A Look at the Anonymous Street Artist Penny Pinch

Street lamps, traffic signs, brick walls. Odds are if you’re in one of Chicago’s trendiest neighborhoods, you’ve run into at least one of Penny Pinch’s signature “Pinch” characters.

Though, for someone whose work is so easily identifiable, the man behind the marker prefers to keep the Penny Pinch nom de plume separate from his everyday life. This is nothing new in the world of street art. Artists like Invader, Left Handed Wave and—most notably—Banksy have taken to the streets under a pseudonym. But with the growing landscape of street art making its way into the mainstream consciousness, more and more artists are coming out from the shadows and using their real names—something Penny Pinch never fully understood.

“Technically what we do is illegal.” Penny Pinch says. “When street artists do show their faces, I’m just always confused.”

If you were to walk past the artist on the street, you wouldn’t even bat an eye. Penny Pinch appears to be just like any other young, casual Chicago resident. He prefers not to flaunt his artwork. Instead, he lets his art do the talking for him—literally. Many of Penny Pinch’s pieces include short quotes ranging from existential questions, to meaningless quotes like ‘Babies Wearing Jordans.’

Although Penny Pinch’s output and style is idiosyncratic, the artist has virtually no background training. Due to his lack of formal training, he wanted something quick and effortless to draw—ultimately leading to his signature “Buffalo Suit” character—depicting a melancholy man in different colored buffalo animal-style suit usually holding a sign. Sure, his work may appear to be easily done, but the mark of a true artist is the drive and dedication they have to their artwork—something Penny Pinch has in spades.

Growing up as an avid skateboarder and musician in a number of bands—many of which he prefers not to name to secure his identity—Penny Pinch acquired a certain do-it-yourself attitude to his work—where money comes secondary, one of the reasons he chose the name Penny Pinch.

“All of the art that I do has been free ever since the beginning,” Penny Pinch says. “All of the paper and paint is stuff that I’ve gotten from trades, the dumpster or friends. I’ve never spent any money on art.”

For most people, money is usually the driving factor in whatever they are doing. Penny Pinch, however, makes his art for the love of the thrill.

“The whole reason I started doing street art was because it was fun and I could do whatever I wanted and it was free,” Penny Pinch says. “No one could tell me what to do, no one could tell me where to go, no one could tell me how many to do.”

Penny Pinch’s subtly snide remarks on money-hungry artists can be found in some of his works around town. In one of his pieces, featuring a blue “Pinch” face, Penny Pinch writes, “Art school taught me how to fit in and sell stuff,” while another—more scathing piece—reads, “How can I exploit those around me to make lots of money?”

Early in his career, Penny Pinch would sell his artwork by trading with other creative individuals around the city. Whenever someone showed interest in one of his pieces—rather than seeking money for his work—Penny Pinch says he would find out what types of creations that had in exchange.

“People would hit me up and be like, ‘I want a painting’ and I’d be like, ‘Cool, well what can you give me? What do you create? How about you write me a poem? How about you bake me cookies?’ They would be like, ‘I’ll give you a few bucks’ and I wouldn’t accept it.” Penny Pinch says.

Penny Pinch says that with his growing fame in the street art scene, he found it harder to interact directly with people interested in his artwork like he used to. This ultimately led him to turn to Logan Square street art and gig poster gallery Galerie F. With the help from owner—and street artist in his own right—Billy Craven, Penny Pinch sells his artwork through the gallery. Although the gallery system has proven to be an easier means of getting his work out to the public for those who want to own an original “Pinch,” the idea of making a monetary profit on his work hasn’t always sat well with the artist.

“I do make money through [the gallery],” Penny Pinch says. “But the intention was never to make money. I always intended to keep [the art] cheap, so I try to keep the pieces as low as I can. I’m not really making tons of money through my art, I’m making a couple bucks a pop which is fine, because I don’t really need money.”

T-Money Delarue—one of Penny Pinch’s most frequent collaborators—has had his work appear with the artist’s pastings all over town. T-Money says he sees a certain sense of Penny Pinch’s own personality that shines throughout his work.

“All art has to reflect some aspect of the artist’s personality, as it is a byproduct of their thought process,” T-Money says. “I find an underlying theme of having fun and being pliable in his art.”

With the more recent influx of collectors and fans aching to pinch off original piece of Penny Pinch of their own, the artist is now finding new ways to showcase his work. Although the money aspect of his artwork may not have always been the artist’s goal, he now has more freedom of supplies to explore more in-depth techniques and styles of his work—recently taking up a spray paint collaboration for a door-front piece with Celoppy Ceconds and ABC Kills.

The way Penny Pinch sees it, it’s best to adapt and learn to overcome limitations that may stand in the way of his creative outlet.

“The money aspect has been something I have to work with.” Penny Pinch says. “I’m always interested in limitation when it comes to art. Limitation is a really interesting concept. If there are no limits—if someone tells me to draw whatever they want—options are endless. What size do you want? What colors do you want? What materials do you want? If there is some limitation, I think it comes out much more interesting.”

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