HAMMOND — Ish Muhammad Nieves served as a field artilleryman in the Gulf War during the invasion.
He’s gone on to become one of the Region’s most prominent muralists who has exhibited his artwork internationally and often in Chicago, sometimes drawing on his military service for inspiration.
Nieves and Omar “OMS” Marin, both members of East Chicago’s legendary Crazy Indiana Style Artists graffiti crew, have been painting a mural honoring veterans on the side of Cousin Vinny’s Deli & The Sub Hub at 5800 Hohman Ave. in downtown Hammond. The city of Hammond commissioned the large public artwork, which is in a building that’s also home to the Hammond Police Department’s Fleet Division across the street from Harrison Park.
“Ish is a veteran. My dad is a veteran,” Marin said. “He was between the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He was stationed in Seattle. He was a cook. He was in the Army and was fortunate enough to never see the battlefield. He talked about some of his experiences but not too much.”
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The mural features camouflage patterns from the Army, Navy and Marine, including the traditional woodland pattern and the more modern desert and pixilated camos. It features hats from each major war since World War II.
“It’s all the different services and all the different generations and eras,” Marin said. “We hope it causes people to take pride in the service men and women have done for us.”
The piece is named “Alpha Gators” after Nieves’s old Army unit in Iraq.
They started painting last Sunday. Since then veterans have trickled by and signed their names inside the outline of the baseball caps before they’re painted over.
“They’re loving it,” Nieves said. “They’re here all the time. I let them sign their names inside the hats so there’s a story inside the story.”
The bright camo mural right across the VFW Hall and across the street from the Veterans Memorial at Harrison Park, where there’s an annual Veteran’s Day ceremony.
“This is where the Purple Hearts and Disabled American Veterans meet,” Nieves said. “I’m a disabled veteran as well with combat-related PTSD from Desert Storm. I wanted to paint something on this wall about veterans. It’s a great spot for a veterans mural. But I didn’t want to create a trigger. I wanted to keep the color red out and no faces. And veterans don’t necessarily like to talk about what they experienced — so no imagery of war.”
Nieves also painted the “Flowers In My Head” mural about the toll combat takes on a Jiffy Lube near the Veterans Affairs Clinic in Crown Point. He also strove to depict post-traumatic stress disorder in that piece without any triggers that might cause veterans to relive their trauma.
“Even if veterans don’t talk about war, you’ll always see them proudly wearing the hat,” he said. “I figured it’s a nice way to acknowledge veterans with creating a trigger for any memory except that they’re proud to serve.”
Like the Jiffy Lube by the VA Clinic, it’s a fitting location, he said.
“In an area where there are so many vets who are private it’s an opportunity to share something they wouldn’t share,” he said. “This wall somewhere else wouldn’t have the same impact it does next to a VFW. Here veterans are sharing memories and stories. It fits this location perfectly.”
The two pieces share some thematic similarities.
“Veterans come back different than when they were out there,” he said. “The wall in Crown Point is private acknowledgement that I didn’t come back whole. I may have come back whole physically but not mentally. This acknowledges that every war is different. Everyone had a different experience to navigate but we’re all back here together working through what we went through.”
The mural is predominantly blue with the Navy pattern honoring Nieves’s son, who served in the Navy and earned a Purple Heart in Afghanistan.
It features five veterans baseball hats paying tribute to veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The oldest living veterans are from World War II, so it’s World War II moving forward,” he said. “There’s still more hats but these are the major ones most people are familiar with.”
The new “Alpha Gators” mural is just a few blocks north of all the new murals Marin, Nieves and other artists painted on the Merge Building on Hohman Avenue as part of the Merge Walls art festival back in June.
“It’s different because we’re using brush paint as opposed to spray paint,” Marin said. “All the walls at Merge were done with spray paint. We’re graffiti artists first. This is all brush paint, so it’s going to have a different look.”
They expect to be finished with the piece in about a week.
They hope it will be a spot where veteran can pose for photos for Instagram or their own personal memories.
“I’m trying to make this so nice and clean many veterans will want to take pictures here,” Nieves said. “Hopefully the general public will want to see more public art. That’s the one thing I want to see that the general public will want to see more of this, more public art from living artists. This is something Hammond is trying to do, add more public art to the landscape.”