Artist and designer Matthew Hoffman’s visual love letter to the Windy City.
The portrait of Chicago’s Fulton Market District is one of true urban grit. The oldest food-marketing district in the Windy City, it brims with industrial and warehouse buildings, some of which still function as wholesale produce and meatpacking outlets. Cheaper rent attracts a diverse community—from eager artists to tech giants like Google—to this rapidly developing area, where the family-owned and -operated Blommer Chocolate Company pumps a cocoa-tinged perfume into the air that wafts down over the faded-brick buildings and laces the trees. This eclectic slice of metropolis is Chicago-based artist and designer Matthew Hoffman’s favorite neighborhood. It was the first one he explored when he moved to Chicago back in 2002, and every time he revisits it, the city feels brand new again.
To Hoffman, it’s this sense of innovation and opportunity that is vital to Chicago’s character. Hoffman’s no stranger to the Midwest—he grew up in Ohio, earned a degree in graphic design in Indiana, and came to Chicago for his first job out of college—but the first time he saw the Chicago skyline, something in his gut told him that this was it. “The community here is alive and full of possibility,” he says, explaining his initial desire to add to the cultural conversation. The same year he arrived in Chicago, Hoffman created a little sticker with a simple message: “You are beautiful.” Intended to make people smile, this positive affirmation began modestly, printed on 100 stickers that Hoffman put up himself and shared with a small group of friends. After he published a simple website inviting others to print and share their own “You are beautiful” stickers, over two million have been spotted across the globe—from the canals of Amsterdam to the Great Wall of China and even in Antarctica. “The project started locally in Chicago and grew organically…all because of the community that surrounds the message,” Hoffman says, admitting that it’s been fascinating to watch it develop and change over the years, much like his city.
What most inspires Hoffman as an artist is the ever-evolving community of Chicago. “Everyone is really hardworking,” he says. “There’s not a lot of ego. It’s about doing everything you can for your own work, of course, but it’s also about what you can do to help others achieve their dreams, because I would not be where I am without the help of a lot of talented Chicagoans.”
Whether printing uplifting stickers or constructing large-scale installations, Hoffman strives to beautify his community by creating moments that resonate with others and elicit public discourse: “In the urban environment of Chicago, you never know what you’re going to run into. Every day is different, and I try to lightly record those moments that jump out and that have the potential to create an immediate, positive dialogue. And then I try to re-create [those moments] later in my work.” Consequently, he’s always jotting down notes on scraps of paper or in the subject lines of emails sent to himself. Then, when it’s time to work, he’ll pick “the most across-the-board inclusive” phrase, and let it roll around the channels of his mind. There’s an urgency to Hoffman’s need to create; he firmly believes that vigorous effort is necessary for positive momentum. Hoffman’s art is text-based, upbeat, and simple, and he sticks with his formula because it allows the work to be as open-ended as possible. “I gravitate toward simpler phrases that you can interpret a million different ways, so there is a complexity in keeping it simple.”
Given Hoffman’s relationship with Chicago and his fellow city dwellers, he chose the phrase “anything is possible” to toy with for his contribution to the GOOD Cities Project. After tracing the phrase from laser-cut paper stencils and hand-cutting it with a jigsaw, he asked over a dozen people to lend a helping hand. “I wanted to create something kinetic and moving and temporary,” Hoffman explains, “and since the phrase has so much humanity behind it, I thought it would be best to have a bunch of people holding it up instead of letting it sit on a beach or field somewhere.” With the wooden letterforms in tow, the crew trooped up and down the streets of Chicago, snapping a photograph at North Avenue Beach before stopping traffic at the intersection of Grand, Milwaukee, and Halstead. There, they posed in front of an abandoned, boarded up building, a canvas that Hoffman has used for his art in years past. Even with the dilapidated structure in the background, the focus is on the inspiring phrase that Hoffman picked to highlight the creativity and possibility that his city embraces and nurtures—brought to life by the people who propel Chicago’s artful living.
For more, watch the video below made by Matt Hoffman and his friend Ben Derico, who were so inspired by the GOOD Cities Project that they brought the phrase “Anything is Possible” to life in the city they call home.
Hoffman’s visual love letter to Chicago is currently on exhibition as part of the GOOD Cities Project. And, if you’re in the Chicago area in November, keep an eye out to see his work displayed on local billboards.