Region artist paints massive new gateway mural on East Chicago bridge; painting in Whiting next

EAST CHICAGO — Felix “Flex” Maldonado was perched in a lift 30 feet up, painting a steel bridge as trains zipped overhead and semitrailers zoomed underneath.

Winds whipped. Horns blared. Traffic sped by in a relentless flow.

He wondered whether it was such a good idea.

Maldonado recently completed a massive mural that serves as a new gateway to East Chicago. He painted the 10-by-120-foot bridge spanning Indianapolis Boulevard, just west of the South Shore Line commuter train station, the biggest and busiest in the system. 

The mural says “East Chicago,” flanking the giant letters with ruby-red cardinals that represent the mascot of East Chicago Central High School. It’s set against a bright blue backdrop meant to evoke nearby Lake Michigan.

It’s a highly visible piece of art seen by at least 10,000 motorists daily. It greets visitors to East Chicago as well as rail commuters to Chicago and motorists passing through to such nearby destinations as the BP Whiting Refinery, the Horseshoe Hammond Casino or the Unilever and Cargill plants at the Five Points intersection in Hammond.

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“Our city has been energized by several recent art projects, including our newly painted mural near the South Shore train,” Mayor Anthony Copeland said. “This project was completed by East Chicago’s very own, Felix Maldonado. His work can be seen throughout our city and the region. We look forward to more art infusion throughout our city as part of our ongoing beautification efforts.”

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Maldonado is an East Chicago native who maintains a studio in downtown Hammond. He’s painted many prominent murals across Northwest Indiana, including the Jackson 5 murals in downtown Gary and Miller, Michael Jordan murals at sports bars in East Chicago, and the wildlife murals at Wolf Lake in Hammond.

He won the popular vote in a citywide contest for a new mural on the bridge after getting a general consensus of what people wanted to see up there.

“It’s one of those highly visible locations,” he said. “You know you’re in East Chicago when you see that bridge.”

He lives in East Chicago’s Roxana neighborhood, just down the street from the bridge.

“I was born and raised in East Chicago. I grow up there. I’ve been living my life there. I used to take the train every day to go to school at the American Academy of Art.”

During his teenage years, Maldonado spray-painted graffiti at the train station next door.

“As a graffiti artist, I was tagging and bombing that train station,” he said. “Now I’m a professional artist sought out to paint there. It’s phenomenal. It’s come full circle. I’m happy and proud they accepted my piece, and I gave it my best.”

As a greeting to the city, the mural placed the text “East Chicago” front and center. Maldonado originally considered depicting the Chicago skyline and the Indiana Dunes in the background.

“I decided I wanted something to reflect the city itself and its landmarks and settled on the E.C. Central Cardinals. It’s the mascot and people have taken ownership of that bird. It was perfect. People are very proud of it. That’s what I heard from a lot of alumni comments. It’s something that brings everyone together, whether in the Harbor or the East Chicago part of the city. It was a perfect fit for everybody.”

He also wanted the artwork to reflect East Chicago’s position on a Great Lake.

“I settled on blue to reflect the wind and water of being so close to Lake Michigan. I wanted something a little lighter, rather than dark. When you’re going into the city, you don’t want a dark type of sign that seems ominous or scary. I wanted something lively bright and inviting, something that showcases the city.”

Maldonado was given 18 days to finish the project. Whether there was rain, sleet, hail, snow or sun, he had to get it done.

Fortunately, the weather was warm and sunny.

But the project was still treacherous for Maldonado and assistant Omar Marin. 

The Indiana Department of Transportation closed part of Indianapolis Boulevard underneath while they worked, restricting the lanes in sections to make room for the overhead lift.

“If we didn’t complete it in two weeks, it would have been a disaster,” he said. “It was a very happy circumstance that it was completed on time and everybody was safe.”

While he’s painted pieces as big as a four-story mural in downtown Gary, Maldonado had never painted over a bridge before.

“It produced a lot of stress and anxiety,” he said. “It was very intense, just holding onto a basket 30 feet in the air while cars and trucks are zooming underneath. You have to be conscious of your surroundings at all times. When you’re painting a building, you just need to make sure you’re going up and down the ladder safely. We needed to worry about how we maneuvered the lift and about cars and people underneath. Everything had to be secured so it wouldn’t fall out of the basket.”

While the weather cooperated, it was stressful because of the deadline, the height and the traffic.

“You had to worry about the lift not hitting the wall. You don’t want to bump into or run over anything. You need to stay on that bridge,” he said. “You need to worry that a semi won’t clip the bridge or the lift. There are so many factors involved. Nothing can fall out because, if you drop a brush or a paint can, you don’t want that falling on a speeding car.”

Motorists constantly waved and honked to show their support.

“It was appreciated, but it got to be a distraction,” he said. ‘You need to focus on concentrate and I felt like people were expecting me to turn around and start a conversation. This one was up there in terms of difficulty.”

He worried that the trains would rumble overhead and the vibrations would be a logistical challenge for painting. But they turned out not to be much of a problem.

“They’re not going very fast by the time they get to the station. They’re not zooming by. They’re electric and on overhead lines. They’re kind of quiet. I kind of forgot about them.”

But there were still plenty of logistical challenges, like trying to stay above the semis’ height limits, gusts that threatened to blow the stencils when they were painting letters, or wind that could overspray paint outside the lines into the background. They had to pause every time there was a red light so nothing would fall on the stopped cars below.

He’s not sure he would ever paint such a large bridge again.

“I’m very grateful for the opportunity,” he said. “I’m not sure I understood how intensive the job would be.”

It was such a taxing project that he took a few days off after it was all done.

“Now I know what it feels like how to run a marathon and fall to the ground afterward. That’s how I felt,” he said. “I spent all that time stressed out. It took a toll mentally and physically.”

Maldonado has been getting back to work as he gears up for the busy summer mural-painting season. He recently completed a greenhouse in Belstra Milling Co.’s new garden center in DeMotte. It depicts daisies, peonies, black-eyed Susans, tulips and other flowers.

“It represents the foliage and flora in the Region. It’s not tropical plants or anything like that,” he said. “I love planting flowers and nature. People love flowers. There’s no judgment. No one asks why you painted Michael Jackson or why you painted Michael Jordan in East Chicago. People understand flowers.”

He’s slated to paint murals this year in Hammond, Hebron, Michigan City, Indianapolis and Mexico. His next mural is on a new plaza on 119th Street in downtown Whiting. It will depict the lakefront town’s history, sports and culture.

“I’m going to get that ready in time for their festivals. I’m excited these different towns trust in my vision and my work. I’m very proud and grateful.”

Maldonado has created some amazing art in Northwest Indiana, said Tom Dabertin, vice president of the Whiting Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce.

“Felix is a truly phenomenal artist and his work is well-known around Northwest Indiana,” he said. “We can’t wait for his latest mural in downtown Whiting at the new plaza, as we are confident that it will quickly become another destination in our community.”

Maldonado lives four blocks from the new East Chicago mural in Roxana and makes a point of passing the bridge daily.

“I hope people enjoy the mural,” he said. “It’s a reminder you’re entering the city. You can see it a mile away northbound coming down that bridge. It doesn’t get lost like a sign. It’s big and a unique spot that’s reflective of the city. It’s a steel bridge with a railroad that ties into the concept of place. If that weren’t the sign, the next thing I would have proposed would be to buy a tanker train car and park it in Kosciuszko Park.”

He just wants to make his mark as an artist. Coming from a graffiti background as a member of the Crazy Indiana Style Artists, he relishes working with the medium of murals.

“I want to make something that will hopefully represent the city, organization or entity that commissions the mural. I’m proud to reflect what they’re looking for. I like to contribute around Northwest Indiana and put my fingerprint on it. Art is everything. It’s good. It’s beneficial for our cities in many ways. It’s beautification. It’s education. It’s learning about the town or the history of that city. It shows some vibrancy. It peppers some color into Northwest Indiana. This is going to be my legacy. This is art that I’m leaving behind for as long as I’m alive and maybe longer.”

He delights in the irony of having been hired to paint a mural next door to where they used to fine him for plying his craft. 

“That train station was like a newspaper for graffiti artists. It was a Who’s Who of tags. It had two entrances on each side of the boulevard, so you could get away. All the graffiti writers in the city hit it. It’s mind-blowing to me that I’m getting paid for painting where I once had to pay fines. It’s rewarding to come full circle. They thought I was a vandal and now they hire me to beautify it. It’s just funny to me.”

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