Painting from rooftops and tagging trains, graffiti artist Zwon is making his mark on Chicago

Chicago
By Chicago 8 Min Read

The Chicago graffiti artist who goes by Zwon says creating street art is “relaxing” and lets him “not think about ordinary life struggles. Just a way to turn off and be in the moment.”

Wait, but isn’t Zwon the guy who sometimes dangles from tall buildings with a rope and harness in the dark of night so he can illicitly splash his name — and maybe a snake or a skull or another character — on a wall in big, bold letters?

It is, says Zwon: “I might be a little bit of an adrenaline junky. It makes me feel alive.”

The results of a high-wire graffiti job by Zwon in the West Loop last month.

The results of a high-wire graffiti job by Zwon in the West Loop last month.

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Especially at lower altitudes, he likes to feature characters and storylines you might find in comic books.

“I am, for sure, a fan of comic book-style drawings,” he says.

Zwon in his element, among trains.

Zwon in his element, among trains.

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Some of his work seems apocalyptic or sci-fi — like images of tanks and rockets and barren wastelands.

A rocket blasts off in the distance as a military vehicle pulls up on a body in this graffiti piece by Zwon.

A rocket blasts off in the distance as a military vehicle pulls up on a body in this graffiti piece by Zwon.

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Some of it’s crime-oriented. One piece shows a police officer finding a person in a pool of blood.

A police oficer finds a body in this Zwon creation on a freight train.

A police oficer finds a body in this Zwon creation on a freight train.

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Some of it offers him catharsis — like the image of the flipped-over Chicago police car he painted after “I had a problem with the city of Chicago . . . So I showed it through my work.”

Zwon’s work on a freight train showing a flipped-over Chicago police car.

Zwon’s work on a freight train showing a flipped-over Chicago police car.

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Some of it seems classy, like his image of the Mona Lisa worked into the painted letters spelling out his street name on a freight train.

Zwon’s homage to the Mona Lisa, which he says is a statement on fine art not being limited to museums.

Zwon’s homage to the Mona Lisa, which he says is a statement on fine art not being limited to museums.

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There’s one piece with a spread on a table that includes wine, cheese, grapes and lobster.

Zwon created an elegant dinner in this graffiti piece on a freight train.

Zwon created an elegant dinner in this graffiti piece on a freight train.

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There’s the ramen bowl he painted, with mushrooms flying about as a cat, immersed in the bowl, devours the noodles.

“I had ramen for the first time recently, like two years ago,” Zwon says of that. “I’m a big fan.”

A graffiti piece by Zwon featuring a bowl of ramen noodles.

A graffiti piece by Zwon featuring a bowl of ramen noodles.

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And there are a lot of trains — which also are some of Zwon’s favorite targets to paint on because “they travel.

“It’s nice because you paint it, and it leaves your life, and you don’t worry about it, unlike a canvas that you stare at every day in your apartment,” he says.

L trains painted by the artist known as Zwon on boards and installed on a building.

L trains painted by the artist known as Zwon on boards and installed on a building.

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Zwon says he likes to “create a little world to escape out of the real world.” He says his art can reflect “how I felt” on a given day.

His pieces are considered graffiti, not straight-up murals, because they incorporate his street name, which he says holds no special meeting: “It’s just letters that I like.”

Zwon worked his street name into this landscape painting on a wall.

Zwon worked his street name into this landscape painting on a wall.

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Often displaying his name in unusual ways, Zwon says: “I’m trying to mask the graffiti behind the artwork. I’m trying to sneak the graffiti inside.”

Zwon won’t give his real name or say where he grew up. He doesn’t want anyone to know because he does most of his street art illegally, not getting property owners’ permission.

His work pops up all over, which railroad companies are especially unhappy about since he frequently targets their trains.

A spokeswoman for an industry trade group, the Association of American Railroads, says: “The first concern when we’re thinking about graffiti is safety. For someone to paint a rail car, they have to put themselves in a dangerous situation.

“To access the car, a person must trespass on rail property where there are active operations risking serious injury or even death.”

This Zwon piece merges “Star Wars” with Chicago.

This Zwon piece merges “Star Wars” with Chicago.

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Zwon says he got interested in art because of his sister.

“I don’t have any artistic background, although my older sister has been always very creative and naturally gifted with all kind of arts,” he says. “I have been always very inspired by her and wanted to be capable of what she is. She is also the reason why I started being interested in graffiti.”

Paintings by Zwon in an alley between Hubbard Street and Grand Avenue just west of Desplaines Street.

Paintings by Zwon in an alley between Hubbard Street and Grand Avenue just west of Desplaines Street.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

He says he “started very young, sneaking out of my mom’s house to venture out probably around age of 14. My first medium was a cheap spray paint from the hardware store and any latex paint I could get my hands on.”

Artwork by Zwon along Grand Avenue just west of Desplaines Street.

Artwork by Zwon along Grand Avenue just west of Desplaines Street.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

He says he “started with the classic letter graffiti, but then I switched to doing characters with a bubble saying something because I like that people can relate to it more.

“I would go back and forth between letters and characters,” he says. “Over time, I started combining both together to keep it graffiti but still get the engagement from people.”

He sometimes tries to “tell a little story or capture recent events, feelings from my life inside my piece.”

He says that, “with my more detailed pieces, I am trying to challenge myself artistically. Try new things and learn from mistakes.

“My style’s been always mostly influenced by my close friends I have met in this culture,” Zwon says. “Nowadays, I find inspiration in everything, as I love to experiment with boundaries graffiti tends to give you.”

A Zwon mural near a Metra station at Peterson and Ravenswood avenues that includes a train, a tall-masted ship and what looks like a cathedral. Says Zwon: “It’s just me playing with different ideas.”

A Zwon mural near a Metra station at Peterson and Ravenswood avenues that includes a train, a tall-masted ship and what looks like a cathedral. Says Zwon: “It’s just me playing with different ideas.”

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His street art, he says, is “for whoever enjoys it.”

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