Chicago muralist Hebru Brantley creates a lair for his street-art superheroes

Kate Silver

THE WASHINGTON POST – For decades, brick walls and concrete viaducts have served as canvases for splashy murals and street art in Chicago’s Pilsen neighbourhood, about three miles southwest of the Loop. A walk around here is like strolling through an urban, open-air gallery, made even better by the area’s abundance of taco shops.

Now, for a limited time, there’s a new indoor attraction to explore, called Nevermore Park, inside the studio of artist Hebru Brantley. The installation, which has a closing date that keeps getting extended, tells the story of a character named Flyboy – a young, black superhero recognisable for his thick goggles and aviator cap – who got his start as street art on walls not far from this gallery.

Brantley, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side and now lives in Los Angeles, created Flyboy about 15 years ago. The character, with his chubby cheeks and determined flight pose, was inspired in part by the Tuskegee Airmen, the African American pilots who fought in World War II; and in part by Brantley’s son, who was a toddler when the artist began drawing the adventurous aviator. With Flyboy and his friends, Brantley created a world around a group of crusading characters that time forgot. When he painted the images of power and hope into murals all around Chicago, they resonated.

“The audience and participation level had grown to a point where I started seeing people coming to shows dressed as the characters, there was lots of fan art being made, there were homemade Halloween costumes. And it wasn’t just celebrated by one group or one dynamic of people. It was spanning all groups, ages, races, etc.” says Brantley, whose work has been exhibited around the world. Celebrities have also taken note, and collectors of Brantley’s work include Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Chance the Rapper, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and others.

In 2019, Brantley created Nevermore Park inside his old Chicago art studio because he wanted to tell the characters’ stories in a different way. He sought to explore how Flyboy and Lil Mama – the female character – live, what they eat, how they think, where they play, what public transportation looks like in their neighbourhood. And he wanted it to be tangible, built for interaction.

ABOVE & BELOW: Inside Flyboy’s rocket ship, you can hear rocket-like sounds and President John Kennedy’s famous moon speech; and Lil Mama, whose head is large enough for guests to walk inside, is one of the characters of artist Hebru Brantley. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

When guests step inside the hollows of Lil Mama’s head, they can hear her thoughts, in the form of Aaliyah’s One in a Million on repeat

“In the higher-art world, it’s always ‘Look but don’t touch’,” he says. In Nevermore Park, there are no such rules.

The exhibit begins with what feels like a traditional gallery exhibiting Brantley’s work, where the bright white walls are hung with Flyboy and Lil Mama paintings, next to placards filled with text. Down the hallway and around a corner, though, things get weird. There’s a hole blown in a painting of a series of Flyboys, and it leads to a tunnel covered in newspaper. An indoor rabbit hole, if you will.

“The audience can come in through the assumed idea of this is the Hebru Brantley art show,” Brantley explains, “but soon thereafter get sucked in behind the paintings, behind the mind, and dive deeper into this world of Nevermore.”

It’s an intriguing place. A space that’ll delight anyone, from a six-year-old who can gaze up at the ceiling lined with whimsical balloons and play with vintage toys in a wood clubhouse, to an 80-year-old who can relate to the bits and pieces of black history and culture referenced throughout the exhibit. That’s just what Brantley was striving for: to create an exhibit that can be social commentary as well as comic-book-style entertainment, depending on the audience and the context.

At a newsstand, you can peruse old issues of Jet and Ebony. Those have a family connection to Brantley. For years, his mom and uncle worked for the publisher, Johnson Publishing Co. Look closely, and you’ll see his grandfather’s name on the address label. Across the way, a Victrola plays music in an old Pullman car, which sits behind a silver Chicago L-train car.

“The train, obviously, is very emblematic of time, of movement, of progression,” Brantley says. “There’s a lot of these symbols of progression as a community, as a black man, a black person coming from a community, to symbolise growth, moving forward.” An enormous hollowed-out head – Lil Mama – sits on its side. Within, the lights change colours and music plays. On repeat, Aaliyah’s One in a Million tells you a lot about what Lil Mama’s thinking and her divine energy. All around the 6,000-square-foot gallery space, brick walls are covered in graffiti and hidden doors reveal surprises, like a secret garden in one room, while in another, filled with mirrors and fog, a remix of Chance the Rapper’s Angels plays. (Brantley animated the video to the song in 2016.) A chalkboard invites passersby to draw their own Flyboy or Lil Mama amid painted sayings such as “We the people dark but equal.”

Brantley created his characters in part so that kids, like his son, 17, and now, his daughter, who is five, have superheroes to relate to; at the same time, the characters are a vehicle for the artist to have a voice. “Much like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts and (Bill Watterson’s) Calvin and Hobbes, as the creator I can lend my voice and say the things that I want or feel I need to say, but it comes through the filter of these characters,” he says.

When Nevermore Park opened last fall, it was going to be temporary. But the closing date has been extended multiple times, and, as of this publication, tickets are still available into early May. For someone who got his start as a street artist, Brantley knows that having that level of control over his work is a beautiful thing. “The street art game is a here-today-gone-tomorrow type of thing, where we can spend a week working on the most elaborate, intense beautiful piece and then somebody comes the next day and paints over it, or the city paints over it,” he says.

With this exhibition, he’s able to guard Nevermore Park’s residents and invite others in to meet them. “Right now, as long as there’s a willingness to come experience it, we’ll keep the doors open,” he says.