Before I interviewed the street muralist known as Don’t Fret, he asked me to conceal the details of how we communicated. It felt like I was trying to reach someone in the witness protection program, if that someone was an overly cautious 20-something from Wicker Park. One of Chicago’s most visible working artists—you can find dozens of his murals dotting the Loop and South Shore—Don’t Fret is also one of its most secretive, putting up his large works while the rest of the city sleeps. Few people know his real identity. Think of him as Chicago’s version of the English street artist Banksy.
But despite the mystery—or perhaps, in part, because of it—he is fast becoming a darling of the local art world. GrubHub, Columbia College, and the bar Flat Iron have all commissioned murals from him; in late May he transformed a room at Soho House into a temporary installation-meets-watering-hole called the Don’t Fret Dive Bar. When he posts photos of new work on Instagram, the pieces get snatched up within hours. Others, sold by his West Loop gallery Johalla Projects, go for as much as $5,000. It’s there that Don’t Fret will further broaden his reach this month with the new exhibit Signs of the Times.
For an artist who prides himself on secrecy, commercial success is a mixed bag. “It’s awesome people respond to the work and engage with it, but when the celebrity aspect comes in, it becomes weird,” he says. “I don’t want that.”
His murals—some of which he does with permission, others without—are crude portraits and clever critiques of everyday life, like Edward Gorey images for the Instagram age. “There’s nostalgia, and absurdist humor, and loneliness, despair a little bit,” he says of his work. “But it’s hopeful despair.”
Don’t Fret’s largest piece—spanning the side of a brick building at 79th and Stony Island—depicts a child playing with toy cars that are nearly the size of real ones. More typical subjects are his cast of recurring working-class characters. “I call them my guys,” he says. “Kind of second-, third-generation Eastern European. Y’know, Joey Schleprock types. Lots of butchers, meatpackers, construction workers, bike messengers, union guys. I’m interested in these closer-to-the-earth types.”
Don’t Fret’s own upbringing leaned more toward Woody Allen movies and the grotesque portraits of Jim Nutt, which are echoed in his work. “I painted a lot as a kid. I was always drawing. Then in elementary school I learned about graffiti. Mayor Daley had banned spray paint, so kids would buy Sharpies at Walgreens. That’s what led me to wheat-pasting with a marker.” (He creates paper cutouts in his studio and sticks them directly on walls with wheat paste.)
As a condition of this interview, the artist refused to allow his real name to be published. But here’s what I can say: He lives in Wicker Park, where he was born and raised; he studied photography in college; and his grandfather was a butcher, which may explain his deep-seated love for encased meats. (The Publican has named a special sausage in his honor.)
Says Oliver Hild, owner of Maxwell Colette Gallery, which has shown some of Don’t Fret’s work: “He’s kind of quirky, and he’s always been, which is part of his appeal. His practice is a veritable sausage: a meaty mix of painting, installation, writing, and performance art stuffed into a casing of classic conceptual art and seasoned liberally with illegal street work.”
As Don’t Fret’s profile continues to rise, remaining anonymous will surely become more difficult. But he will relish the mystique for as long as it lasts. “I would like to tell myself I still have a chance of reaching Banksy status,” the artist says. “Really, I’m just trying to have fun.”