You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

He painted a mural of Kanye West. Then a rabbi called.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/10/2023 Danielle Paquette
Chicago street artist Chris Devins. (Jamie Kelter Davis for The Washington Post) Chicago street artist Chris Devins. (Jamie Kelter Davis for The Washington Post)

CHICAGO — Black for the suit. White for the pocket square. Silver for the Rolex. The street artist was halfway through spray painting his 14-foot mural in the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago last August when people began recognizing the subject.

“Kanye West!” Chris Devins recalled one woman yelling. “I love Kanye!”

Devins, 48, an urban planner who has been sketching celebrities on buildings for years, figured this one would be a hit. Ye — the rapper formerly known as Kanye West — had grown up here, shouted out “Chi-town” in his songs and named his 4-year-old daughter after the Windy City.

And at first, Devins was right: Passersby stopped to take selfies that morning with his portrait of Ye before the paint had dried. One man recorded an Instagram video of his wife admiring it: #Beautiful.

Devins had aimed to turn a defunct catering company’s wall into a tribute to the superstar that, with regular touch-ups, could last decades. He added his Instagram handle so fans could tag him in their photos. Another Ye mural in Chicago had been so popular, the creator sold an NFT version of it for roughly $200,000.

Then Ye launched into a weeks-long tirade against Jews, and attention abruptly shifted from his creative legacy to his antisemitic rants.

“I’m going death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE,” Ye tweeted in October, apparently referencing Defcon, the U.S. military defense readiness system. He blamed Jews for society’s ills on podcasts and live streams. He refused to back down after losing a $1.5-billion sneaker deal with Adidas, among other lucrative partnerships. “I like Hitler,” Ye said in a December interview with Infowars founder Alex Jones. “Hitler has a lot of redeeming qualities.”

The antisemitism reverberated. A group of men raised their arms in Nazi salutes while draping a banner over a Los Angeles freeway that read: “Kanye is right about the Jews.” A similar proclamation was projected onto the side of a stadium during a college-football game in Jacksonville, Fla. Another appeared in red paint on a Jewish grave about 30 miles north of Devins’ mural: “Kanye was rite.”

Devins's mural. (Chris Devins) Devins's mural. (Chris Devins)

Now when people regarded the street artist’s work, they saw something else. Friends and strangers flooded his inbox, asking if he planned to remove it. One wrote: “You have to take responsibility for immortalizing an idiot.”

But Devins was torn.

Ever since he’d gotten into graffiti art as a teen, the native Chicagoan bristled at the idea of censorship. He hoped Ye would apologize. The rapper had ignited controversies in the past, attributing some erratic outbursts to bipolar disorder episodes.

Devins told people: “I think we should leave this up as a commentary on modern-day celebrity and the need to wield it responsibly.”

Quietly, though, he wavered. His mother is Black, and his father is Irish. His Irish grandfather had disapproved of their union. “I’ve dealt with racism basically since birth,” Devins said.

He didn’t want to broadcast acceptance of any discrimination. He reminded critics that his wife is Jewish. She, too, erred on the side of the First Amendment. Ye’s diatribes had appalled them both, he said, but neither felt right about erasing the mural. Rather, a protective instinct flared. When someone spray painted “TRASH” over Ye’s suit, Devins rushed to restore his portrait.

“I don’t think we should be censoring anything just because someone is acting ridiculous,” he said.

And yet...

“I am sensitive to people’s feelings,” Devins said. “If someone came to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m hurt by this’ — that would be different.”

Then he heard from a rabbi.


Walls of murals line the Fulton Market neighborhood of Chicago. (Jamie Kelter Davis for The Washington Post) Walls of murals line the Fulton Market neighborhood of Chicago. (Jamie Kelter Davis for The Washington Post)

Across town, another artist grappled with the same dilemma.

Jason Peterson, 53, had worked with Ye for nearly two decades: first on a Boost Mobile flip-phone commercial featuring the rapper’s lyrics (“I’m Chi-town’s finest”), then on advertising campaigns for his Yeezy sneakers.

Peterson, a photographer and creative director who runs a Chicago marketing agency, once snapped a portrait of Ye against a brick wall on the West Loop’s trendy Lake Street. As artists worldwide repackaged their work in the form of unique digital copies called NFTs, an idea struck him in 2020: What if he blew up the portrait into a 22-foot mural and auctioned off a cyberspace version?

Jason Peterson painted Kanye West on a Lake Street building in 2021. (Jason Peterson) Jason Peterson painted Kanye West on a Lake Street building in 2021. (Jason Peterson)

“Don’t miss the opportunity to be forever linked to this NFT and the mural,” read one cryptocurrency website’s announcement before the approximately $200,000 sale.

Peterson didn’t think he’d ever want to sever his own link.

“I loved it,” he said. “I drove by it every day, thinking: There is my contribution to the city of Chicago. I loved it because I love Kanye. His music. Him as a person.”

When a photo of the men Nazi-saluting over L.A.’s 405 freeway blazed across social media, Peterson flashed back to his youth as a skateboarder in Phoenix’s punk rock scene. He and his friends, he said, would get into fights with “racist skinheads.” One guy had broken his buddy’s arm with a baseball bat.

“The skinheads, the bridge in Los Angeles — that was deeply messed up,” he said. “The effect of what Kanye said ... it was giving liberty to a bunch of idiots.”

The owner of the Lake Street building, a Jewish man, wanted the mural gone. One October afternoon, Peterson grabbed a ladder and a bucket of black paint and, over the course an hour, darkened his portrait of Ye into a silhouette. (Days later, the owner painted over it entirely.)

“When I was doing it, I was almost a little weepy,” Peterson said. “It felt like it was the hard thing to do, but it was the right thing to do.”

He posted a photo of it on his Instagram story and wrote: We need better role models. The image — along with a cellphone video someone shot of Peterson on his ladder — went viral.

Rabbi Avraham Kagan. (Jamie Kelter Davis for The Washington Post) Rabbi Avraham Kagan. (Jamie Kelter Davis for The Washington Post)

Down the street, Rabbi Avraham Kagan, co-founder of Chabad River North and Fulton Market in the neighborhood, pondered how to address it all.

Ye’s antisemitic spiral had disturbed him. Here was a powerful figure with more Instagram followers than the estimated number of Jews of the planet, saying things like, “Hitler has a lot of redeeming qualities.” Prejudicial attacks were already surging: The Anti-Defamation League tallied a record-high 2,717 incidents in 2021, according to its latest audit.

Peterson painting over his mural was a welcome development, a signal that people were spurning hate speech. Kagan hesitated to call for anything that could be interpreted as censorship or derided as “cancel culture.” His strategy against antisemitism? Speak back. Speak better.


“A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness,” he liked to tell people, quoting a Jewish proverb.

As Hanukkah approached, Kagan encouraged members of a young Jewish professionals group to give menorahs to bars, restaurants and apartment buildings across Chicago. The goal was not to shrink back when antisemitism dominated the headlines. He urged everyone to light the candles with pride.

Some of the menorahs landed in high-rises overlooking Devins’ mural. By late December, when the rabbi read that the tribute to Ye was still standing, he looked up the street artist’s phone number.

“Can we talk?”


Devins had faced controversy before.

After he was hired to paint a mural two years ago of King Von, a Chicago rapper who died in a 2020 shootout, people slammed the work as glorifying gang violence. (He disagreed.) When he painted Michelle Obama in an Egyptian headdress in 2017, basing the portrait on an illustration he’d found on Pinterest, Devins caught flak for not initially crediting the image’s creator. (He apologized, saying he hadn’t known who made it — then pushed back: “I consider it to be collaboration after the fact.”)

Both murals remain up. Defending his work usually came naturally, Devins said, but when Kagan called just before New Year’s Eve, he felt no desire to argue.

They met for coffee in a swanky West Loop hotel lobby. The rabbi spoke about harnessing influence responsibly, and Devins readily agreed. He’d mulled it over for months. He could no longer stand by the mural of Ye.

“He crossed the free speech line into extremism,” Devins said.

Now another dilemma: Should he take it down? Or add something fresh to the conversation?

Rabbi Avraham Kagan, his daughter Chaya Kagan, and Jeremy Kopelman meet with street artist Chris Devins, right. (Jamie Kelter Davis for The Washington Post) Rabbi Avraham Kagan, his daughter Chaya Kagan, and Jeremy Kopelman meet with street artist Chris Devins, right. (Jamie Kelter Davis for The Washington Post)

Kagan proposed responding to the vitriol through art. He shared some teachings that a religious mentor often repeated.

“One must see the world as in balance between good and evil — between positivity and negativity,” he said. “One good deed can tip the scale and bring redemption.”

Nine days later, on a chilly January morning, the rabbi and the street artist agreed to meet again at the mural.

Kagan brought his eight-year-old daughter, Chaya, and one of the young professionals who’d passed out menorahs on the block, 23-year-old Jeremy Kopelman. The street artist arrived with his wife, Jody. They all stared up at the brick wall that Devins had transformed over the weekend.

“What I love about this is — you made a point,” Kagan said. “You’re saying: We don’t stand for negativity, and you did it with a positive message.”

“It really adds something positive to the conversation,” Jody said.

“It’s not fighting hate with hate,” Kopelman said.

“I feel good about it,” Devins said.

He had no control over how superstars used their platforms, but he could do something about this piece of Chicago.

One quote from the rabbi had stuck with him, Devins explained. It was short and punchy and perfect for the moment, he said, “considering the darkness those comments dragged us all into.”

He painted a lone candle by the rapper’s mouth — “where the words came from,” he said — and added a message in yellow: A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.

The altered mural, with Rabbi Avraham Kagan in the foreground. (Jamie Kelter Davis for The Washington Post) The altered mural, with Rabbi Avraham Kagan in the foreground. (Jamie Kelter Davis for The Washington Post)

More From The Washington Post

The Washington Post
The Washington Post
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon