Chicago has always had great public art, from the towering Picasso on John Daly plaza to the reflective bean in Millennium Park. It is the home of world class museums, creative architecture and food festivals. But it’s only been in the past few years that Chicago street art has emerged to become a formal part of the city’s arts and culture offerings.
This Chicago mural tour will take you to three neighborhoods to see the city’s 40,000 sq feet of street art.
Three Neighborhoods for Chicago Murals
You can find most of the Chicago murals located in three distinct neighborhoods: the South Loop (on Wabash), Milwaukee Ave (from Wicker Park to Logan Square) and Pilsen. Street art in Chicago, like the city itself, is very political. The large works on Wabash were a result of a very deliberative public art project. The pieces in Pilsen began as a cultural touchstone and are a bulwark against gentrification. Wicker park street art began with the hip hop culture and the works have sneaked onto all sorts of hidden corners.
To get the full experience, you should visit all three neighborhoods. If you start early, you can cover all of these neighborhoods as a 1-day itinerary. Or you can spread out your street art tour over three days, giving you an opportunity to visit other museums and public art in Chicago. Either way, wear a good pair of walking shoes and bring your camera.
Chicago Murals on the Wabash Corridor
The Chicago wall murals on the Wabash Corridor will cause you to widen your eyes and crane your neck. They crawl up the ten story buildings, they slide down the block and they envelope the parking terraces of this south loop neighborhood. The Wabash Arts Corridor (WAC) group calls the murals “big walls” and there is nothing subtle about them.
The nearby Colombia Arts college started these Chicago murals to provide an immersive student practicum hybridized with a cultural renewal project. The first Big Walls went up in 2016 and WAC hopes to continue to grow the offerings in the neighborhood. They host an annual “crawl” in October but you can see the murals year round.
Getting to Wabash
The murals run on Wabash between Jackson and Roosevelt. Take the green, pink, brown, purple or orange lines to the Adams/Wabash L stop and walk south. Don’t forget to look up. Periodically duck west and peek down Holden street under the L tracks. You can also spot interesting graffiti and smaller pieces there.
Where to Eat
The South Loop neighborhood offers plenty of cheap eats, whatever the time of day.
- Cafecito: Serves coffee and Cuban inspired pressed sandwiches. On South Congress between Wabash & Holden.
- LaSalle Cafe Luna: Coffee and breakfast joint. Harrison between Wabash and Michigan.
- Lou Malnati’s Pizzaria: Deep dish Chicago pizza. State street between Polk and 9th..
What Else to Do
From the north end of the corridor, go east one block for the Art Institute of Chicago. From the south end Wabash, go east four blocks and you’ll hit the Field Museum.
For more to do in Chicago, check out this book-lover’s guide to libraries and literary museums. Several of them are very near to the Chicago wall murals on Wabash.
Wall Murals in Pilsen
Pilsen was originally settled by Czech immigrants in the 1870’s. They were fleeing the loss of housing due to the great Chicago fire. They called the area “Plzen” after a large city in what is now the Czech Republic. The population shifted after WWI with an influx of Mexican immigrants moving into the area to fill a labor shortage. The Mexican population continued to grow and by the 60’s, the residents had begun to put their own cultural stamp on the neighborhood, dotting it with mosaics and murals.
The residents are very proud their murals and the street art is well respected. Because of this, these Chicago murals are largely intact with a minimal amount of tagging. While in Pilsen, I was fortunate to be able to shadow Teresa Peek. Teresa is a photographer and street art buff who runs highly specialized photography tours of Chicago. She invests a great deal of effort into researching her locations and street art pieces.
Oddly, you won’t find standardized street art tours in Chicago. So if you would like to get an insider’s lesson on the Chicago street art scene, sign up for one of Teresa’s customized photo tours via Tour Through a Lens.
Getting to Pilsen
Take the pink line to 18th street and walk east. Most of the murals can be found between Ashland and Halsted along the concrete embankment where the 16th street corridor abuts the rail line. But don’t miss Hector’s house. He has created a whimsical Gulliver mural that travels down the front and around the side of his house/studio. It’s on Wolcott @ Cullerton just south of Harrison Park.
Where to Eat
Get yourself some Mexican food at one of the following places:
- Canton Regio: Casual sit-down restaurant. 18th @ Laflin.
- Carnitas Uruapan Restaurant: Meat meat meat. On 18th betw Wood & Paulina.
- Pollo Express: Fast food and chicken. On 18th @ Throop.
What Else to Do
After your street tour and carnitas, head over to the National Museum of Mexican Art. They have a collection of 10,000 objects showcasing Mexican culture and history. If it’s nice weather, go to the corner of the park and get some fresh fruit or elote (corn on the cob) at the local food stand.
Hidden Street Art of Wicker Park
In 2012, Forbes magazine declared Wicker Park America’s best Hipster neighborhood. Some would argue that such a designation doesn’t do the neighborhood any favors. But a walk down Milwaukee Ave will show you it’s shiny coffee shops, bookstores and boutiques. To find the street art, however, you have to look a little harder. Duck west down the side streets and under the Blue line tracks and you’ll find a gritter Wicker Park decorated with graffiti, stencils and murals.
This area of Chicago’s street art is strung along Milwaukee Ave from Wicker Park 2.5 miles northwest to Logan Square. If you don’t want to walk the whole thing, do as I did and walk as far at the Park #567, then catch the 56 bus through Bucktown. Go 4 stops and get off at Talman and then walk up a block to see the “Welcome to Chicago” mural. Then continue on foot to Logan Square.
Getting to Wicker Park
Get off the Blue Line at Damen and walk southwest a few blocks to snag some street art before doubling back. Then head northwest along Milwaukee.
Where to Eat
- The Bongo Room: Fuel your walk with a greasy spoon breakfast. Milwaukee @ Honore.
- Ipsento: Coffee & Booze bar that is part of the street art landscape with windows that peek out of a massive mural. Milwaukee @ Park #567.
- Paulie Gee’s Logan Square: Pizza with a bar vibe. Milwaukee @ Sacramento.
What Else to Do
Before heading north out of Wicker Park, stop into the Flatiron Arts Building. It’s a labyrinth of arts studios which are open to the public from 7am-10pm. You can also stop into Galerie F. They specialize in gig posters and screen prints and they support Chicago street artists by selling prints and coordinating commissioned pieces. They are on Milwaukee @ Fullerton and are open Tues-Sat 10am-6pm.
Other Chicago Street Art Galleries
In addition to Galerie F, there are also two other galleries that specialize in Chicago street art prints, urban and outsider art. Both are south of Wicker Park and not on an L line so I recommend getting there by Uber.
- Vertical Gallery: Located in Ukranian Village on Western Ave.
- Truborn Gallery: Located in West Town on Chicago Ave.
Other Walking and Art Tours in Chicago
Here are a few additional walking tours in Chicago that touch upon the art and architecture of the city.
Where to Stay in Chicago
For any of these hotel options. You can check reviews or book through Hotels.com by using the link.
You won’t find a hotel in Pilsen, but there are many AirBnB options, most of them for well under $100/night. You can use this link to get a $40 discount on your first booking.
In Wicker Park
- Wicker Park Inn. Small hotel right in Wicker Park for $200/night.
- The Robey. Medium sized, full service hotel for $225/night.
- The Hollander. Shiny budget hostel with shared rooms for $40/night.
In the Loop
Unless there is a conference or event happening, you can often score a great deal on a well-rated hotel in the Loop. Here are just a few options:
- Palmer House Hotel. Old school grandeur from $150/night.
- Silversmith Hotel. Hipster modern from $199/night.
- Hampton Inn Majestic. Great location, good basic hotel from $129/night.
Use this Chicago street art guide to see a different side of the city. The guide will get you down to street level and help you explore the wall murals, graffiti and stencils that pepper Chicago. Happy hunting.
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