The artist known as Don’t Fret describes himself as a “vaguely anonymous human from Chicago”. While his new works pop up constantly in his hometown (as well as New York) he’s also gotten up in Miami, San Francisco, Berlin, Sao Paulo, Prague, and Munich. Don’t Fret’s paintings and paste ups show off his distinct characters as well as the artist’s biting sense of humor. The viewer passing by a Don’t Fret street piece usually walks on after having a laugh, a smile, or a slight reconsideration of their gluten intake. We got a chance to ask Don’t Fret some questions days before his “Signs of The Times” show opens at Johalla Projects on June 26th.
@jreich: Let’s start with an intro. When did you start painting and how did you become “Don’t Fret”?
DF: I first learned about graffiti late in elementary school/early in high school through friends, but I quickly realized I was terrible at it. I didn’t have the skill set in terms of traditional graffiti. There were a few guys that were writing in Wicker Park in Chicago during that time (circa 2005) that were doing graffiti, but it was different than the traditional wild-style or NYC graffiti. Guys like Sonny, Nite Moves, Preston, Jimmy Carter, they were just writing their name. No style to it other than their personal handwriting, I was really into that. Sonny drew these really simple rain clouds with marker or oil-stick. That was probably the first time I realized an image could be a force on the street the way a name could be.
I was probably 14-15 and I was broke, and spray paint was banned in the city. So I would go to Walgreens and buy Magnum Sharpies and catch tags up and down Division St. That was the very beginning. Then in college I learned about wheat paste and started pasting a bit, and then after living in Brasil for a bit I came back to Chicago and started really pasting and working a lot, which led to bigger and more elaborate characters and situations for the characters to be in.
@jreich: What initially drew me to your work was how completely Chicago some of it felt. Tell us about what it means to be a “Chicago artist” and how growing up here (as an artist) has influenced your work.
DF: I think particularly living in Chicago, a sense of humor is important. It is an important life tool (and perhaps a coping mechanism) . After all, living in Chicago means half the year you are living in a frozen tundra. The majority of politicians we elect are extravagantly corrupt, almost to the point where it is a joke (3 of the past 5-6 Illinois governors are currently in jail) and all the sport teams we support suck the majority of the time. I mean the Ottoman Empire was still around the last time the Cubs won the World Series… So I think Chicagoans are maybe a little more likely to laugh at themselves than others in the country, and I like that in my work I think I’ve found humor as a way to deal with the “dark times”.
@jreich: You do a lot of work on the streets with wheat paste. Tell us about why that medium works so well with what you do, and was it shaped at all by Chicago’s notorious ban on spray paint?
DF: Yeah I think in a way a lot of kids went down the path of wheat paste in Chicago as a result of the spray paint ban.
For me, when I am placing a character in the street my general rule of thumb is that the character either fits within the space or is completely absurd within that space. They are people inhabiting a space the same as any other Chicagoan, and I like that after I place a character in the street they live their own life. They inhabit a space and then they depart, whether that happens because of the buff or naturally over time.
@jreich: Your “Winter & Construction” show was one of my favorites of last year, housed inside of a near abandoned building days before it was torn down. What was it like creating that massive mural knowing it would see the wrecking ball so soon after it was completed?
DF: I have sort of become accustomed to my work not having a very long shelf life, so in a way it didn’t really phase me.
In a way the fact that it would be destroyed was sort of the point. Fulton Market (the neighborhood the hardware store was in) is rapidly transforming, it has changed from traditionally being a meat packing and wholesale fish market neighborhood to becoming restaurant row for Chicago, with many of the most popular bars,restaurants,and hotels dotting the street. The building I painted housed a fish market and a hardware store for the better part of the past 75 years, and was being torn down to build a 50-something story tower building. So in a way I think that show was really about saying goodbye and coming to terms with the changes happening in Chicago, and I think thats why it was important to literally knock over the mural of the fish market and the butcher shops. There are only two seasons in Chicago: Winter And Construction.
@jreich: Who are some current urban/street artists you keep an eye on, and what attracts you to what they’re doing?
DF: Interesni Kazki, Barry McGee, Blu, Eric Il Cane, 2501, Sirus Fountain, Jaz, Os Gemeos
@jreich: Some of your work is text based (“Your Options Include”, etc) with no other image and you’ve also recently published your first book, “Don’t”. Do you have background as a writer and do you feel your work ever skirts the line between writer and visual artist?
DF: I’m interested in the relationship between image and text, because these days it’s everywhere. I think our brains are used to processing information in that format. But I like the idea that a piece like the “your options include” conveys information to someone on the street in a different way. Or maybe a more unexpected way. It conveys information in a similar way to an advertisement, except its not trying to sell you anything other than perhaps a laugh, or peace of mind. Text has definitely become a bigger part of my work, and I was very excited about the making of “Dont.”
I think a lot of my work is project based, and that was a project that might not have worked as a show or as work on the street but as a book I think it worked. It was a proposition to myself: Make 100 drawings revolving around the word “DONT”, around things we DONT do, or shouldn’t do.
@jreich: What’s coming up for you for the rest of 2015 and beyond?