Like a raccoon emerging from a dimly lit alleyway—quiet, but confident—Nikko Locander, 22, left his Humboldt Park home one Monday in June to celebrate the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup victory. Armed with a bag of spray canisters, he slipped under the new 606 trail and painted a trophy-toting Richie the Raccoon (his trademark muse). Next to Richie, a triumphant cry: “Lord Stanley is home.”
Richie’s smile might be familiar to residents of Bucktown and Humboldt Park. Locander’s furry mascot has made dozens of appearances throughout the city since 2013, including in a mural commissioned by Alderman Joe Moreno. Most recently, he was commissioned for a mural at Lollapalooza.
Ali 6, the name Locander’s chosen for these endeavors, has graced both hard-to-reach illegal spots and urban art hubs like Paper Crown Gallery.
Only now is the cartoonist, Chicago-raised by way of Puerto Rico, ready to unveil his identity. Locander led us to his Blackhawks mural under the Bloomingdale Trail to discuss his craft.
You’re obviously a Blackhawks fan. Did you have this piece planned out before the win, or was it spontaneous?
When I started the Ali 6 project two years ago, the first piece I did was of Richie with the Stanley Cup. So everybody on my Instagram [that week] was like, “What are you going to do now? The Blackhawks just won, and it’s been two years for you.” I was like, “Alright, I’ll do a mural.” I did this one freehand. But it was kind of a curse, because I didn’t do the Stanley Cup right. [laughs]
I’ve been on [the 606 trail] even before they made it, when it was just dirt. We used to go up there and chill when I was just a shorty. That area is definitely prominent for me, so I wanted that spot. I thought I had permission from the right people, but I was halfway through with the mural when the guy who curates the wall came up and said, “I run this wall; you don’t have permission for this." I apologized, got his card in case I wanted to work with him in the future, and said, “Well, I’m still going to finish." He went and talked to the people I thought were the ones I needed permission from, and then he came back and said, “Alright, we’ll keep it up til Monday. You look like you know what you’re doing, so that’s probably why you’re getting away with it right now.”
Richie has become somewhat of a familiar face in the Bucktown/Wicker Park and Humboldt Park neighborhoods. How did you come up with the guy?
Richie is me in a fictional world. I’ve been drawing characters since I was small, but in high school I was getting into typography and graffiti culture. One night I decided I wanted to draw a character that’s nocturnal like me, because I used to go out at 5 o’clock in the morning to spray paint buildings. I also wanted a character that could stand, because I’m really into fashion and I wanted to express that through him. Raccoons have hands—I couldn’t imagine putting clothing on something that has paws—and they’re just cool creatures. They wash their hands before they eat. There’s a couple raccoons that live right by my house, and I always have funny encounters with them. I haven’t named them, though. They’ll be whoever they want to be.
One of my favorite pieces of yours is pretty surreal. It’s an avocado with two arms, one holding Richie’s head on a platter and the other holding a can of spray paint (presented at Soho House Chicago’s “Under 27” show). Where do you find your inspiration?
A lot of what inspires me is other artists’ accomplishments, and all the cartoons and animé I watched as a kid. I’ve watched so many, it’s insane. I love Hey Arnold—he’s like, the most humble kid ever. Rugrats and all that. I love Boondocks—Huey Freeman’s eyes are open to what’s corrupting the world, and he knows what should change. Avatar: The Last Airbender—Avatar Aang is very spirited and very calm. And did you ever watch Dragonball? Goku was the best. He’s just a kid, and he’s just happy with life. He doesn’t know about all the bullshit in the world. It’s such a rich thing, I think. I used to be a lot more aggressive when I was younger, and growing up, I’ve learned to be a lot more humble and chill. So I like to stick to cartoons that have a positive influence on my life.
How has art been an outlet for you in that way?
I saw my mom draw when I was a kid, and being a mama’s boy, I thought, “I want to do that." Any time I was confused or happy, any emotion really, I could express it through art. And now I have a little brother who’s 5 and a little sister who’s 7. They see my work on the streets, and when I come home they’ll tell me they saw Richie somewhere. It’s really cool. I try to teach them about art, too—I give them little assignments.
Do you see any difference between graffiti and street art?
I used to do graffiti for five years. Let me rephrase that—I used to do typography, but now I do characters. There’s not really a difference, in my opinion, because it all falls into the category of art. I don’t think it’s any different. There’s a whole culture for typography, and I had to get out of that because a lot of it is negative or segregated. They kind of think of it like gangs. Plus, I got arrested, like, seven times. I was always afraid of my mom finding out.
But I don’t think typography is any different from street art. The typography-graffiti culture thinks that it is, and coming from that culture, I always thought it was really ignorant to think like that. [Graffiti] is still art; it’s art that’s represented for the streets. So for [graffiti artists] to think wheat pasting or character art is not a part of their culture, I think that’s negative and ignorant.
Why do you think some artists feel that way?
Graffiti culture is about doing what you want, hitting whatever building you want and trying to get your name out there for the people in that culture. [But] it’s about self-improvement as well. There are some people who just want to vandalize, not grow as an artist, and they’re the people who don’t accept all types of art.
How would you describe the street art culture in Chicago?
I think especially in Chicago, there’s a new respect for street art. People like Hebru Brantley opened up that market. He was into street art way before the rest, and he definitely opened the gateways. You have JC Rivera pushing his bear now—he’s my homie, and to see him blowing up and thousands of people following him is insane. Because we have these people, we’re pushing street art, and people are noticing. That’s cool. It’s not as popular as it is in New York, though—you have room here to kind of grow. Every wall in New York is already hit, so I don’t know if I’d have room out there.
Outside of your murals and wheat-pastings, you’ve been working on a graphic novel for some time. What’s that about?
The graphic novel is sort of where the whole Richie thing originated. The storyline is also the storyline of Aladdin: There’s this kid who likes to do graffiti, he finds a can, sprays it, a genie comes out and he gets three wishes. He says, “I want to do whatever I want, and no one can see me doing illegal activity." But now the storyline is kind of changing. It’s supposed to be about a kid taking graffiti and turning it into what he wants to do with his career…I decided two years ago [to stick to legal work] because I had constantly been getting arrested for art and I wanted to do it more professionally, more freely. I’d rather try and stick with drawing cartoons than getting arrested for an art form I love.
Any gallery shows in the works?
I have a show in December at AdventureLand Gallery and a clothing release with Juggernaut coming up in September or October.
How do you see yourself in Chicago’s street art community five years from now? Do you have any specific goals?
Having collaborations with people I respect, companies I respect. You never know where you’re going to go. Growing up, I lived in poverty, so I kind of want to be comfortable and not have to worry. I want to be able to buy my mom a house from what I do.