A mural by Pawn Works

Over the past two years, about 25 new murals have popped up around Chicago, from Pilsen to Avondale. Where did they come from? Nick Marzullo and Seth Mooney, operating as Pawn Works, have been facilitating the influx of public artworks by pairing internationally renowned street artists with local business owners. This isn’t your grandfather’s muralism.

Unlike traditional murals around the Chicago, with Pilsen as the locus, these new pieces don’t necessarily have an identifiable political message, nor do they respond to particular community ethos. Many are abstract, gritty, colorful for the sake of color, and eye-opening, shaking up the workaday landscape with heady doses of urban surrealism.

Marzullo and Mooney formerly ran Pawn Works out of a storefront in Bucktown where they showcased graffiti-style artworks in a gallery. But in recent years their interest in street-art advocacy evolved beyond the Pawn Works gallery walls. And everything about their expanded practice is legit. They scout big walls on buildings and convince building owners, such as Mark Thomas of The Alley, to support the creative venture. They fly in highly regarded artists from the international street-art scene to paint on Chicago’s buildings, like Momo, whose new mural (below) brightens up the expansive brick wall of an artist studio building owned by Thomas.

A mural by Momo

Pawn Works was even invited to participate in Pilsen’s city-funded Art in Public Places project, which supported new murals in Alderman Solis’ ward in partnership with the National Museum of Mexican Art and the Chicago Urban Art Society. Whereas Pilsen’s mural style tends to directly address traditional Latino themes, a new work by RAE portrays a naked rollerblader daydreaming beneath an overpass.

The word “curate” has been tossed around a bit too much lately (even making The Atlantic’s list of worst words of 2012), but Marzullo and Mooney are independent curators of public art in the true sense of the word. They seek sponsorships for their projects, give educational lectures on the differences (or similarities) between graffiti and city beautification, and expose Chicagoans to a new generation of significant urban artists. Pawn Works has plans—big plans—to do more. Keep an eye on its website for news and to view their archive: pawnworkschicago.com.


Photography: Pawn Works