DONT FRET GETS IT, AND HE GETS YOU.
BSA contributes introductory essay and photos to the first giant compendium to represent the Street Art career of the ingenious Chicago humorist DONT FRET.
Sociologists and anthropologists and art school fellows like to say that the artist is having a dialogue with the street, with his peers, and with society. In ways that are more fundamental and resounding than most, the Chicago Street Artist named Dont Fret is certainly offering an entreaty to you to engage with him and his characters in a thoughtful analytic dialogue. He is also hoping for a laugh.
After two and a half years of preparation, DONT FRET debuts his first full-length book on Schiffer Books in time for the holidays, and it was worth the wait.
Brooklyn Street Art’s Jaime Rojo contributed photography to the new book, and BSA’s Editor in Chief had the honor of writing the introduction. We excerpt part of that essay hopefully to provide illustration to the DONT FRET experience:
“An American working-class street art satirist educated on Polish Broadway, Don’t Fret is a preeminent Chicago Street Art humorist, graffiti writer, documentarian and acute observer of everyday people and their distinct cultures now melting into one another. Thanks to a newly muscular gentrification even these are getting stamped out altogether by better-heeled settlers. This is where Nelson Algren, the “bard of the down-and-outer” documented the seamy and wild side of Chicago in the 1940s and 50s in books like “Neon Wilderness” and “The Man With the Golden Arm”. Like the author, Don’t Fret is incorporating the character of the street into his work. Unlike Algren, and more appropriate to this time, his work is also Meta – the actual characters on the street are represented here in his art on the street.
He doesn’t recreate the city, he captures it. When it comes to the neighborhoods of Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Ukrainian Village in Chicago, Don’t Fret is reviving his memories as a kid growing up there. His is a pronounced psychological and emotional attachment to these places, even if the weather is freezing six months a year and he thinks all of the local sports teams suck, including, yes, Da Bears.
‘My parents said I was always funny as a kid and always a bit of a troublemaker,’ he says of his inquisitive mind and sarcastic tongue even back in 3rd grade when his parents took him out of public school and put him into a charter school. ‘This was the mid-90s and charter schools were still a new thing in Chicago. The thing about this school was that the school’s chief benefactor was a Saudi oil company, and the majority of the school’s teachers were ex-military. So even though it wasn’t military school, it definitely felt that way,’ he says. ‘I was constantly in trouble and talking back to teachers,’ which is no surprise.
‘I think I once famously asked a history teacher who was obsessed with China if he was a communist – smart-aleck type stuff. It taught me really early on to always question the authority and your surroundings. I think I’ve found humor and satire as a way to deal with the dark times.’ Dark Times, a simple accurate description for this age, writ large with a roller by Don’t Fret on a canal facing building in Hackney Wick, London, and also the name of his art collective. Similar to his work at home, he studies the common usage and phrases of other cultures that he visits to coin clever word twists and to impart his own sense of irony.
He’ll concede that memories of the city in his youth are sometimes blurry and malleable in the face of time and a sea of gentrification that has transformed his neighborhood, but he doesn’t feel pressure to be absolutely factual, just accurate and true in his impression. Once clearly defined ethnic enclaves of Northern European, Polish and Ukrainian descent, the imposition of a class-dividing freeway and a flood of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in the 1960s and 70s created a swirling pool of marginalized communities who were trying to make a life at the time he arrived. “
This is Dont Frets’ city and romanticism would ruin it probably. Stiff looking normal people of various postures and problematic fashions plod up and down the grey sidewalks together and individually. Streetlife is shared in the unpredictable rhythm of daily occurrences; buses and cars with puffs of pollution coming out of their tailpipes, a stern traffic cop writing a ticket while standing by a car, a man on a red brick stoop tipping a bottle of beer into his plump cartoon lips. Our foibles and ridiculous qualities are highlighted along with the hilarity of our unremarkableness through various status signifiers and cultural details, each superseded by our oddities.
Work is never far from food and food is never far from beer and beer is never far from Da Bears and The Buff. Yes, the Chicago Buff; that brown paint that pops up and plagues Chicago graffiti writers and Street Artists and that is famous in other cities. You’ll always have an hour of stories about “the Buff” at any graffiti barbecue in Chicago.
‘Someone once said there are only two constants in life: death and taxes,’ he warms up. ‘They clearly also forgot about the buff. I don’t have the statistics on this, but if I was a gambling man I’d be willing to bet the city of Chicago spends more money on the buff then they do on public arts, so what does that say? There have been countless times I’ve put up a piece at 2 AM and come back to photograph it at 9 AM and its already been painted shit brown. It’s interesting that that’s the color they chose as well, right? Like who got that contract, to create surely thousands of gallons of shit colored paint to spray across the city?’ ”
Two excerpts from the essay, “You Are Here. Dont Fret.” by Steven P. Harrington