Chicago News Cooperative
Formerly Outlaws, Now Artists of Renown
By MERIBAH KNIGHT
Before they were in, they were out. Before crowds swamped the galleries and celebrities wrote checks, KC Ortiz and Jordan Nickel wielded spray cans, hopped fences, provoked the citizenry, got arrested — all to make Chicago’s streets, rooftops and el tracks their canvas.
Graffiti is a “selfish, stupid, destructive crime,” declared former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Still, the pair thrived — first as criminals, and eventually as artists.
“Graffiti was the best education,” said Mr. Ortiz, 33, now an award-winning photojournalist. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Time and The Wall Street Journal. “I learned to listen to myself and get around barriers that other people set up against you.”
Mr. Nickel, 31, now a painter and founder of We Are Supervision, a commercial art and design firm based in Chicago, said, “Riding the train as a kid and seeing graffiti was life-changing.” The times he spent traveling the Red Line with his father from their Evanston home to see the Cubs at Wrigley Field revealed “a world that invited me in and accepted me and made me who I am,” he said. “It completely electrified my life.”
If Mr. Nickel had the opportunity, he would tell Mr. Daley: “Lighten up. If I didn’t have that outlet as a kid, I wouldn’t be sitting here. Graffiti saved my life.”
Mr. Nickel and Mr. Ortiz’s exhibition inspired by Chicago’s strict stance on graffiti, entitled “Whitewash,” opened Nov. 19 at Known Gallery in Los Angeles.
And while they are frequently invited to teach art and show their work around the world, Mr. Ortiz and Mr. Nickel have never shown in Chicago, the city that they say made them.
“Graffiti just demands so much of its participants, in terms of work ethic and to stand out in terms of talent and quality,” said Caleb Neelon, co-author of “The History of American Graffiti” (HarperCollins). “To apply those quantity and quality ethics to any chosen field gives good results.”
Mr. Nickel, who goes by the name POSE in both graffiti and fine art, started writing graffiti when he was 12, lured by the colorful letters he saw on rooftops and brick walls. Eventually he went on to art school at the Kansas City Art Institute and dabbled in performance art and conceptual work.
After a few years making art that was separate from his graffiti, Mr. Nickel said, he “realized it was not working anymore.”
“I was denying that graffiti part of me,” he said.
He incorporates graffiti into his newer paintings. His canvases bear splatters, patches, bandages, and marks of paint removal that are known as the buff — all posing the question of what it means to simply paint over graffiti.
“The buff is just a Band-Aid,” Mr. Nickel said. The human problems that came before graffiti — gangs and poverty — remain even after the graffiti is blasted away, he added.
For Mr. Ortiz, finding his way from graffiti to photography was part of his own evolution.
At 21, Mr. Ortiz was sentenced to five and a half years in federal prison for a drug conspiracy conviction. In prison, before ever picking up a camera, Mr. Ortiz found photography. He spent years poring over newspapers and magazines, studying composition and technique.
Listening to inmates grumble about their conditions, he said he thought about their three square meals a day, and the people around the world who were hungry.
“I came out with a totally fresh perspective on life,” Mr. Ortiz said. “I looked at it like I had died and I was being born again. I went through a first-world problem and wanted to help those who had real problems.”
Over the past three years, Mr. Ortiz has traveled around the globe, pointing his lens toward people the world may have forgotten.
“KC is one of the individuals in my life who I’ve seen transform for the better and transform other people around him for the better more than anyone I’ve ever known,” said Pete Wentz, the lead singer for Fall Out Boy and a longtime friend and collector.
Mr. Ortiz spent months in the jungles of Laos with the Hmong people, who after being recruited in the 1960s by the Central Intelligence Agency to fight Communists in the “secret war,” are still engaged in combat with the Vietnamese nearly 40 years after the United States withdrew from the region.
“It’s all about patience,” Mr. Ortiz said of his projects. “I definitely learned about patience in prison. I can outwait anyone. I can sit anywhere. I can sleep anywhere. Prison built me for that.”
Mr. Ortiz’s work in Laos won him a first-place award for a feature in the prestigious Pictures of the Year International competition. His recent work is from West Papua and Myanmar, where he spent time with opposition forces and rebels.
“You would never think that a graffiti writer would be in the jungles of Burma,” said Casey Zoltan, director of Known Gallery. “But that is what made him a graffiti writer in the first place — to take that next step, to take it to the next level.”
For both Mr. Ortiz and Mr. Nickel there is no clear line between where graffiti ended and fine art began.
“Yes, graffiti is bad and wild,” Mr. Nickel said. “But it’s also just paint.”