Dirty Pictures

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3675861555_ff3513c90b21-year-old student Jesse Graves started putting up graffiti to promote environmental awareness nearly two years ago, and has never been harassed or arrested.  Many of his pieces remain intact on walls around the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus. If he had used spray paint, they would have been whitewashed by now.  But, he says, “It wouldn’t make sense to use spray paint, because it’s a toxic substance.”  Instead, he used mud.

“I started using mud because the material relates to the messages I’m putting out there.  I’m using earth, truly basic material — it’s what sustains us — to express these environmental messages.”

Dirt is a primary material in the primordial paintbox, but Graves is the first street artist to use it says Nicolas Lampert, his professor at UWM.  “I follow street art very closely and I’ve never seen it anywhere.” Not surprisingly, the mud Graves stenciled on sidewalks washed away with first rain.  He didn’t expect the wall stencils to last, but those he put up in 2007 “look perfect today,” Lampert says.

At first, Graves experimented with various mixtures of dirt and water until he came up with a mud “the consistency of peanut butter.”  He spread this over stencils made of mylar, workable but flimsy, and later, animal x-rays recycled from an animal hospital in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin.  Recently, he used stencils made from roofing tarpaper.  “I came up with that because my dad’s a carpenter, I’ve done some construction.  I’m not a big fan of the tarpaper, it’s kind of nasty stuff.  But it works best for the large scale ones.”

In June, Graves and thirty volunteers used tarpaper to put up large scale mud stencils, some 9′ x 11′, others 7′ x 9′,  in more than 40 locations around Chicago.  These featured an outline of the state of Illinois containing the message, “End Torture In Illinois,” and a star near the bottom labeled “Tamms.”  Graves hadn’t used mud stencils to promote any cause besides environmentalism.  Lampert introduced him to Tamms Year Ten, a group advocating reform of Illinois’ supermax prison, where inmates are remanded without due process and held in solitary confinement 23-7 (the other hour is spent alone in an exercise “yard,” not much larger than the cells).  Graves was convinced by the testimony of prisoners on the Tamms Year Ten website.

Mud is a natural for environmental causes, but by itself has little to do with Tamms.  In Milwaukee, eco-friendly graffiti might be cop-friendly (or at least cop-neutral) and Graves has always approached the owners of the places he muds, but anti-Tamms mud graffiti in Chicago was another matter.  Tamms Year Ten organizer Laurie Jo Reynolds says the responses she usually gets to the issue are “‘they deserve what they get…’”

Before Graves arrived in Chicago, Reynolds consulted a lawyer about the potential legal consequences of putting dirt on the walls and sidewalk.  The lawyer compared it to “building a snowman with snow.”

“Legally, it’s a gray area,” Graves says.  To Lampert, that’s part of the appeal.  “City governments don’t know how to respond.”

After a demonstration by Graves, the volunteers split up and fanned out across the city with stencils, buckets, sponges, and scrapers.  None were arrested or spoken to sharply.  Reynolds and three others stenciled at tourist attractions such as Navy Pier, the Chicago Board of Trade, and the Art Institute.  “I was amazed at how receptive everybody was,” she says.  “They were delighted by the mud.”

At least one person who saw the stencils was inspired to try spreading mud for a different cause.  Reynolds says the Executive Director of Rape Victim Advocates walked out of a conference at DePaul University, where there were mud stencils on the sidewalk and the walls, and contacted Reynolds for a demonstration.  “She wants to use mud stencils for Rape Awareness month next April, and we are going to volunteer to show them how.”

Graves is happy to share the mud stenciling method he came up with, and has posted instructions on how to go about creating them on his website, mudstencils.com.   “I’m trying to break down the negative connotations that people have with graffiti,” he says.  “A lot of people think that graffiti is about damaging property and it’s a destructive act.  I see what I’m doing as street art, it’s about getting a message out there, and also about beautifying a space.  I don’t want to look at an ugly gray wall in a place that I walk by every day.  I’d rather look at something I consider beautiful.”


Jeffrey Felshman has written for numerous publications on a wide range of subjects, including wrongful convictions, insider politics, and grief. This is his second piece about mud. He lives in Chicago with his wife and three children. More from this author →