There are a few things that form the brawn of a city: there’s the constant gurgling of incoming trains, the perpetual birth of buildings, the steel that chills the air and the invariable clanking of metal from a distance. But what brings warmth to a city is the social commentary craftily planted along buildings overnight.
Throughout Logan Square, there lives a distinctive trend of bird-inspired street art tacked along Milwaukee Avenue. At places like Turbo Tacos, Animal Farm Tattoo and Café Cabaret, there’s often a tag in a bottom corner, reading “Sentrock.” Each piece is unique on its own, but as a whole, they cradle messages of freedom, progression and hope.
Joseph “Sentrock” Perez, the proprietor of these pieces, is originally from Phoenix, Arizona. He moved to Chicago nearly five years ago planning to attend Columbia College to study art. “At least — that’s what I told my family,” he said, “but to be honest, I moved just to get away (…) I needed something different.”
Growing up in West Phoenix, a rough reality existed for him. Having his father, uncle and even some of his friends in prison weighed heavily on him growing up. When people one considers to be family are in and out of prison, “you don’t really live life without thinking about that burden,” he said, “so I carry that, and I put a lot of that in my art.”
Perez started out with graffiti at a young age — a decision his mother wasn’t happy with. “I was sneaking out at night, running around tagging stuff, getting in trouble in school,” he explained. “But on the other side, she was like, it doesn’t look like you’re gonna graduate top of your class, probably not going to go to a top university, so if you want to do graffiti, I’m gonna buy you some boards and you can paint in the backyard.” His mother acknowledged that he was driven and had a passion for art and sought out ways to “help him be better at what he [wanted] to do.”
Even as an adolescent, to Perez, graffiti wasn’t necessarily about the blood-pumping thrill like it was for some of his friends. He had an appreciation for the skill that went into the tags and designs he saw around his neighborhood, which impelled his desire to create pieces which encompassed what weighed on his heart and lingered in his mind.
He would often send some of his artwork to his father as a way to let his dad know what he was up to. “Something to cheer him up and give him some hope while he was in [jail],” he said.
Years later, after moving to Chicago, Perez eventually came across Galerie F, Chicago’s first gallery space that features street art. “I knew about them because in my lane of art — my style — we just fit,” he explained. “The style of art that they sell is the style that I do,” he said
“Anytime I was a part of a group show, I would put up one piece, then it would sell,” Perez remembered. Then they would give him a pop-up show, and his pieces would sell there. In time, he became one of their featured artists. Readers can view his art at the current exhibition, “SEVEN,” until Feb. 5.
Perez’s distinctive style of bold colors and bird-related imagery has a unique place within in Logan Square’s bubbling artistic community.
“It grabs your eye because of the bright colors, the strong black line work, the words and phrases I put on there — all that stuff is meant to be a graphic to grab the viewer’s eye, to get my message across,” he said.
While his art is symbolic and aims to be something everyone can relate to, “if I’m being completely honest, I’m drawing from a first-person perspective,” Perez said. His artwork is what he considers a “visual response to life.”
“The bird symbolizes freedom,” he explained. “The bird mask is a combination of a human character and the characteristics of a bird. It’s always about freedom, escapism or progression. Sometimes I write ‘fly higher’ or ‘stay high’ — it’s about having an upward projection of your life.”
Through his art, he hopes his pieces inspire those who might relate to his experiences. “My work is about empowerment and hope, and who does that speak to more? Who am I trying to speak to?” he said. “Sometimes it’s people who don’t have [many] resources.”
Perez is grateful to Galerie F for understanding the demographic he speaks to and recognizing the importance of having his work recognized and acknowledged on a gallery-level platform.
“The overall message is about hope,” he said. “I want people to know somebody like me who did grow up Mexican American, from the hood, West Phoenix, can create something super dope to tell the next generation,” he said. “Wherever you come from, you can create something dope, and you can add something valuable to society. A lot of us… we don’t feel valuable to society unless we switch up who we are. But I want to be true to who I am, but still bring value to society.”
Though he has since moved from Logan Square, he hopes the artistic culture continues to grow and expand and embraces the diverse community that exists within the neighborhood.
“Logan square is a very special place,” he said. “And I hope that the culture just keeps being embraced, and work like mine keeps being embraced.” He hopes the artistic scene remains true to artists’ intentions, where people aren’t trying to “control the messages” or demand work that’s “overly refined.” Instead, he wishes it remains “something that’s raw and represents the people.”
Joseph “Sentrock” Perez’s is currently being featured at Galerie F in an exhibit entitled “SEVEN” – running until Feb. 5.