Meeting of Styles changes the face of graffiti

By Sophia Coleman

The monotonous daily commute downtown consists of gray buildings, steely skies and nothing for the eye to feast on. But then, a pop of neon color, bold words and too-true caricatures greet the senses. This is graffiti, the art that brings energy to a city so bogged down by stagnant hues. 

As soon as graffiti is spotted by ignorant minds, the color is whitewashed and the city becomes stale again. To some, graffiti is a crime—something that should be squelched and feared for the messages it can bring to society. For others, it is a way of life. 

The Meeting of Styles, an international organization of graffiti writers, knows the creative powers of the art form. With the group celebrating its eighth year in Chicago and its 10th year internationally, the members of MOS are proud of the change they have sparked in the urban world. 

“We are trying to raise a new consciousness,” said Manuel Gerullis, from Germany, and one of the original MOS organizers. “[It’s] about getting away from a materialistic attitude and focusing on the creativity and color in life.” 

Originally called Wall Street Meeting, the MOS of today was founded in Wiesbaden, Germany, in the early ’90s. It took place in an abandoned meatpacking district titled “Schlachthof”—which provided a wonderful maze of buildings to be used as canvases. Murals could be painted to bring art and attention to an otherwise dreary place. 

However, the masterpieces they created were not received without conflict. 

“I think people really enjoy seeing colors and art in public spaces, but there is a conflict on public spaces between art and advertisement,” Gerullis said. “Advertisement is more accepted in public spaces because there is money behind it. Art, on the other hand, doesn’t generate a financial benefit, so it’s not really welcome.” 

According to Gerullis, approximately a decade after graffiti writers had established Schlachthof as their painting grounds, the city wanted to tear their art down because of what the officials in the town called an “inner-city” climate. The district wasn’t bringing in any revenue for the city, so they wanted to rebuild. 

Because of the persistence of the organization, the Wall Street Meeting members won, but they had to change their name. It was then, in late 2002, MOS was founded. 

“The name change came about because artists from other countries wanted to have it in their cities,” said the street artist known as Demon, who is also a rapper and one of the Chicago MOS founders. “With all of the different races, religions and people from various backgrounds, it was natural to change the name to Meeting of Styles.” 

The German members knew that using abandoned spaces and otherwise defunct parts of cities could help nourish creativity and positivity that was so badly needed all over the world. Through a network of friends, Gerullis rounded up those he knew in other parts of Europe and in America.Well-known graffiti artists were designated as organizers in all the major cities—from London and New York City to Venice,Italy and Chicago.

Chicago happens to be host to one of the biggest MOS events—it is the only city that provides after-parties, galleries and concerts. 

“The Chicago MOS got so big that not everyone could fit on the sanctioned wall, so people ended up painting on their own walls around the city,” Demon said. “It became a sort of holiday for graffiti.” 

That holiday commenced full force on Sept. 16–18 at 30th Street and Kedzie Avenue, where the designated Chicago “Wall of Style” was filled to maximum capacity. It kicked off with a gallery show at Zhou B. Art Center, 1029 W. 35th St., which featured the work of some of the world’s best graffiti artists. There were also live performances by local bands Illuminati Congo, Dr. Graffenburg and The Rhythmists. The painting of the wall, whose owner has made it available to graffiti artists since 1987, according to Demon, began the next morning. This was followed by more acts by local disc jockeys and finished off with a meet and greet between the public and graffiti artists. 

“It exposes a lot of mainstream people to what graf–fiti is as an art form—a lot of people associate graffiti art with gangs, which is totally separate,” Demon said. “Now they can see it in action, live and in person and talk to the graffiti [artists].” 

Joyce Kagan Charmatz, president of Keep Chicago Beautiful Inc., a nonprofit organization that works to clean up the city through community involvement, though not familiar with MOS, said it seemed like a “lovely organization,” as long as what they were doing was legal. 

“I think it’s very important not to deface someone’s property, but if [they] are given permission to do this–this is America, right?” Charmatz said. “That’s fine.” 

Demon said although the Chicago MOS was more locally focused than other ones around the world, many foreign artists come from as far as Serbia to get some Chicago action. 

“There are so many generations [at the Chicago meeting], from the artists of the ’70s to the kids from the ’90s,” Gerullis said. 

The wide array of ages at the Chicago event is one of the draws for graffiti artists because unlike Europe, where the graffiti movement started in the ’80s, Chicago boasts artists who began in the ’70s, the “old legends,” as Demon calls them. 

Since the popularity of street art in the ’70s, graffiti has become less mainstream and looked upon as a criminal activity, according to the street artist known as Zore, another Chicago MOS founder, who also calls Oakland, Calif., home. 

“When I grew up, Chicago was very cultured, very inspirational, from the murals to the spontaneous street parties,” Zore said. “But [in the late ’80s], gang activity intensified, and Chicago became a ‘police [city].’’’ 

Zore said that because of the violent actions of gangs, the creativity of the youth was stifled and the graffiti scene nearly succumbed to the negative reputation it was given.

“It created a huge cultural and generation gap within the graffiti community,” Zore said. 

However, with the founding of MOS occurring in Germany, there was hope for Chicago. 

“[MOS] brought a lot of different generations together and kept graffiti alive,” Zore said. “Even if you leave the scene for a while, you’ll know it’ll be there when you come back.” 

Because of the massive oppression graffiti has been laboring under the past two decades, MOS made sure to add the element of political awareness into its murals and worldwide events.

Demon described a mural that depicted the brutalities of war, which was created in Chicago in 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq. The mural stood out boldly with bronze fighter jets, bombs, blood and limbs, showing the public what the media refused to air.

“In general, graffiti artists are some of the most politically aware people,” Demon said. “It’s sort of an underlying tone in graffiti writing, so it naturally manifests itself in MOS.”

In 2005, a German artist created an “Americana” scene on the Chicago Wall of Style, which consisted of “bugged-out” balloon-shaped Americans with obscure iconic American images.

According to Demon, the mural reflected the excessiveness of American life and how unhealthy, materialistic and lazy our lives have become. Because it was painted by a German artist, it gave locals a perspective of what the world saw in America.

In addition to metaphors of what American life is like, Zore said the murals that go up in Chicago often deal with the dirty politics the city is all too familiar with—one of the popular subjects being former Mayor Richard M. Daley. 

“Some people think [Daley] was a great mayor, but they’re usually not from Chicago,” Zore said. “The local people despise him because his group was a bunch of fascist pigs [with] no class.” 

A sore spot for the Chicago MOS was that during Daley’s time, much of the beautiful architecture that made Chicago unique was torn down and replaced with what Zore called “s–t boxes.” His argument was that instead of being demolished, the buildings could have served as beautiful canvases for artists—or simply pieces of history locals could hang on to. 

Daley aside, MOS has found itself facing very little governmental opposition and in fact has been respected by the Chicago Police Department. Demon said that because of the high-levels of gang activity surrounding the area in which the Chicago “Wall of Style” is located, the police recognize the MOS event as doing something positive to promote a beautified, cooperative community. 

“We want to show what graffiti is really capable of,” Demon said. “It’s about spreading creativity, awareness and acceptance—from graffiti artists, for the graffiti artists and to the people of the world.”