Fish Swimming in Concrete

They were swimming in front of a bar in Noble Square. They showed such grace and beauty for creatures gliding in cement. I was absolutely delighted in finding these koi; it was another piece trying to make Chicago beautiful.

These koi were the work of stencil street artist Jeremy Novy. I had the opportunity to chat with him via phone a few weeks ago. I asked him how he got started; he said, “I grew up in central Wisconsin. I knew I was different from the other farm kids that I went to school with. I had found these magazines in Chicago at Tower Records with graffiti of subway trains… [That’s how] I found spray painting.” Nearby, there was a sweet corn canning factory where he started to paint trains from the factory. He noted that other people were also painting things on trains that it was kinda “like a pen pal thing.” Later on, he moved to NY and saw all of this graffiti/street art that was more than just letters or a name, which was fascinating to him. While there, he saw “Beautiful Losers” that was the first exhibition that showcased street art. At the time, he was going to school for graphic design and worked on creating graphic images that conveyed a thought or an entire paragraph. He was interested in doing street art mixing computer generated art photos, and drawings, and then put them in the street.

Jeremy Novy ended up doing a street art series on doors and windows that were boarded up. He explained that there’s a lot of hollowing out of cities in the Midwest like Detroit or Gary. For the series, he did a wheatpaste on buildings in Milwaukee, and even started doing it on buildings right downtown. He explained, “We don’t want boarded up buildings. I’m highlighting and making a drawing of a real thing.”

He ended up moving to San Francisco for awhile where he had a bit more freedom because you can paint any time of the day. He explained that people just think it’s legit if you just start painting a wall. But while there, he said, “I started to think about [what] was going on in the street art… [There was a lot of] misogyny that existed, the objectification of women… There’s a lot of homophobia [too]. [So] I started doing stencil about me and my culture, not a culture of ethnicity, but the culture of being queer…  We should have space for queer images. Street art/graffiti is slowly changing. I was doing this stuff in 2004 but it still not have progressed as much. Street artists are now more open minded than the graffiti boys club. However, queer images like drag queens/leather are not in found in mainstream books.”

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Photo credit: Jeremy Novy

Jeremy Novy received an NEA grant that he used to curate “A History of Queer Street Art” in San Francisco in 2011. I asked him to talk a little bit about that and he said, “I own the world’s first collection of queer street art. I’ve collected posters and stickers related to queer culture. Queer street art started before our time. [There was] Keith Haring in the 80s who created this movement but all the major artists have died of AIDS. [There are many] queer artists around the world putting out images.” The show was part of the National Queer Arts Festival. Later, the show was in LA, and later at Yale University in 2013. There are 163 pieces by 43 artists from all over the world. Many are about queer rights. He talked about an artist, Gay Edge, from Berlin who did a piece during the Russian Olympics that took Shepard Fairey’s “Andre the Giant OBEY” and made it into a poster of Putin saying “Be Gay.” Jeremy explained that this is more than street art, it’s protest art and shows what is going on in queer culture. Many artists included in the show are transexual that talk about gender and more. A lot of the art pokes fun at male heterosexual world of graffiti/street art.

I asked him about how he got started with the koi and how the meaning has evolved. Mr. Novy explained that he studied abroad in China for arts school. He explained that koi was like the equivalent of a peace dove in western culture. Koi has a lot of meanings including strength, overcoming obstacles, friendship, and so much more. He found that it was used in Chinese scrolls in different numbers that had hidden meanings.  So Jeremy ended up doing a lot of koi throughout San Francisco and the rest of the world, including several throughout Chicago.

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We talked about his favorite placement of the koi and he talked about creating six-foot long koi for Art Basel. This art show is very prestigious; murals are planned years in advance and he was able to apply to make these six-foot versions from the normal 16 inches. He said, “It was a really awesome experience.”

A few years ago Jeremy Novy did a piece about monk birds in New Orleans. I asked him to talk about the piece. He explained that he had done a piece about the parrots in New Orleans. The birds are something that tourists don’t really notice but the locals do. In New Orleans, there’s a little bit of a hesitation when it comes to newcomers or things that aren’t native but the locals love these non-native birds. He explained that they “don’t need to reject me. There’s a lot going on in a lot of cities. That’s why I did the monk parrots.” 

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Photo Credit: Jeremy Novy

I asked him what he is working on right now. He explained that he is working on a bat mural in Austin. Mr. Novy said, “Bats are native, they come out of night so it’s site specific. [In this work], I try to create a shape that would look like it would lump together but bats create it naturally. [It’s] going to be an Austin sunset with a tornado of bats.” He also told me that he’s putting together a catalog of queer street art so people can have access to the art. 

Thanks so much to Jeremy Novy for taking the time!

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