Roa’s large “roadkill” (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — In the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, at 16th Street and Ashland Avenue, you can stand on the street next to a railway line, surrounded by giant brick warehouses, and get a taste of authentically gritty industrial history. Freight trains, miles long, lumber, and clank by over your head. If you look to the east, you can see the upper storeys of the Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower, but no self-respecting Chicagoan uses that new name). But if you look straight ahead at the long supporting wall of the railway tracks, what you will see is a long picture of a giant possum.

Chicago has a rat problem, and you would be justified in thinking that Belgian street artist Roa is paying tribute to the tenacious rodent. According to the Chicago Urban Art Society, which arranged for Roa to bring his distinctive style to this neighborhood, it is in fact a possum.

Typically of Roa’s murals, it’s painted in a sharp, graphic, linear style that resembles a woodcut print, and it stretches along a wall and around a corner for about twenty feet. The eye-grabbing detail is the way Roa painted the middle of the body — like a giant chunk has been gouged out, leaving a U-shaped hole and the remnants of bloody, twisted internal organs. Some of the red paint is sprayed on the dirt and weeds on the ground, giving the mural an extra dose of grisly realism. I’m not quite sure what it’s supposed to mean, exactly (it’s hard out there for a possum, maybe?), but I love it.

Several more murals are in the process of being painted along the 16th street corridor, as part of an initiative by the local alderman to combine the graffiti of this heavily urban area with something that will bring more cultural visitors to the area. There are even plans for a trolley tour of the public art in this neighborhood, which will run during Chicago Artists’ Month in October. Whether you take the trolley, drive there like I did, or hop a freight train, it’s worth the trip.

Philip Hartigan is a UK-born artist and writer who now lives, works and teaches in Chicago. He also writes occasionally for Time Out-Chicago. Personal narratives (his own, other peoples', and invented)...

3 replies on “Giant Rodent Menaces Chicago”

  1. thanks philip! My dad is from chicago and family trips as a kid put a loop and a cub in my heart. So I want to get your take on this. Because my thought here is that new yorkers and chicago folks encounter rats a little differently. In new york, you often see rats at subway stations. Whereas in chicago, you have the l and only 2 lines that go underground for a short segment downtown – and those tunnels aren’t sparkling – but I haven’t seen a rat there yet. My point is that in chicago you associate rats moslty with the alleys and quiet side streets. Do you think that this work is hitting at a particular chicago way of rat sightings? Yes, I’m drawing distictions between how these two cities encounter rats, but that’s what art can provoke.

    1. Daniel: You’re right, the rats are mainly a problem in the trash bins of the alleys in Chicago. But I have seen a few on the overground El tracks, too.As it happens, ROA says he wasn’t thinking of the rats at all, but inevitably that reference is in the piece, especially considering where it’s placed. I’m going to NYC next week, so I will be able to investigate the rat comparison further…

  2. I happened upon the creation of this while on a recent trip to Chicago. We took photographs and talked to the guys making it. We thought it was a great find and I’m glad you do as well!

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