Down These Mean, Ink-Stained Streets

Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick brings his 'Nickel History' to Slugfest Gallery

<i>Lou Reed </i>
Lou Reed

Tony Fitzpatrick won't settle for just bending your ears.

The articulate Irishman from Chicago, who looks like he could maybe demolish an entire city block with his bare mitts, can spin endless tales of his prizefighting days, his journeys overseas, and his friends in Leavenworth Penitentiary. Fitzpatrick can wax experiential and philosophical about the modern art world, the minutiae of old-school printing presses, the lack of honey wagons on an indie movie set. The hulking fellow with the bright tattoos and gettin'-old spectacles, no stranger to dive bars the world over but now several years on the wagon, can give you the skinny on the Hell's Angels and the Mob, the politics and poise of Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould, the dark side of Chicago's power structure, and the habits of Depression-era hobos. He can reduce a room of people to laughter with accounts of his former Windy City neighbor, a wry and wizened Ukrainian lady who always referred to him as "Mr. Big Shot" and "you son-of-one-bitch."

But Fitzpatrick clams up, when he does, not because he's tired of talking or has run out of stories. He sets aside his gift of gab because he's got a few other gifts to flex, not least of which is a talent for visuals – which he exercises in the form of drawing-enhanced collages and polychrome etchings. Prints from the latter technique, prints as colorful as (and not so stylistically different from) his arms' tattoos, make up his "Nickel History/The Nation of Heat" collection, currently on display at Slugfest Gallery, down the street from Flatbed World Headquarters.

<i>Atomic Hobo </i>
Atomic Hobo

Fitzpatrick, see, also wants to bend your eyes. He does this with carefully inscribed illustrations that depict the world as viewed from his storied perspective, the art revealing a personal wunderkammer of resonant images – all the things he more casually renders with vocabulary and jawbone. Comic-strip icons, human faces, birds, insects, hobo signs – each centered in a rough urban ground, cut there in scratchy yet perfectly balanced line-work – the sort of graphic power that led to his album covers for the Neville Brothers' Yellow Moon and all of Steve Earle's solo releases since 1996.

But those covers were combinations of collage and drawing, and we're not talking – we're not fuckin' talking – about that, are we? And why is that?

"Well, I've been doing drawing collages for a long time," says Fitzpatrick, "but this 'Nickel History' is my first show of etchings in 10 years."

What brought him back to etchings in particular?

<i>An Irish Story About a Woman and the Rain </i>
An Irish Story About a Woman and the Rain

"A lot of it was the idea of a long-form narrative," says Fitzpatrick, "Like Hogarth's 'A Rake's Progress' or Goya's Caprichos. I started 'Nickel History' in 1997 with 10 black-and-white etchings. I started it a year or so before my dad passed away. They were kind of about his long walk in the darkness, but if you've ever known anybody who's had a terminal illness, it's ... well, I stopped making them. Grief has its own kind of logic, you know? Then, about eight months ago, I came across that body of work again and I thought, 'I should've never stopped making these; they were headed somewhere really wonderful.' So I made these little sketches in Tokyo – I spent a lot of time there, met a lot of yakuza guys and had a really good time – and when I came home I went to see Teresa James, my printer, and made an etching with her. And I thought, 'If I like it, OK, that means there's something left in the gas tank,' y'know?"

But these aren't black-and-white?

"We always kind of staked out our territory as color etching," says Fitzpatrick. "Nobody does it, and with good reason: It's very expensive; it's notoriously hard to sell; a lot of print shops shy away from it. But I've always liked it. Like the Blake etchings, William Blake. Those were often hand-colored, but he also made some four- or five-color etchings. He saw what was inside it, and he took the time. And I just thought, if I'm going to make a long-form body of work – and I have a couple of them going right now, one of them's about the hobo alphabet, called 'American Etchings,' but it's also got prison tattoos and gang symbols and stuff like that. And 'Nickel History,' also color etchings, because," he pauses, takes a sip from his Sprite, "because the medium rewards this kind of storytelling."

That kind of storytelling, it turns out, is also rewarded by staging. As in theatre.

<i>Chicago Mephisto</i>
Chicago Mephisto

"When I was a young guy," says the artist, "I wanted to be a playwright. And what I couldn't do at 19, I finally finished at the age of 50: I did a play, and it got produced. Steppenwolf [Theatre Company in Chicago] put up This Train; that's where we performed it. And they liked it so much that the next show, it was called Stations Lost, we also got to do at Steppenwolf. Luck doesn't begin to cover what it was to be able to do that. And we're doing a third one there, Nickel History: Nation of Heat, which opens in July."

But let's not get sidetracked here. With so many different cultural pies that the artist has his fingers in, if we ever want to leave the bakery, we'd better focus on what's displayed across its timeworn walls. Or on the nonmetaphorical walls at Slugfest: the prints of those etchings and the egalitarian spirit that influences their production.

"After This Train was done, with all of its narratives, the diary entries," says Fitzpatrick, "I thought there was some real possibility for a book about things like this. I revisited all those Lynd Ward books, Mad Man's Drum, and the things that Rockwell Kent did without any words at all, and I thought, 'Printmaking hasn't seen this in a very long time.' And about five months ago, I found printmaker Catherine Brooks in Lima [Peru] and hired her away from her teaching job. I've never been happier in making the work I'm making than right now – I'm really enjoying it. Eventually there'll be books of these etchings. Because I love making drawing collages, but at a certain point, once they started going for 15 or 20 grand each, none of my friends could afford one. And that kinda bothered me. I'm not a big fan of the classist way the art world now conducts itself – with the full complicity of artists. Fifty years ago, we woulda thrown guys like Larry Gagosian out the door. He stood for everything we found repellent and unctuous in the world – we woulda run him out. And now there's this Republican instinct to be like those guys." Fitzpatrick shakes his head, disgusted. "I think the art world could use an enema," he says. "Or at least a Spartacus, y'know? Somebody that doesn't want to polish Goliath's toenails."

And maybe that's Fitzpatrick?

The big man shrugs, purses his lips, maybe weighing the possibility. "I'm very proud that I have a lot of working-class collectors," he says. "That owning my work hasn't been put outside of the ability of people who, you know, wait tables or cut hair, things like that."

And maybe that's you, reader.

Maybe that's about, oh, 99% of us.

"Tony Fitzpatrick: Nickel History/The Nation of Heat" runs through Jan. 15 at Slugfest Printmaking Workshop & Gallery, 1906 Miriam. For more information, visit

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Tony Fitzpatrick, printmaking, Slugfest Gallery, Flatbed World Headquarters, Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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