekend, Romero began restoring the Aztec mural. In an interview with the Reader, the 67-year-old said he was fulfilling his mother’s last wish before she died late last year. He kept putting it off until his friend and spokeswoman Julia Rendon – who initially told the Reader she was a resident of the parish but later admitted living in another parish – suggested he restore it to remove the graffiti -Fighting art in Pilsen. During our conversation, she asked several times if I was a real journalist.
On his first attempt to restore the Aztec mural, Romero painted over half of Roswel’s homage. He told the reader he did not know the meaning of the name. Some of Roswel’s friends noticed and turned to Romero at the location of the mural on it.
Roswel’s friends said they politely explained the importance of the honor and asked Romero if he could move his mural a little to make room. Romero insisted on granting his mother’s request. Roswel’s friends then suggested that Romero keep his paint because they wanted to restore the tribute. Romero took this as a threat.
That night, Romero’s newly restored Aztec mural was tagged or covered with graffiti art. The next day he restored it. Then it was tagged again. The misunderstanding, says Kane One, is that Roswel’s friends didn’t tag the Aztec mural. He says it was anonymous graffiti artists who defended the honor.
Local residents came to Romero’s defense. Some people have posted on Facebook about the defaced Aztec mural in the Pilsen neighborhood group without mentioning Roswels homage. The comments on a Facebook post suggested the taggers had no appreciation for Mexican culture and were gang members. Some threatened the taggers with physical violence.
“This [piece of shit] must be hurt, ”wrote one commentator.
“All taggers have low lives,” wrote another.
Photojournalist Mateo Zapata, who documents his work on Instagram, wrote an article about the situation from Romero’s point of view. “Oscar had no idea who or what he went through,” he wrote. He said Romero wanted to broker a solution with anyone willing and encouraged his followers to come forward.
The Post sparked even more online harassment towards the young Roswel artists. Zapata later apologized for only sharing Romero’s perspective and said that he meant no harm.
A few days later, Roswel’s friends went back to recover his toll 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” over it. Another video shows Rendon, Romero’s spokesman, walking up to the young artists and asking if they intended to kill them and their children.
For over a week, the public conversation seemed to have focused on the defacing of the Aztec mural and sympathized with Romero. Kane One said he was determined to correct what he believed to be a flawed narrative. He said the general attitude towards graffiti art is nothing new – older Mexican wall painters like Romero have perpetuated the negative stigma against the art form and the artists.
The negative attitude towards graffiti as a minor art form is likely attributed to strict crime laws that punish such activities with the misconception that they deter 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 has cost the city $ 4 million as of this year. The Roads and Sanitation Department also works closely with the police to catch people writing graffiti.
Chicago also has a ban on spray paint, which was almost thrown out in 2018 by Southwestern councilors Ed Burke and Matthew O’Shea, who were more concerned about helping businesses in their community profit from selling spray paint and imposing heavy fines on minors owned by them .
“How can we say that we are a city that promotes young artists and gives them careers as paid graffiti and street artists,” asked Kane One, “when we still have city laws that do not allow individuals or organizations? Buy spray paint within the city limits? ”
Since the first encounter, Roswel’s friends said they had not heard from Romero directly. The office of the 25th parish and the Pilsen art and community center enabled all parties to mediate. Romero couldn’t attend as he was taking care of his wife in the hospital, so Rendon left instead. After attempting the mediation, Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez told the reader that Rendon was continuing to harass the young artists.
For the time being, an ideal solution for Roswels friends is that both murals exist side by side. “We don’t have to like every work of art in public space,” says Kane One. “But in Chicago there should be fair access to public art for everyone.”
Romero told the reader that he wanted to keep peace and harmony. “I think it is possible that we can all live together and still respect one another,” he said.
A couple of weeks ago I went to the mural on the 16th and Allport. Roswel’s friends were on the verge of completely restoring his tribute mural. The black letters with magenta roots that spelled his graffiti name were fixed. Next to it stood Romero’s defaced Aztec mural, separated from Roswel by the crack in the wall. I could hear the familiar sounds of friendship, joy, and laughter. As I approached Roswel’s friends, two passers-by giggled. The artists hardly paid any attention to them. All that seemed important was making sure there was enough color and perfecting the outline of Roswel’s name.