One South Side Chicago Artist Turns The Idea That ‘Crime Pays’ On Its Head — With Logic Few Can Argue Against

“[We’re making] visible the system that needs criminals to sustain itself.”

Gang violence. Increased danger. Murder.

These are just a few of the dark words that are currently so closely associated with Chicago. To say it's not true is a lie. If you're not living it, you're hearing stories or seeing it on the news — there's no way to block it out. Stories of innocent children killed in the line of gang fire, intended murder, and fatality numbers going up each weekend. This is the harsh reality.

This, partnered with the racism and inequality that seems to be increasing across America, is reflecting hard on the diversity of Chicagoans. With a new administration creating — or seizing upon — a divide in our country, it's up to the bold and fearless to use their voices and talents to help unite us, resist the negativity, and prove that all normality hasn't been lost.

What many people don't see or hear about is the strength of people in the city who aren't giving up, who are taking the initiative to help educate and save Chicago. Henri Matisse once said, "Creativity takes courage." This four-part series will highlight just that — unique individuals and organizations who are bravely using art to inspire and to resist.

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Fashion speaks volumes without having a voice. It's a form of art that Mashaun Ali, creator of TRAP House Chicago, uses to turn around a generation of struggle and missed opportunity. He's using his voice to produce art that speaks for his students, and other teens struggling with the hardships thrown their way in Chicago.



TRAP — which stands for Teens Reaching All Potential — was inspired by a group of Mashaun's students, who found themselves in potentially dangerous situations when hanging out in an abandoned two-story building in Englewood on Chicago's South Side. "I knew the guys were only there because they could 'cool it' — (relax), smoke, maybe even make some money," Mashaun says. "I knew I needed a space just as cool, chill, and presented them an opportunity to make money ... legit, legal money," he says. 

Through sales of T-shirts online and at pop-up shops, TRAP provides a safe space and spreads its resistance art, specifically its #CrimeDrought campaign, which ponders the question, "What would your life be like without crime?" The group has made protest fliers, including ones that say "Break the System" and "You would Protest, Too," as a way to drive attention to its initiatives, which call for a reduction in crime. But within that, the group also pushes the message that #CrimePays — but not in the way you might think. Instead, the focus here is on the institutions who profit off incarceration — think everything from lawyers to coroners, to for-profit prisons, the latter of which disproportionately affects young men of color.

"We're protesting and resisting by proactively building relationships. We have a vision of a crime- and violence-free South and West side of Chicago," Mashaun says of the shirts. "We see this reality as a result of community-led actions to address root causes of crime and violence, and not yelling at or pushing back on the 'people with power.' We resist and protest by working to not participate/'play our role' in sustaining the system." 

Mashaun — "a restorative justice practitioner and visual artist" who specializes in providing training and professional development for youth services providers, including K-12 teachers and school administrators, community organizations, and criminal justice systems — explains that he's a "social justice visionary committed to resolving social issues that lead to instances of crime and violence in underserved and disadvantaged communities."

Because of this and his work as a visual artist for his streetwear brand, also known as TRAP House Chicago, Mashaun is determined out to make a positive impact in Chicago. The 2016 Homan Square Artist in Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and recipient of three art grants in 2017 says "The idea for TRAP House Chicago came from a real desire and commitment to make a greater positive impact on the young people I serve and the communities they live in." Photography, art making, storytelling and restorative justice classes are a few of the focuses TRAP House brings to Chicago's youth. 

But there's also TRAP 101, an in-school and community program designed to mentor students on leadership development and violence prevention. "Participants develop skills and relationships to avoid crime and violence while learning to become advocates for themselves, their peers, and their communities," Mashaun says. "In order to participate in any of the other programs TRAP House offers, including trapart and Chicago Shooters, students must first take TRAP 101.

These programs not only give the youth a way to express themselves in a positive way, but they're also a way to learn and practice what they preach to better their city and create opportunities for themselves. What sticks out most is that the profits that they make from their products and art go straight to creating these developmental sessions. It's showing that their art is effective to themselves — as well as others.

"We have created more 'space at the table' by giving voice to young folks and communities who often are unheard and experiences often invalidated. [We] introduce the philosophy and practices of restorative justice to community members [and also engage] people of all ages who often are written off as lost causes. We present 'truths' of the Black experience in a way that highlights and restores Black people's humanity," says Mashaun about the impact of TRAP House.



It's easy for youth in Chicago to get involved in the trouble lying around the streets. It's also easy for them to point fingers and blame others for the issues that have been negatively affecting their city. When they're educated by Mashaun and are able to create at TRAP House, they learn more about the complexities of what's really going on and how they can begin to help restore justice in Chicago. "Our participants usually have one foot in school and one foot either in the juvenile detention center, Cook County jail, or the grave"

He adds, "We are protesting and resisting a punitive system. And every narrative that contributes and sustains the mindset and understanding that permits this approach. We protest by creating work that inspires self-love and our neighbors. When we say 'Crime Pays,' our goal is to validate the current understanding that exists, which is that criminal activity is how I will make it out of immediate suffering, but use that validation as a tool to educate and say, 'Crime Pays police, lawyers, judges, probation officers, and so many other people and households' bills, groceries, vacations, etc.' [We're] using that tee and campaign to make visible the system that needs criminals to sustain itself."

Keep up with TRAP House Chicago on Facebook and Instagram.

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This is part 3 of a four-part series — check out other articles in the links below:

Part 1: Spoken word artist Goddess Warrior

Part 2: Mixed-media artist-activist Monica Trinidad

Part 4: Functional ceramics artist Susan Messer-McBride

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