The existing mural on the Central Avenue CTA/Metra viaduct, which was painted in 2007. | Igor Studenkov/Contributor

The first meeting about replacing the mural on the Central Avenue CTA/Metra viaduct got derailed when it became clear that ward officials and the other attendees had different ideas about the project’s scope.

In 2007, artist Rahmaan Barnes, also known as Statik, worked with Austin youth enrolled in the After School Matters program to paint murals on both sides of the viaduct. Since then, the murals have experienced wear and graffiti damage. Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) is looking to use “aldermanic menu” funds to pay Barnes to repaint the mural. 

The issue is that, while the west wall is part of the 29th Ward, the east wall is part of Ald. Emma Mitts’ 37th Ward. During the Sept. 10 virtual meeting on the project, which was attended by around 10 to 12 people, Byron Watson, Talieferro’s chief of staff, said that it would only involve the west wall, since aldermen can only spend the menu funds within their own wards.

But Barnes said that he was under the impression that the project would involve both walls and argued that it made no sense to repaint only half of the piece.  After some back and forth, the officials agreed to hold off on any further meeting until the two aldermen could discuss the issue. 

The existing murals, entitled “Toward the Bright Future,” are located under the spot where the Green ‘L’ Line and Union Pacific West Metra line tracks pass over Central Avenue. As Austin Weekly News reported at the time, Barnes came up with the theme and the young peple developed the details under his guidance. The resulting murals feature trains and buses, Chicago cityscapes and Black leaders such as Fred Hampton, Nelson Mandala and Martin Luther King Jr. 

During Sept. 10 meeting, Barnes said that he wanted to elaborate on the earlier mural’s themes, while also doing something that specifically reflects West Side history. He added that he wanted to gets residents’ input about what kind of imagery they would like to see. 

Every year, each alderman gets $1.32 million in menu money to fund infrastructure projects, including the more decorative improvements such as murals. Several aldermen, including Taliaferro, use the participatory budgeting process to let residents vote on how they should spend it. 

Redoing the viaduct murals was one of the winning projects in the 2017 participatory budgeting vote. 

During the Sept. 10 meeting, Joanna Goebel, the curator of public art at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), touched on the history of the mural and Barnes’ work, mentioning that the project would cost “around $30,000.”

But when she mentioned that the mural would be painted on both sides of the viaduct, Watson said that the project would only include the west wall and cost half of that. Barnes said that he would prefer to repaint both sides, noting that the original project costs less than $30,000.

“My goal [with] public art is to make sure that the projects I’m involved with have a large visual impact on the community, making your own neighborhood Mt. Rushmore, if you will,” he said. 

Watson emphasized that painting the east wall would require Mitts’ approval and that any negotiations would slow the project down.

“We have no say over [what happens] in the 37th Ward,” he said. “That’s why it’s the west side of the viaduct. This is where the alderman is spending the money, the west side.”

The residents who tuned into the meeting were divided on the topic. Some agreed that it would be better to paint the west side of the mural up rather than wait for negotiations, given that the project has already been delayed. Others argued that, given how many drivers and pedestrians pass under the viaduct, it makes no sense to only refresh one side.

After some more discussion, the officials agreed to end the meeting and schedule another one once the aldermen discuss the situation. 

During his Sept. 15 community meeting, Taliaferro said that he is still working on setting up meeting with Mitts, but he was optimistic that they would be able to come to an agreement.


Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...