18 on 18th Street: Ruben Aguirre

Welcome to Chicago Voz’ inaugural 18 on 18th Street, an annual series that profiles 18 people from the Pilsen community. This series will feature residents, leaders, artists and small business owners who have contributed their time and skill toward the betterment of Pilsen. Various names were nominated and voted on by our editorial board and they will be released throughout the month.

While there are many influential Pilsen people to choose from, one criteria was to highlight people who are not media regulars. Chicago Voz will profile those who have not received proper media recognition for their work, but are nevertheless the unsung heroes of our community. Congratulations to Pilsen’s 18 on 18th Street!


Painter and Graffiti Artist

His graffiti-based work can be found all over the city, but Ruben Aguirre is probably best known (at least locally) for the mural that adorns Simone’s Bar on 18th & Morgan.

Like many Mexican-American artists in Chicago, the 36-year-old painter got his early start by watching classmates who practiced stylizing their names. In his search for an identity, Ruben latched on to the lifestyle and developed a vast graffiti knowledge.

After dedicating many years to the trade and leaving his mark in cities like Indianapolis, New York, and LA, he wanted to try something new without abandoning who he was. He dropped the name component that is intrinsic to graffiti, but kept the bold lines, vibrant color palettes, and layering from his previous work.

“I do refer to it as abstract because it is, but it’s more like an extension of my earlier self,” he said.

Having that street background allows Ruben to view public space differently than the common artist. He’s characterized by drawing outside the box, quite literally, by pushing his linework beyond the typical square canvass and applying strategic shadows that make his shapes look three-dimensional.

Most of his art is commissioned now. He acknowledges that he has to approach it differently because a sponsored work of art will remain intact for a long time, as opposed to graffiti that, by law, is fleeting.

Ruben thinks that most people don’t know the difference between graffiti and street art, and he blames the “information gap” that doesn’t recognize the lengthy history of graffiti in Chicago. Fundamentally, they have different functions too.

Placing your name everywhere is more than just an ego boost for graffiti writers, he said. It’s having a presence where, according to the status quo, “you’re not supposed to be.”

It is “a form of protest and cultural identity. Even though it may not carry a literal message, young men of color putting their name up, claiming a stake in the world, it arose out of a need,” Ruben said.

The Chicano muralism in Pilsen didn’t necessarily shape his work, but it always surrounded him and he “wouldn’t be painting a lot of murals in the first place” if it hadn’t.

Every day he balances a tightrope between traditional street and new street, indoor and outdoor, public and private art. He’s constantly re-imagining his environment, all the while remaining respectful to the residents’ view of space.

“The graffiti community has been really cool. No one’s ever dissed my stuff,” he said. “But I have long roots. It’s not an invasion.”

Find Ruben Aguirre’s paintings on 19th and Leavitt, Cermak and Hoyne, 16th and Ashland, 21st and Allport, or check out his website at theshiftchange.com.

Interview by Jackie Serrato
Photo by Jackie Serrato

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