Flash ABC, a longtime graffiti artist and active Logan Square resident, gave an oral history of the graffiti art in the neighborhood at Comfort Station’s Comfort Society Speakers Series on Sept. 27.
Flash was born in Humboldt Park in 1967 and moved to Logan Square in 1971, growing up around the intersection of Whipple and Schubert.
Chicago’s gangs began in the 1920s with Al Capone, and by the ‘70s, they grew to include minorities with 600 gang factions with 70,000 gang members, Flash said in the presentation. When he grew up, there was a heavy gang presence in Logan Square, with various ones that residents knew they could run into at certain intersections.
Flash ABC was sent to school in Puerto Rico, and a friend of his went to New York. The friend, Angel Perez, showed budding artists how to form letters and incorporate the colors into the paint, practicing at first in chalk, then spray paint. Some colors indicate connections to certain gangs, so they were challenged with creating styles around avoidance of various color combinations.
In 1983, a movie called “Style Wars” showed the graffiti elements broken down. After this, a movement was made around hip-hop, which included graffiti, a form of freestyle, not dissimilar from breakdancing.
Perez and a man named Berto became ABC: the “Angel and Berto Crew.” Later, a man named Chris joined, so it was “Angel, Berto and Chris.” This grew to be the “Atomic Bombing Crew,” and, finally in 1985, it was the “Artistic Bombing Crew.”
Members dressed up their BMX bikes with blues and purples, as to not get their bikes stolen. They’d also wear their graffiti uniform: a jean jacket that had a graffiti piece painted on the back, along with Nikes that had the classic fat laces. On Sundays, hip-hop followers would go to Logan Theatre, wearing heavily decorated jackets and talking smack to each other about their pieces.
Graffiti artists then gave themselves names. Flash called himself “Flash ABC,” a name he was given by Perez because Flash was documenting Chicago art with his camera. To mark pieces, artists would assign themselves numbers as part of their signatures. Flash ABC chose his birthday as his number, while others used random numbers or nicknames.
If artists couldn’t get their hands on paint, they would go so far as to use shoe polish for their tags. Flash ABC said that when an artist tags for too long, they then get bored, expanding into murals, practicing backgrounds and layers to create depth of field.
Flash ABC said people create their tags because they’re tired of the gangs. The artists and gangs had a complicated relationship because the various gangs supported the artists with supplies.
When first creating graffiti, there was some gang involvement, with ABC dedicating art to fallen gang members. The crew and others also began to tag the Mega Mall. Once, when a local gang member died, the crew was asked to put a painting atop the Mega Mall, saying “Joey Rest in Peace.”
Mega Mall then became a canvas for which to practice graffiti on, and Hollander Storage was next. The Chicago graffiti movement then spread to the masses through public transit. Quickly, 22 pieces were strewn across the Blue Line, in what Flash said was “graffiti for the masses.”
Flash traveled all along the train line, painting across the city, but he was only arrested within his own neighborhood, in 1987. Part of his probation involved volunteering for two weeks in a nursing home. He then joined the National Guard to return to school.
With the creation of the Internet, Flash ABC then made his first email address in 2003. He was invited to document various walls through email. He then began his own wall, Project Logan, which uses the South Side tradition of having a rotating wall. He’s created this wall on Medill with AnySquared, and it features multiple panels on which artists showcase their murals for given periods of time. The wall can be seen from the Blue Line between California and Logan Square stops.
This is being done in Europe as well, Flash ABC said, but graffiti was invented in the U.S. He said he represented a community far beyond Logan Square, but this is where it truly started in Chicago.
Recently, the 606 trail opened, but the tracks had been graffitied since the ‘80s. Now, the city and graffiti artists have joined forces, keeping the graffiti history alive as partners. Flash said the first seven panels of murals are devoted to people who use art to stay out of the gangs. Previously in Logan Square, there was no support for the artists, Flash says.
Now, the art community and schools support them.
Hoping to preserve Logan Square’s rich artistic history, despite its dramatic changes over the years, Flash ABC is “here for my history.” But, he said, “It’s always been changing.”