Photo for the Tribune by Jeremy Fischer
Photo Caption -
Gregor “Mortis” Tatro founded the now-closed Charybdis Multi-Arts Complex. "The people who are against us have never been in here," Tatro says. “They’re the people believing in rumors.”

Chicago Tribune - Sunday July 22, 2001
Front Page
Section 2 - Chicago Metro

Dispute raging over art center

Closed site’s bid for new license splits community

By Lynette Kalsnes
Tribune staff reporter

Founder Gregor “Mortis” Tatro looked at the bright figures and stylized words painted on the walls and proudly proclaimed Charybdis Multi-Arts Complex the coolest creative space in the city.

Margaret Brogan looked up the business on the Internet, saw cargo nets, a pool table and a giant Twister game, and proclaimed it a nightclub.

That difference in view between artists and residents is at the center of a zoning controversy embroiling Jefferson Park, a neighborhood that one resident likened to Mayberry.

Charybdis Multi-Arts Complex, 4423 N. Milwaukee Ave., is seeking a zoning change that would allow the art studio to apply for the license it needs to operate. It now has a more restrictive license that allows it only to sell art, not to hold events such as theater performances, poetry readings and movie screenings.

The artists argue that Charybdis is a unique environment that allows them to create, rehearse, perform, display their art and eventually make a living from their craft.

”They are not selling drugs. They are not making guns. They’re not making bombs. They are making art, so what is there to be afraid of?” asked supporter Cherie Caswell Dost, a former arts instructor and museum educator who lives in nearby Portage Park.

But many residents are concerned about noise and parking, and some said they fear the business actually houses a nightclub or raves.

”I’m concerned [Tatro is] an artist by day and a nightclub owner by night,” said neighbor Brogan, adding, “I don’t see art anywhere.”

Tatro said the residents’ fears are unfounded, adding that the center is interested in fostering art, not holding parties.

”The people who are against us have never been in here,” he said. “They’re the people believing in rumors.”

After a recent contentious neighborhood meeting that drew about 200 people, Ald. Patrick Levar (45th) said he would seek input from nearby residents before deciding whether to recommend the zoning change. An alderman’s recommendation usually carries the power of approval or rejection by the City Council’s Committee on Zoning. Levar said he would not make a decision for several more weeks.

In the meantime, the glass doors to Charybdis stand closed behind an official orange sign stating the business was shut down by the Revenue Department. Above that sign is a homemade one stating: “We are artists, not criminals.”

The department closed Charybdis after two investigations in late May found it was charging admission and running a business without the proper license said revenue director Bea Reyna-Hickey.

On May 20, people performed and painted with their bodies said city Law Department spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyle. On May 31, people watched a movie. Citations and cease-and-desist orders were issued. There were no charges of drug use, and the city has not characterized the events as raves, Hoyle said.

Tatro said the first event was a multimedia one featuring body painting, performance art and an interactive sound installation. The second was a private movie discussion group similar to a book club, Tatro said. He said he believed he complied with the law by asking for donations instead of charging admission while the zoning request was pending.

The Revenue Department disputes the donations were voluntary and said such events still require the proper license Hoyle said. A trial on the licensing charges is pending.

Charybdis began in 1994 as an informal group of artists who met regularly in a Chicago Park District room and then a warehouse. The group had a studio and performance space in Wicker Park for 2 1/2 years until gentrification and the accompanying increase in real estate prices squeezed it out. The group found a new home in Jefferson Park and officially opened in September, Tatro said.

The for-profit group was formed to let artists create, perform and make money on their work by cutting out agents and other middlemen Tatro said.

”We want artists to make money and a living off what they do so they don’t have to work temp jobs,” he said. “We want to do it for ourselves.”

A Respectful Neighbor

Tatro said he is willing to take whatever steps are necessary to get the zoning change and license. The group wants to be a good and respectful neighbor, he said, and has joined the local Chamber of Commerce, attended neighborhood association meetings and hosted an art activity booth at a local festival.

”Let us stay. Let us be artists. Let us be something wonderful to the community,” he said.

Tatro said Levar was holding up the zoning change. “This is old school machine politics at work,” he said, calling it “the Chicago way.”

Levar said he held a public meeting within 90 days of his first meeting with Charybdis and was working to gather input from all sides before making a decision.

”I have nothing against art,” Levar said, adding, “I have a concern that everyone abides by the law and applies for the proper licenses they need.”

Facing Debt and Fines

While a decision is pending, Charybdis cannot hold events to help pay its rent. The group is broke, in debt and facing hefty fines, organizers say.

Local artists are mourning what could be lost. “What you have is a real jewel there,” said Portage Park resident and arts consultant Jay Thompson, adding, “There aren’t very many spaces in Chicago that do that.”

But Jefferson Park resident Bill Paulson said he has a different concern what his 14-year-old son might be exposed to at Charybdis. He does not want the neighborhood, which he likens to Mayberry to change.

”I do not want pornographic parties on North Milwaukee Avenue,” he said, pointing to photos of partially nude women pulled from the group’s Internet site and artwork incorporating a bondage rack.

But Caswell Dost said there is a long historical precedent of using pornography claims to suppress art, pointing to the days when the Impressionists were considered degenerate.

”You don’t have to like what kind of art they’re producing there,” she said. “Don’t send your kids there. But you cannot prevent me from seeing it.”

Photo for the Tribune by Jeremy Fischer

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