This is the first in a series of interviews and conversations that North by Northwestern will conduct with campus personalities: the known, the unknown, the strange and the mysterious.
The Campus Chalker has gained notoriety for his artwork that has popped up on buildings and surfaces around Northwestern. Sometimes his projects even encourage student collaboration. Though he's been cited by campus police, he has continued working. Last week, North by Northwestern spent a few hours one evening shooting the shit with the Chalker. While protective of his anonymity, the Chalker was willing to talk about his interests, his influences, and his process.We began by asking him how and why he started.
NBN: So you became the Campus Chalker this year, correct?
Campus Chalker: Yeah, fall quarter of this academic year.
NBN: What was the impetus for doing that?
CC: I had done some chalk art competitions in high school, and I guess once classes really got into the full swing, I just needed a way to vent.
NBN: Have you always been into art?
CC: Not really into art, just kind of on the outskirts of art, I guess. My sister’s an art student at an art school, so talking with her has been as close as I’ve gotten to getting into art before now, I guess. I’ve enjoyed it but never as a focal point in my life.
NBN: Is it strange for you to do this, then?
CC: Really I just did it because I thought it was fun, and it gave me something that I enjoyed to look at on my walks to class. So I guess my reasons for the start of it were sort of selfish, but I realized that other people were kind of getting into it too, so I was like, I’ll keep doing it.
NBN: Did you consider any other names other than Campus Chalker?
CC: Not really, that was just the first one that came to mind. Actually the first few drawings I did on campus were before I had created the persona of the Campus Chalker, I was just kind of messing around, having fun. But then I did the “Express Yourself” one on the library and I left the chalk there for people to chalk on it, and once I saw the positive response I wanted a way to gauge how much people were interested in it. So that’s when I made the Twitter, and Campus Chalker was just the first name that came to mind. I thought it was pretty appropriate for what I was doing.
NBN: How many people know who you are? Is it difficult to keep it a secret?
CC: Too many people know who I am. But they’re mostly people that are good friends of mine that I can trust enough that they won’t just go blab about it. A couple of times people have been able to figure it out by piecing together bits of information. But it’s not that difficult, I guess. It’s kind of an interesting experience to have. During the day I’m just another Northwestern student, just another face in the crowd, but I also have this other thing going on that’s pretty widely known around campus. So it’s an interesting duality.
NBN:Do you ever feel awkward walking by your own stuff, knowing that no one knows you did it?
CC: Yeah, kinda. But I like it better that it’s anonymous. I have a close-knit circle of friends that I talk about it with and I can show them new stuff that I do and discuss it, so that’s all the personal affirmation that I need from this. I’d rather be unknown.
NBN: Do you have any sort of timeline for how often you go out, or is it just as inspiration strikes?
CC: Pretty much as inspiration strikes. Definitely the weather has a lot to do with it. Whenever I go out I like things to be as non-premeditated as possible. I like the whole creative process to be very spontaneous and on the spot, because I’m kind of impatient. I don’t like to rework things a lot and do concept sketches and stuff like that, which is what my sister told me I should do. I just like the uncertainty of going out and just kind of rambling around waiting for inspiration to strike and once I get an idea, just rolling with it and seeing where it goes.
NBN: Do you have a favorite place to chalk?
CC: Yeah. Actually Silverman has some really nice smooth walls. The chalk really blended well on it. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be able to chalk on Silverman anymore.
NBN:It seems like that’s probably the one building they want to keep you away from.
CC: Yeah, Silverman and Tech and the library. When I talked to the NU administration, I got the feeling that the people in charge of the maintenance of those buildings were pretty pissed. Especially Tech. They’re a bunch of tight-ass engineers.
NBN: When you did get caught, what was the first thing that you thought?
CC: “Oh shit, what are my parents going to think?” But that was it, pretty much. It turns out it was no big deal, it’s not on my permanent record, just a simple citation. A 75 dollar fine, which is really great. The court officer – it wasn’t even a real judge for the hearing – said, “Well it was only chalk, we’ll cut you a break. 75 dollars.” So it could have been worse. And I was actually able to keep it from my parents. I talked with my sister about it because I felt like she would appreciate it, but I just thought that my parents would be like “What were you doing, going out in the wee hours of the morning when you should be studying?”
NBN:Do they not know about this at all?
NBN:What was the court experience like?
CC: Yeah, they’re pretty much in the dark. A few years down the road I might tell them, show them the newspaper clippings and be like “Hey, this was me.” See if they get a kick out of it then, after I’ve graduated. But for now, what your parents don’t know can’t hurt them.
NBN: The piece that you were doing at the time – did you look at it and think it was worth the fine, or did you wish that it had been something else?
CC:I didn’t get to finish it. It was going to be an advertisement for Sit & Spin, for their production of Scorched. Which I don’t know if you saw Scorched, but it was about war in the Middle East. It was a really tragic story. I was really excited to do it. There was a lot of potential there for cool chalking I thought. But as far as getting caught on that particular one, I wouldn’t say that it was worth it for that single one to pay 75 dollars, but as far as everything leading up to it, it was definitely worth it. I guess I had to be caught sometime, eventually.
CC: It was really anticlimactic. My friend and I went to the courthouse on Tuesday and went into a room with all the other people that had citations that scheduled hearings on that day, and the officer called us up and she explained to us what was going on, asked us a couple questions and then we were on our way. It was not quite as exciting – not really a John Grisham novel experience.
NBN: How do you feel about censorship?
CC: I think it’s fucked up. This whole SOPA thing – I think the Internet has been really key in furthering the globalization movement, and I feel like the reason that technology has skyrocketed up, or one of the reasons is that we have the Internet, and a huge flow of information. I think it’s also really important for cultural reasons, just having access to that information, even if it’s as simple as being able to download a new song or something like that that you heard about and want to find out more about that band or something. Record companies, they make all the money from selling albums and stuff, it’s not the artists that get the biggest cut. That was kind of a ramble. But for the most part I think censorship and the whole SOPA and PIPA thing are just messed up and not good for society.
NBN: What would be your dream job?
CC: My dream job would be to live in a city. Maybe Chicago – New York or Berlin and London are really interesting to me too and I’ve never gotten to visit any of those places – but to live there and open my own independent gallery and find young kids on the street who are doing amazing work with street art or graffiti and get them off the streets and into a gallery to give them a chance to show them what they can do in a more legal way. I think that would be really cool.
NBN: Who is your hero?
CC: From an artistic standpoint, probably Blek le Rat. He kind of started the whole street art movement in Paris in the 80s. It’s kind of funny. If you see just about any piece that Banksy has put up, there’s an eerily similar Blek piece that was put up 20 years before Banksy was even heard of. So, Blek for having the imagination and the creativity to take inspiration from graffiti. He was also the first one to start using stencils. But just to spearhead something that’s become such a huge cultural movement. He’s not even really put out that Banksy gets all the attention. He’s still just working quietly in his studio in Paris. Even though he was like the grandfather of street art.
NBN: What draws you to street art as a medium?
CC:Before it became so commercialized it was just a way of giving people something to look at, apart from the architecture and the streets, there’s art out there. That sounds kind of dumb. Because there are so many constraints on it – you’re limited with time and then you’re outside in the elements in an unfamiliar location – and so there’s more pressure. Since you’re taken out of the safe space, per se, I feel like graffiti and street art are some of the most honest art forms. Because before the commercialization, you’re doing something that’s largely for yourself, you’re not trying to please an art critic. You’re just putting something out there for people to look at. So I feel like it’s pretty honest. Much more honest than trying to make something to sell in a gallery show.
NBN: Do you think that comes partially from the urgency of it as well?
CC: There’s not a lot of time to really worry about what you’re doing, I guess. With chalking on campus it’s a much lower risk situation, but on the streets, I think the urgency definitely has something to do with it.
NBN: How much chalk do you go through doing all these drawings?
CC: It depends on the size of the drawing and the complexity of it. The Silverman one I did took a lot of chalk. It was probably two or three boxes of just the chalkboard chalk, and then I went through a couple of sets of just the cheap hard pastels that they sell at Blick, and then five or six sticks of chunky charcoal. So it varies. On average like, 10 bucks of chalk.
NBN: What is something that you find fascinating?
CC: Modernist painting, especially Jackson Pollock. I’ve been really getting into Pollock and he’s really famous – he’s so tortured – but just the fact that he was able to take something like his drip-style painting and revolutionize the art world, it’s crazy. A lot of people say with Pollack’s drip style, like, “that’s not art, my kid could do it.” But I don’t know. I feel like with Pollack’s painting it was just as much about the action of him painting as it was the painting itself. The whole Modernist Movement was about taking the artist out of the painting process itself. He didn’t use conventional brushes, he didn’t use conventional paints. He just used like, sticks and shit and automotive lacquer paints and flung it around. Jackson Pollack’s a pretty cool guy.
NBN: What do you think the most important lesson you’ve learned is?
CC: You gotta be honest with yourself. Like, you can lie to other people, but you gotta watch out for lying to yourself.
NBN: How do you feel about Northwestern?
CC: For the most part, really great. I love it here. I come from a small town; it’s nice to be close to the big city in a place where not everybody knows your name and is all up in your business. I’ve met some really fantastic people here, taken some great classes, learned a lot. It can be frustrating at times. The quarter system kind of sucks. It has its merits but it kind of sucks. We all feel that I guess. I’m a little put out by UP [University Police]. [Laughs] It is only chalk after all. On the whole, Northwestern’s great.