Paul Branton, 48, began painting when he was 14, hoping to design album covers someday.
Phil Cotton, 71, grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., immersed in jazz and rock thanks to his bartender-father.
Won Kim, 41, started his graffiti career because he was obsessed with lettering.
Along with street artists Max Sansing and Ruben Aguirre, they worked to turn a garage behind a fast-food joint on the South Side, Nicky’s of Beverly, into an homage to blues music, hippies and street art.
For 23 years, owner Paul Kostopanagiotou has served up Chicago-style hotdogs, burgers and veggie versions at Nicky’s. When he moved from 103rd Street to 10500 S. Western Ave. in January, Kostopanagiotou wanted to improve the vibe, starting with the “eyesore of a garage” behind the new place.
He asked the Beverly Area Arts Alliance for someone who could paint the garage. Sal Campbell, co-founder of the group, got him five artists to do the job with style. When she sent the artists to the restaurant, Kostopanagiotou already had a theme in mind: the blues.
“We always play blues music” in the restaurant, Kostopanagiotou says. “It was something that I loved. If you’re white, Black, an old grandma, middle-aged white man, you’d be grooving to it. I felt it brought people together.”
As soon as the artists got to work, people started showing up to watch. First, they’d slow down as they drove by. Then, they’d stop and ask about what was going on. Many ended up sticking around, watching and taking photos as the murals took form.
“We would be working at night, and there would be times when we would actually have to stop what we’re doing to engage and have conversations with people because they were so enthralled with what we were doing,” Branton says.
His mural faces Western Avenue. It’s a wave of blues, yellows and greens with a splash of pink. A guitarist plays in one corner, a pianist in another.
The colors roll onto the next wall, up to Cotton’s mural: a guitar that spans the length of the garage door. It’s a dedication to Lucille — legendary bluesman B.B. King’s guitar.
Cotton, who lives in Hyde Park, says he met King at the bar his father worked at in Buffalo.
His mural wraps around to the back of the garage, leading to Kim’s green-and-purple graphic design facing the alley, painted by Sansing and Aguirre.
Kim’s mural was defaced shortly after it was completed. That got him thinking. He decided he could keep the mural fresh by “rotating” it every few weeks, adding touches to highlight his lettering style as an art form.
Kim grew up on the North Side but says he found his niche on the South Side when he began painting, with graffiti his “vehicle” to bond with other artists.
“I want to show that letters can be super-artistic, that letters are an art form,” Kim says.
For three months starting in June 2020, the artists worked on the garage.
When they finished, Kostopanagiotou wasn’t ready to say goodbye. So, for another three months, the artists got to work on the inside of the restaurant, where a palette of colors that feature seemingly random objects of hippie peace signs, graffiti lettering and spacemen now covers the walls.
Kostopanagiotou says he was aiming for the artists “to create life.” He thinks they succeeded.
“Sometimes, I drive by and, turning the corner, see people are taking notice,” he says. “And they want to be a part of all this. That was the goal.”
Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter for the Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.