Love it or hate it, “dibs” is a Chicago tradition that is here to stay. All winter, it’s inspired artists and other folks to make their own art in the name of staking out space.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, it’s the practice of putting a piece of furniture on the street to reserve a hard earned parking spot after digging your car out of the snow. People often use chairs, but these days, a whole host of items can be found on the streets of Chicago, including tables, buckets, medical equipment, and even religious figures such as the Virgin Mary or Jesus. 

However, the practice also has a darker side; park in someone’s “dibbed” spot and you might find your car covered in snow or worse. It’s a topic that prompts heated discussion among Chicagoans; pro-dibs folks argue that “you do the work, you get the spot,” while those on the anti-dibs side find the tradition selfish. (The practice is technically illegal in the city but enforcement is minimal.) 

Adam Selzer’s frozen pants save a parking spot in Chicago (image courtesy the artist; copyright Adam Seltzer)

While people argue about the right to call “dibs” each year, Chicagoans have been churning out art to mark the spot, including street displays, apparel, and memes.

Back in 2014, Brendan Gardiner set up the ultimate dibs installation: a table with a tablecloth, plates, chairs, and even a centerpiece. An avid dibs-hater, he told DNAInfo that after an hour of shoveling the spot for his then-pregnant wife, “I wanted to save it, but I was also stubborn and had my principles,” he said. “So I guess I thought I’d reconcile it by going for this whole over-the-top display, and maybe I could get a laugh out of my wife, too.”

Adam Selzer, a Chicago historian, has been freezing his pants on Chicago’s streets, taking advantage of recent subzero temperatures. He first did it on a lark a few years ago during the polar vortex. When he first posted a photo, some social media users joked that  it was “dibs gone too far.”. Still, he ran with the idea and started freezing pants in various parking spots. This year, amid the down-time of the pandemic, he started it up again, even making national news.

A creepy doll watches over a parking spot in Chicago (photo by Sheila Stockert Wheatley)

Lately, a Facebook Group has also sprung up for people reporting “dibs.” This year, Sheila Stockert Wheatley posted a photo of a creepy doll on a folding chair that someone put out as a kind of parking scarecrow. Another person snapped a photo of a tableau of  two laundry baskets with a grey mannequin in between them, which commentators called “art.”

Local designers have been similarly inspired by dibs. 606 Apparel has designed clothing bearing parodies of the City of Chicago logo, now the “Department of Dibs Management.” Other local shops have likewise designed their own dibs t-shirts and  Christmas ornaments. In 2015, Curbed hired a local artist, Michael Conway, to create a “dibs” bingo chart with spaces for the nativity scene, an egg crate, and even a suit of armor.

In response to the Onion’s take on dibs, which joked that the Field Museum director had used a Titanosaur skull to save a spot,  the Newberry Library, an independent research library in Chicago, posted their own take on Instagram. Alex Teller, the Newberry’s Director of Communications and Editorial Services, explained to Hyperallergic that they decided to go with a card catalog because it “seemed more formidable. So in the end, our graphic was a few degrees removed from what we were making fun of; it was art imitating art imitating life. But that’s often how memes multiply, right?”

Teller continued: “I don’t have any data to back this up, but it seems like Chicagoans are becoming more conscious of dibs as a feature, rather than a bug, of Chicago culture.”

When asked for his take on this polarizing local tradition, Seltzer noted, “People are more inclined to agree with you if you make them laugh.” 

Elisa Shoenberger is a writer and journalist in Chicago. She writes regularly for Book Riot, and has written for The Boston Globe, Deadspin, The Rumpus, and many others.