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Darius Dennis Uses Change As His Canvas

Written by on September 21, 2023

Darius Dennis uses his first love and his home, the city of Chicago, as the guiding inspiration for his artistry. 

From a young age, it was undeniable that Darius Dennis was artistically inclined. He attended a program for kids to study the arts at the Art Institute of Chicago starting at 5 years old. Then, after high school and some time in the military, he studied fine art in college. 

After a career in the niche field of painting for corporate media, the artist has hung up his brushes from commercial work and plans to take a more independent and impactful approach to his craft. With these aspirations in mind, Big Wall Sign and Mural was born with Dennis as the owner, operator and painter for the “new, growing, exciting, nerve-racking business.”

Progress during the painting of I AM SPEAKING (2020), located at 49 State Street in Rochester, New York, a recreation of the 1963 photograph taken by photographer Danny Lyon of the late Rep. John Lewis. The mural stands at 52 ft. tall and 61 ft. wide. Image courtesy of the artist.

“For me, walking out of that field is really about … figuring out what it is that I need and what satisfies myself and my passions, and that’s not painting corporate media,” Dennis said. “It’s actually painting more community. Painting more grassroots, more independent.”

Their “I Am A Man” mural, located off the Blue Line south of Damen Street, made an impact far beyond Chicago. The mural garnered national attention and erupted into a series of paintings nationwide. As many of his works replicate photos from the Civil Rights Movement, sparked as a response to the racial tension and riots during 2020, Dennis has big plans to keep history alive in an artistic way.

Darius Dennis’s I Am A Man mural stands tall just off the Blue Line, south of Damen. (Left) Photo courtesy of Darius Dennis, (right) courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times.

“That’s a great example of the scale and the enriched nature with which we’re trying to speak to history in a current context,” he remarked.

As a Chicago native, the impact of the city leaves a powerful impression on everything he does. Dennis claims its people have a “revolutionary spirit” and the ability to be both thinkers and doers, to work hard and play hard. This blend builds the perfect combination of grit and perseverance in his pursuit to tell history in culturally relevant ways. For this segment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Darius Dennis discusses his artistic background, his love of the city and his ongoing work as a socially-conscious muralist.

Darius Dennis in his studio, surrounded by his paint and the tools necessary for him to deliver powerful artistic messages. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio.

What do you love about Chicago?

A lot of maybe the revolutionary spirit, the thinker and the doer that I am personally, comes from being from here. When I start thinking about comparing the three big cities, which I have been comparing them a lot over the past few years, New York is just a strictly hustle city and LA is very much more a chill city, and our home is the pinnacle of work hard, play hard, we just do both. And I think we do both far better than most other cities do. We really do. We love to get after it, we’re still super blue collar. Our city, the people from our city, really know how to put their nose to the ground and grind it out. But we also know how to throw a good festival. We know how to go to a good park jam, we know how to start the grill… we know how to relax and take it slow, so that we can recoup and try to make the most of what it is that we’ve got. 

How did you get into painting?

In first grade. Ms. Townsend, at Walt Disney Magnet School, called my mom in to talk. Ms. Townsend said, “Hey, do you know that your son likes to draw?” My mother was a little worried. She’s like, “Oh, no. Is he drawing class again? Is he not paying attention? What’s going on? What’s the problem?” And she kind of corrected her and was just like, “No, actually. You know, you’re a single mom, and being a minority in the city, there’s a program at the Art Institute of Chicago that you can sign him up for, and he can attend summer and weekend classes to study the arts while he’s going to his regular school.” And through that introduction, that became like a minority underprivileged scholarship that got me into the Early College Program at the Art Institute at like the age of 5. So that, literally, my grandma would just hold my arm crossing the bridge at Jackson, trying to rush and get me to class every single Saturday and Sunday for like 13 years. I was an AP art student at Lake View. I was an AP calculus kid at Lake View, as well. So I ended up coming out of high school and wanting to study both subjects in college, my son was born and then [I] went into the military for four years. And then after I came out of the Air Force, I went back to college and then did effectively study both, I studied mathematics and I studied fine art.

Much of Dennis’s work incorporates portraiture, like the ones above, in both color and monochromatic. Images courtesy of the artist.

What does your work look like now?

Today, I just actually completely hung up my brushes from painting commercial signs and advertisements. For the past five years, I was painting for one of the largest out of home sign painting factions in the United States, we’re called Wall Dogs. And to be a Wall Dog, it takes a few different things. But one of those things is being suspended in air, in the sky on a swing stage, or being stories up above the public way. It’s a very niche field. But you know, for me, walking out of that field is really about A. figuring out what it is that I need and what satisfies myself and my passions, and that’s not painting corporate media, it’s actually painting more community. Painting more grassroots, more independent. I took a step back from that. The name of the business is Big Wall Sign and Mural. I’m the owner, operator and painter for our new, growing, exciting, nerve-racking business. 

What does Big Wall Sign and Mural do?

If you’re looking for some of the work that we’ve created most recently, there is the “I Am A Man” mural, which is off of the Blue Line, just south of Damen Street before you get underground. The “I Am A Man” mural produced itself into a series of paintings that went and circulated nationwide, and returned us to paint Wilson Station, for a painting that’s called “I Am Here.” They are reproductions of photographs from civil rights era protests. And that sparked as a response to the George Floyd board-ups and riots and everything of 2020. And that’s a great example of the scale and the enriched nature with which we’re trying to speak to history in a current context. Not just the theme of Black history, but all of our cultural histories and intersections of those histories, and how do we use paintings, large paintings as teaching tools and society to do the work that we might not see our high schools, grade schools or universities do? And at best, give them an asset or something that can help support the teaching moments in the times that we’re looking at. The hope is to be able to work with people nationwide that are interested in Native American history and heritage, women’s rights, histories and heritage, immigrant histories, rights and heritage. And we would like to look at how to take snapshots in time to juxtapose those into community spaces. Realistic paintings of those moments in time, and try to just employ communities with an opportunity to teach, and just safe spaces to sort of digest the information that we have for one another about our lives and how similar and impactful these moments have been to all of us. 

Darius Dennis stands in front of the “I Am A Man” photograph, the guiding inspiration for his Chicago mural. Ari Mejia/ Vocalo Radio.

How has Chicago influenced your work?

The role of Chicago in my work is, man, it’s so powerful and strong. She’s my baby. Chicago is my first love. There’s just nothing, there’s nothing like home. Yesterday, I was like, you know, “It’s all about what Chicago sounds like. What does Chicago really sound like?” It’s funny, some of the things that were coming to mind are like, Chicago sounds like the paletero, his bells coming down the beachfront. Chicago sounds like Sam Chatman playing steppin’s cuts, sounds like house music. Yeah… we have a really beautiful sound. Chicago does have a really beautiful sound. It’s one of those that you can’t really tell, unless you’ve experienced it. Yeah, I would leave it with that, is that what Chicago sounds like is, even as somebody that considers myself to be verbose, and an emcee before, it’s not that easy to nail down. It sounds like 606 Hip-Hop at Subterranean. It sounds like, I don’t know. Something else. It’s just something else. 

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

Written introduction by Blake Hall

Transcription by Morgan Ciocca

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