Jeff Zimmermann was teaching Pilsen kids how to make popsicle-stick sculptures when a neighborhood priest asked him to paint Our Lady of Guadalupe on a building at 19th and Ashland.
Back in 1996, Zimmermann was just a graphic design geek helping out at a Pilsen community center. He didn't know the first thing about painting a mural.
"The priest said, 'You're an artist, right?' 'You know how to paint a mural, right?' And I said, 'Yeah,' " Zimmermann says. "But none of it was true."
We can look past his little white lie to Father Charles Daham now because it all worked out in the end.
Zimmermann took a how-to-paint-a-mural class at Columbia College, practiced on tiny canvases and made it happen. Now, his five-story virgin is a local landmark, loved by neighborhood folks.
That's all the encouragement he needed to trade a steady paycheck for a diet of ramen noodles and the chance to spend his days turning blank brick walls into neighborhood art.
"Back then, I figured that maybe I should just try to be an artist," Zimmermann says. "I got some paint and started painting little canvases in my apartment."
He got permission from the owner to use an old warehouse at North and Honore as a giant canvas, and it changed everything.
He's done it all over the city, usually one building at a time.
Ultimately, that painting at North and Honore -- which he says subtlely hinted at the neighborhood's showdown with gentrification -- met a fitting end. The old warehouse was demolished in favor of condos.
His murals often incorporate the essence of a place and familiar neighborhood faces. People like Wicker Park street poet Oba Maja, whose soulful portrait adorns Damen and Lake. Or the dock worker and electrician in Zimmermann's hallway mural at the Apparel Center that I walk past almost every day.
He calls his Pop Art murals "realism with meaning." The crumpled bag of chips that often shows up in his work, for instance, is Zimmermann's "urban tumbleweed" that clutters the corners of certain inner-city hoods.
"I always hope the murals give you something more to think about than just a bowl of fruit would," the 37-year-old from West Town says. "There's always politics in what I do, and hopefully people get some kind of meaning out of it."
Later this summer murals are set to go up at the new Whole Foods in Boystown, the Red Line stop at 87th and the most coveted white-washed walls in the city, the Mural Building just off the Kennedy.
That's where Zimmermann tackles the Chicago Marathon mural, a collection of landmarks that runners can expect to see if they make it on their grueling trek through the city.
Not a bad gig for a guy who fibbed to a priest to get his start.