Brendan Scanlon sits on a striped couch in a plaid shirt that is stained with orange paint. He is holding rolling paper; an ice cream pint container is balanced in his lap. One hand dips into the container and comes out with a short handful which he sprinkles into the paper with precision. He rolls, licks, lights, inhales and speaks.
“When I was a little kid, I would, like, write on shit. You know, the whole crayon on wall thing, and Mom’s all like, ‘Aaahhhh!’ And then, when I got a little older and I was still a kid, I would write on shit.” He goes on. “Where I grew up, spray paint was readily available. And you’re like, oh, wow, look. This is a lot bigger. It’s, like, better.”
Scanlon is not identified as such in the video, uploaded to YouTube 11 days after his death. His face is cut off at the eyes, an amateur documentarian’s attempt to obscure his identity. Scanlon tells the camera he currently makes art on the streets of Chicago, under the name “SOLVE.” Has he ever been arrested? Yes, recently. “For graffiti-related things.”
From somewhere offscreen, he produces a book called “Street Art and the War on Terror.” His work has been featured there, but it was misexplained in the caption. The photo shows a helmet atop a rifle stuck to a black utility box. It is not a veiled criticism of our military-industrial society, as the book would have it, but something much more simple and pure. It is the classic battle cross, minus the boots. It is a tribute to the fallen in sticker form.
There is a full-sized version of that work just inside the front door of Bill Scanlon and Eileen McGlynn’s house two blocks south of Willy Street. They point it out, like proud parents ought to, and they explain how they knew Brendan would be an artist even before he did.
“I guess you would say he always thought outside the box. I don’t know if that was his distinct personality or just being the youngest. He wanted to challenge everything,” McGlynn said. “Just challenge authority and ask ‘why?’ He was very intellegent, as well as creative. I used to volunteer in his classes when he was younger, and his teacher said, ‘I’m just not sure what to do with Brendan. He can act like he’s not listening. He’s engaging students while I’m trying to teach, and then he raises his hand and he knows the answer.'”
Bill Scanlon concurred his son showed creative inclinations from an early age.
“He connected to music … when he was in grammar school, yet,” he said. “And he stuck with it ’til the end, really.”
But in terms of visual art, Brendan didn’t find his groove until his junior year of high school at Madison East. He did some tagging – straight, unartful graffitti – in middle school, but that was more a reflection of an adolescent seeking thrills or fighting boredom than a measure of artistic expression.
An inspiring art class had a profound effect on Brendan’s life, though, according to Bill Scanlon.
“Once Brendan started to take art classes at East High, and thanks to the excellent art teachers he had there, it was like a light turned on in his head,” he wrote in an email. “At that point, he started to be a happy person and was able to start to plan how he could lead his life following his passion.”
That passion led Brendan to the Illinois Institute of Art in downtown Chicago, from which he graduated in 2007 with a degree in visual communications. He secured a job as a graphic artist with an advertising firm after graduation, but by that time he had developed a second, more nocturnal, hobby as a guerilla artist: first under the name “Urban,” and later using “SOLVE.” The Chicago police were not the only ones that noticed; Brendan’s work had a legitimate following in both the underground art scene and with an attentive portion of the general public.
For a life so defined by intricately planned works of art executed in secrecy, Brendan’s death was starkly random and public. Early in the morning on June 14, 2008, Brendan and several friends were hosting a party, when, Bill and Eileen said, a group of neighborhood thugs broke in on the action.
As Bill explained, it was not the first time that group had crashed a party Brendan was attending, so perhaps that is why, according to a Chicago Tribune report of the case, Brendan initiated a fight with a member of the crew.
Moments after, while fleeing the scene, Brendan was stopped, pinned and pummeled in an alleyway. The fight should have ended there, but a man named Kirk Tobolski wielded an intricately-decorated switchblade he had received as a gift for his birthday just days before. Sickeningly eager to use it, Tobolski stabbed Brendan in the chest, killing him on the spot.
Tobolski was arrested within the hour. He was convicted of second degree murder this summer and sentenced to 12 years in prison, with a possibility of parole after six.
Madison freelance writer Emily Mills remembers the mural at Mother Fool’s on Williamson Street. The artist Ben Bauman painted Brendan’s smiling face in high-contrast color, looking into the distance, on the right side of the coffeehouse. Down to the left were seven multicolored “SOLVE” tags. Mills had read articles about his death, but the size and beauty of the mural made her think about its meaning.
“Clearly he’d had an impact,” she said. “People liked him and liked his work, and he had a pretty good network of people not just in this area but out in Chicago too. … It was an awesome mural, and I wanted to find out who this kid was that someone had gone to the trouble.”
Bill and Eileen remember the funeral service that took place a week after Brendan’s death, at a Madison funeral home off Odana Road. The stolid, generic art on the walls was replaced with Brendan’s work, transforming the place into a gallery.
“We never called it a funeral, basically,” Bill said. “A celebration of his life. Unbelievable. I mean, almost 800 people showed up, including a huge crowd from Chicago.”
That contingent arrived the night before the service, and by the morning, Brendan’s father explained, they had made sure all of Madison knew why they were there.
“A lot of them went out and put up ‘SOLVE R.I.P.’ all over the place around the neighborhood,” he said. “A controversy arose because of the tagging. … There are people that are just assholes. They came out of the woodwork, but of course that generated a lot of support. It was like, ‘Come on! What does it hurt to put … ”
“‘SOLVE’ on the sidewalk,” Eileen finished, leading the room into a pregnant, contextual silence.
In an interview with a frequent collaborator, published posthumously on www.urb.com, Brendan talked about one of his projects. Disgusted with the ugly electricity boxes that dominated street corners in his neighborhood – he felt blank spaces like that were “an obscenity,” Bill said – Brendan began to paint them in bright greens, pinks and purples. Then, the next night, he would come back and add contrasting polka dots, lending a festive atmosphere to the concrete cityscape.
“I love the idea of this completely ridiculous thing going up in the city,” Brendan said in that interview. “Because the city is so serious, people are going and doing their business, and you have to rush from here to there … I think it’s kind of a stop and smell the flowers thing, like hopefully people will stop and get a smile out of it.”
If Brendan has a legacy, it is two-fold, and it is summed up perfectly by that statement. His personality left a lasting impact on people, and he wanted to change the way people think about art. Take Emily Mills – after seeing the mural at Mother Fool’s, she did some research and started a blog to catalog the street art all over Madison, which remains active today.
Or take the hundreds of people worldwide that have posted “SOLVE” tributes, thanks to an initiative by his friends and parents to send stickers bearing his name to anyone that asks. The stickers are up in six continents, but when asked what message they hoped the project would convey, Bill and Eileen struggled to settle on a specific answer, like the question had missed an obvious point.
It probably had. In all likelihood, the decals do not carry any complicated message about the politics of art or the state of the world. Rather, their meaning is far simpler and more pure. They are street art in memoriam, a tribute to the fallen in sticker form.