With Chinatown mural, artist Ocean Muerto says he’s playing with the idea of ‘dust to dust’

A butterfly seems to rest on a hand in the mural near 18th and Clark streets, the fingers stretching toward a cluster of mushrooms, Chinese lettering and roots — or maybe they’re they strands of human tissue — that appear to flow from the earth to a decaying arm.

So there’s a darker vibe and also something lighter there as well.

Which is part of the point, according to the artist who goes by Ocean Muerto, who painted the mural in August on a railroad viaduct on the edge of Chinatown.

The theme? “Even something negative can regenerate into something positive,” he says.

Originally, the street artist known as Viril planned to paint on one side of that viaduct and wanted Ocean Muerto, who grew up in the Brighton Park-McKinley Park area, to tackle the other side.

“He actually invited me, like, two years ago now, when he did that piece, that it could use another artist to strengthen the imagery,” Ocean Muerto says. “He wanted it to be a collaborative effort, like a powerful statement going through that corridor.

“But, at the time I couldn’t make it. So it’s been on my mind for the last couple of years.”

Ever since, when he passed by, “I could feel it speaking to me.” He’d think: “The wall needs something.”

But, he says, “I’m of the philosophy that I don’t rush things.”

Ocean Muerto at work, painting a mural.

Ocean Muerto at work.

The time finally seemed right last month he says, as “an idea I’ve been toying with recently is this idea of growth. I’ve been dealing with personal development and growth. I’ve learned a lot of rough lessons” and come to believe “something negative can still grow into something positive.

“The hand, if you look, it’s reaching out toward the flowers, toward the mushrooms, like it desires” them, the artist says. “But the further it reaches out, the more constrained it becomes.”

A mural by the artist Viril opposite another that recently was painted by Ocean Muerto.

A mural by the artist Viril opposite another that recently was painted by Ocean Muerto.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

Eventually, the hand “decays, but that provides the fruits and nutrients for the rest of it to grow. So the cycle continues.”

The Chinese letters translate to “dust to dust,” as in the biblical passage, “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Or, as in a common prayer said at Christian funerals, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

“That kind of concept has been on my mind lately,” says the artist, who was raised Catholic. “Just because something is over doesn’t mean there’s not a new beginning. Something’s end is always something’s beginning.

“Sometimes you find out you’re the bad guy in a situation, and that’s kind of hard to come to terms with. But that doesn’t mean you’re not unredeemable.”

The mural “comes to terms that even if things are bad that doesn’t mean they’ll stay bad.”

The artist — who asked that his real name not be published — says he’s Latino but “always immersing myself in the cultures of others.”

He says he’s always looking to learn new ways of creating art, too.

“I’ve been practicing for about 10 years now, multiple disciplines,” Ocean Muerto says. “I’m really a fan of the learning process. I’ve done 3-D printing. I’ve done sculpting, water color. I’m always looking for the next thing to express myself creatively.”

Whatever his intentions were, he wants people who see the mural on 18th Street to find their own interpretations.

“That’s what keeps the artwork engaging, how people interpret it,” he says. “But, of course, I have my own internal monologue and dialogue in what the pieces mean.”

The wall itself played a part, too.

“I was so eager to get it done I didn’t realize the wall was pretty dusty,” Ocean Muerto says. “So there was so much grit and stuff on the wall sometimes the spray paint wouldn’t take. It was sort of poetic in a way, as the piece is ‘dust to dust.’ ”

Click on the map below for a selection of Chicago-area murals

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