Tony “Bright” Davis limps into the Edgewater Public Library on a black cane. It is a dark winter afternoon and the collar of his coat is turned up against his neck. Davis has slowed down considerably since 1977 when he was kicked out of Westinghouse High School for stealing ROTC rifles. His measured pace is dictated by buckshot he took in his younger days as a Chicago pimp and player.
The present-day mixed media artist is now a caregiver to his wife Felicia in their small studio-home down the street from the library. Felicia suffers from multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. Davis’ story has turned into one of humanity, mid-life devotion and atonement. “Felicia is worried about me and I’m telling her I can’t be stopped,” he says of his partner of ten years. “When I’m in nice spaces like this [the library], I think of a lot of ideas. I wish our house was roomy like this.”
Is there room for redemption?
After a long conversation, Davis reaches for his black fedora. A tiny silver pin depicting a skull sparkles in the warm light. “That’s a warning I might be poison,” he says with a sly smile. “You might want to leave this guy alone.” Davis puts on his coat and hat and negotiates the library stairs with his cane. He doesn’t look dangerous. Davis slowly walks home against the wind under the Edge of Sweetness bakery sign on North Broadway.
He fades into the night he once owned.
Davis, who is fifty-eight, is one of the up-and-coming artists at Project Onward in the Bridgeport Art Center at 1200 West 35th Street. Project Onward is a nonprofit organization for artists with disabilities such as autism and mental illness. Davis’ pseudo-biographical illustrations depict the pimps, hustlers and prostitutes that defined his world nearly forty years ago. Deploying markers, ink and gel pens he uses bright colors, thus his nickname, and his detail goes as deep as street-life pistols, fine wine, Dobermans and outlandish wigs.
Davis has cultivated an underground following in Chicago as well as in Europe. Pierre Muylle was director of MADmusée, an outsider art museum in Belgium when he discovered Davis’ work at Project Onward in 2014. “I was convinced immediately,” Muylle writes in an email. “The pimps, the cops, they are all part of this ‘American comics-hip-hop’ culture to us. But the way he turns this into great work is impressive. We bought two bigger drawings showing a scene of whores behind bars and a cop looking at them.
“The composition makes it a mix between Snoop Dogg and Rembrandt.”
Project Onward studio manager Robyn Jablonski says, “Tony’s graphic-novel style and openness offers emotional distance and space from judgment, which allows viewers who aren’t from his society to think and talk about these topics in less-guarded dialogue.”
D’Ante’ Davis, twenty-four, is one of Tony’s sons.
His father’s life has had many dark moments. On November 24, 2009, D’Ante’ survived a minivan accident that killed his mother Ruby Alexander and his brother Davanta Alexander, who was six years old. Ruby and her children were heading from her home in Rochester, Minnesota to Chicago. D’Ante’’s older brother Kelly Waits was driving near the Wisconsin border. He lost control of the mini-van in oncoming traffic. D’Ante’’s sister Taquana was in the passenger seat. Davanta and Ruby were in the back seat with D’Ante’. He sustained only bumps and bruises. “It was my little brother’s birthday and Thanksgiving,” he says. “The dates always went with each other.”
Tony “Bright” Davis was devastated. “He couldn’t even look at the caskets,” his son says. “He sat there with his head in his hands. It changed him. He started focusing more on his art.” D’Ante’’s oldest brother Anthony Davis, Jr. was in military training at the time of the accident. After serving in the military, Anthony Jr. now studies law at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. D’Ante’ says these are the only siblings with whom he’s genetically linked, but father and son agree there are other children with other women.
D’Ante’ often visits his father in Edgewater. He sees beyond the lines. “I sit with him,” says D’Ante’, a South Side resident and former criminal justice student at Benedictine University in Lisle. “We talk about his art. I drew but I wasn’t as good as him. I’d mess up and he’d explain, ‘Art is your world, so there are no mistakes.’ He encouraged us to keep trying. We’d play baseball with a broomstick. He taught me how to ride a bike.
“So I’ve been trying to help him get a computer to teach him the internet, using social media to get his art out. And he’s Felicia’s caregiver. He should get some actual help. I try to work with him and Felicia. His body is not up to par.”
D’Ante’’s fiancée Montaha Diab also visits her future father-in-law. She met Tony nearly five years ago. D’Ante’ and Montaha created a Facebook page for Tony (Anthony Davis Sr.). They mostly manage the page. The last post from June 2017 scolds women for posting naked pictures and jumping into relationships.
Diab is a DCFS family support specialist who works with One Hope United in Chicago. “Tony told me about his past,” she says. “And how his [art] pieces remind him of all those times. There has been a lot of pain and drama. This is my future family. They taught me a lot. It has made my view of how to interact with DCFS children and families a lot broader.
“It has made me want to fight for these kids even more.”
In 2015 D’Ante’ and his father collaborated on a “Dante’s Inferno” drawing depicting hell on earth. The piece was filled with demons and devils. Tony helped his son with color patterns that were etched in his soul. “It showed how drugs and murder link to the devil,” D’Ante’ says. “And that’s why I put the apostrophes in my name.”
Rob Lentz was program director at Project Onward when Tony Davis came to the artist’s collective in 2007. At the time Project Onward was under the visual arts division of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE). “Immediately I thought to myself, ‘This guy can really draw,’” says Lentz, who is also an artist and sculptor. “He had obviously learned to draw and letter from comic books, but he wasn’t copying anything. This was completely original. I’d never seen anything like it. These were pimps and prostitutes cruising through a cartoon ghetto, but he wasn’t making fun of them. There’s a safe nostalgia to his work in terms of the fashion and the styles. There’s a sense of community about it.”
Davis says most of the characters in his illustrations are real people and he makes sure to sneak a self-portrait into ninety percent of his pieces. It is his Disneyesque choice of colors that helps ease his world into a more conventional world. His muse is to frame pimps and prostitutes as bold superheroes taking back the Chicago streets. His heroes of redemption are from what he calls the “Night Army” and “Black Goons.” In one piece, a member of the “Night Army” is rescuing a prostitute underneath a huge yellow angel spreading its white wings.
Muylle says his viewers of Davis’ art do not view it through a #MeToo lens. “We don’t take it literally,” he explains “It’s part of the image we have of America and in this way, it has a specific appeal. I don’t think the European audience is very sensitive to this topic. In the same way the lyrics of rappers are not so shocking.”
Diab is twenty-six. Her father is Lebanese and her mother is Palestinian. She lived in Lebanon between the ages of eight and thirteen and learned to speak and write the Arabic language. Diab has no issues with Tony’s controversial subject matter. “It is amazing,” says Diab, an Orland Park resident, “I had never seen anything like it. I studied art [at Benedictine University]. He looks from a broad dimension. He draws in such detail and puts all the shadows and highlights in his pieces, that must take so much work with the stroke of an ink pen. I paint. It is quicker than drawing it with a pen. There is a human aspect to his work.”
Lentz says, “Some people have a knee-jerk reaction to who Tony was forty years ago, without understanding the conditions that made that way of life a necessity—conditions that still have not changed for most of the South and West Sides—and the terrible toll it has taken on his mind and body since then. The fact that he is alive is a miracle and the fact he has turned this all into art is amazing.”
Davis was born in Chicago and stayed in the Henry Horner Homes on the Near West Side until he was six or seven. His family moved to an apartment near the original Maxwell Street Market. He was raised by his mother Delores Thomas. His father Eddie Davis was convicted of murder when he was in grammar school. “He went away and I didn’t see him again until the seventies,” Davis says. “He did it again and that’s it. The first time was murder, second time was a double murder.” Davis knows his father was incarcerated but he does not know if he is dead or alive. The family says Tony has a brother, Calvin, who ministers on the South Side. The family does not keep in regular contact with Calvin and several efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.
Davis gave up street life in 1986 and began dabbling in drawing in 1989. “A girlfriend was trying to write a note,” Tony says. “She had a couple markers. I said, ‘Pam, can I use some of these markers?’ I started sketching and ended up drawing a guy in a suit with a bright red valet vest.” In the summer of 2005, Davis was selling his art on downtown Chicago streets when a customer tagged him with the nickname “Bright” because of his choice of colors. “I had to have something [the colors] to take the edge off of everything,” he says. His earliest drawings had his characters talking with lines like, “…I’m gonna set out some candyland pop a coupla corks (sic)! We can kick start this party back into gear from yesterday!”
Davis once told Project Onward, “I started drawing in Sunday School when the teacher drew a clown on a paper plate. He could hardly tell which one he drew and which one I drew. I used to sketch portraits in Grant Park for a few bucks, but I stopped drawing for a long time. When I started back I realized it was a fun, easy way to make ends meet.”
Between 1994 and 2007, D’Ante’ lived with his father and an aunt in the ABLA [Jane Addams, Robert Brooks, Loomis Courts and Grace Abbott] Homes, the since-razed public housing development on the near West Side. Myths and stories often had to be built in order to survive.
ABLA had a higher capacity than the Cabrini-Green projects and was a focal point for the Black Gangster Disciples. Much of the 2001 Keanu Reeves film “Hardball” was filmed at the ABLA Homes.
“We deflected from ourselves,” D’Ante’ says. “We got used to being looked at ‘bad,’ so a lot of black people lived outside our means. We got used to lying to everyone else because we didn’t want to be seen as who we were. It eventually becomes real in our own minds. But ignorance is a good thing. That’s how you learn, to acknowledge what you didn’t know at first. Being around him [Tony], I started realizing who I was.
“My dad is obviously not a violent person. But being told that his dad committed double homicide, people figured he was a gangster, too. Once he said it so long he believed it. But he was always artistic. Even when we were in the projects he kept us drawing on papers. He took cardboard boxes and cut them down to tiny track size and cuffed them. I don’t remember much about the projects, but we had a room where he taped the tracks on the wall around the room. He had a bunch of marbles. I was six. When me and my friends came in we’d race the marbles on the track. I later realized he did that to keep us in the house, away from the gangs. He even drew cartoon shirts for us to wear. He never believed in whupping us. He had a way of teaching us. That’s why, out of all the project kids, his turned out to be better.”
D’Ante’ was a DCFS child. At the age of three months he was removed from Tony and Ruby. They were deep into drugs. Diab says, “D’Ante’ was given to his aunt [who lived in the ABLA projects]. ” Aunt Cynthia Annison died in 2011 when D’Ante’ was a sophomore at Dwight D. Eisenhower High School in Blue Island. Diab says, “That story is what brought me to my job. Some people can be careless with children and DCFS families. I didn’t like that. My future father-in-law was a parent who had to deal with DCFS. DCFS was very negative to him and it hurt. I learned about the different things DCFS never offered to them.
“They were the puzzle pieces that connected what brought us where we are today.”
Randy Vick, a former consulting art therapist at Project Onward, found Davis selling art in late 2005 at the corner of a parking garage across the street from Sears Tower. Vick later introduced Davis to Project Onward. He asked that Davis bring his best work to show the group. Vick is a professor in the department of Art Therapy at the School of the Art Institute. “Stylistically, I loved his work,” Vick says. “They caught my eye. They were superheroes. A couple of them had a companion, there was almost always a dog. I bought one of them. He told me all about them, gave me their names and everything.” Davis recalls, “I told him they were all original characters but they weren’t as vicious as some of my other characters. He liked that.”
Davis became prolific under the guidance of Project Onward. He has now turned out more than sixty drawings. He says he spends three to four days on each piece of work. Last year Davis made a smaller painting of Santa Claus as a pimp on a sleigh merrily shouting, “Ho Ho Ho!” He laughs and says, “’Pimp-A-Claus.’ That’s what we called them. During the day Pimp-A-Claus would walk around the neighborhood giving kids toys.”
Vick says, “You often see once you get some encouragement and support then the work takes off. He went from a pretty rudimentary style to extremely vivid content, but also the composition, which is extraordinary. It is a very involved compositional factor.”
Mark Jackson is one of Chicago’s top collectors of Davis’ work. He owns eleven pieces. He contributed some of his pieces to the recent INTUIT show “Chicago We Own It,” curated by Bill Swislow, a writer and professor at Northwestern University. Jackson met Davis through Vick and Project Onward, where he was studio director. “Without training but with a strong need to tell his story, he brings his world vividly to life,” Jackson says. “I love Chicago stories, especially those told with artistic talent and originality. Stories that I don’t know much about. He has lived a one-of-a-kind life, a life full of wonder and not often seen.”
It is a Chicago story that can only be appreciated with an open mind.
Davis has battled drug addiction and physical challenges from living on the Chicago streets. Lentz attempted to get Davis some health services only to discover the artist had no identification or Social Security number. “It was like he never existed because the life he previously lived was completely off the grid,” Lentz says. “For years we wanted to compile his story and turn it into a graphic novel—he has always loved comic books and in his art he was always turning his friends and associates into superhero-like characters. But all those years of hard living and addiction have taken a toll on his focus.”
In a separate conversation, D’Ante’ concurs, “He was literally off the grid. Those things weren’t necessary for the life he was living in the projects. Even today, if he sends me a few dollars it goes through Felicia’s name. He’s always found a way to survive within his means.”
Project Onward hosted a November 2018 exhibition of Davis’ work. D’Ante’ and other family members came to support their father. Davis’ more overt works were tucked away in a gallery corner. “I’m sure some people object to the subject matter,” Vick says. “Art is very subjective. The history of artists is full of questions about propriety and shock value. It’s a little more unusual in this kind of studio setup where people delve into the provocative. But it happens often. I’ve gone to any number of these places in Europe, where the more overt stuff gets to be accepted.”
During last fall’s INTUIT “Art Against the Flow” symposium Davis’ work was discovered by the Outsider Art Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands. “A show of Tony’s work might be a little easier in Amsterdam,” Vick says. “But people enjoy his work. I don’t know what his sales are like, but they’re not cheap.”
A few years ago I purchased Davis’ twenty-five-by-nineteen-foot “The Snake Pit” for $200 from Project Onward. He made that painting in the summer of 2014. He remembers the actual pit. The painting is full of bright orange, yellow and blues.
“It was a sunken living room,” he says. “It was a corner house at Franklin and Homan. They called the house ‘The Devil’s Lair.’ The pit was just a couple of love seats, couches and a bunch of throw pillows. There were nice cocktail tables and beads for curtains. I wasn’t over sixteen. I’m standing at the front door telling everyone to hurry up. If the situation wasn’t right, we had sayings like ‘Ain’t nothing movin’ but the breeze on the trees.’ I had girls there but I didn’t know what I was doing. Ducking when they say duck, swinging when they swing. I was learning. I was there because of an uncle named Maynard. He was tall and slim. He whistled while he walked. I can’t think of his pimp name because I was so little. So many guys gave him so many names: ‘Tables,’ ‘Loops.’ But if you went to Jew Town [Maxwell Street] and saw six hookers standing there, three or four of them was my uncle’s. This was in the late sixties. “When I was hot in it, it only lasted two or three summers. It fell off. At what they call ‘the zenith,’ I had five girls at one time. All the guys in the ‘hood talked about the pimp game. My main girl—M. D. [Margarita]—she was bad.”
Margarita and Davis were in the same homeroom at Westinghouse. She was outgoing, pretty and a fast talker. The teens got “married” in a faux Valentine’s Day ceremony in the school cafeteria. “Her brothers were into pimping, so she got intrigued,” he says. “She couldn’t be into it with them so she came to me with it. Everything happened across the tracks from Franklin and Homan. There was an abandoned building. If you couldn’t buy it there, it couldn’t be bought.” The building was sandwiched between a pool hall and the Zodiac Lounge, which was once managed by late blues harmonica player Malcolm “Little Mack” Simmons. Their turf extended as far south as 92nd and Stony Island.
Davis rubbed shoulders with the celebrity West Side pimp-impresario Bishop Don Juan. “He knew me as a youngster,” Davis says with a smile. “He’d say, ‘You young bloods all keep it up. We’ll see you at the top. That was his famous saying. I’m not a Don. I wasn’t that kind of material.”
Davis says he comes from a more genteel generation of pimp life. “There was sipping and tripping,” he says. Davis’ generation sipped fine champagne and liked to party. The next generation was more into tripping [drugs] and guns. “Don Juan said to stop tripping and keep sipping,” he says.
By the time he was nineteen years old, Davis’ street pimp life was over.
Davis now brings in money from his artwork and the kindness of some friends. “Felicia is on disability,” he says. “We’re hanging on by a thread. Things took off when I was at Sears Tower. Tourists, everyone was gobbling up my art. I had a successful show there [at Project Onward]. I need to go there more because I have a chance to have a big wall where I can put up my stuff. A lot of people don’t know about my art.” When Davis does go to the Project Onward studio, he takes the El from Edgewater to the Bridgeport neighborhood.
“Tony is very patient,” Diab says. “When we’re sitting there and Felicia is in pain, he is on his toes to her aid. If she’s tired, he will fix up the place for her to sleep. He is on time with all her medications. Even if we take them to the [Project Onward] gallery he makes sure she has sweaters and a jacket. She can’t walk, so her body isn’t building up the heat. He really has a happy spirit.”
Does D’Ante’ worry about his father?
After a long pause, he answers, “My Dad has some mental illness from the way he grew up. He had some drug problems. But he is very intelligent. When I was studying criminal justice and social work in college [at Benedictine University], even though I came from the projects I realized I was smarter than most kids. My other brother [Tony] Junior is very intelligent and he’s in the Marines. The system messed up my dad. He and my uncles grew up at the end of Jim Crow. It was tough. The more I learned about my father the more I educated myself on drugs and what they do to you. My dad is on methadone. He does not want to go back to drugs. He will do whatever it takes to not go back to what he was. He is like a child in mind and body.”
D’Ante’ met his fiancée at Benedictine University. She says, “When I met him he was going through a situation and I helped him out. The first people I contacted were his brother [Anthony] and his father Tony. We got through it and it was mostly through the help of Tony and D’Ante’’s siblings.”
Lentz recalls, “When I met Tony he was gracious, friendly and very humble—not at all what I was expecting from the work I had seen. He was visibly worn down by life on the street, but he retained a few of the trappings of what I learned to be his former life: always a sharp fedora, shiny shoes and fancy shirt.”
Davis was always intrigued by Cadillacs and white gold and platinum rings. He came of age in the era of intoxicating urban movie hits like “Superfly,” “Coffy” and “Shaft.” “All my uncles and my father wore these big fedoras; straw, beaver, alligator, snakeskin,” he says. “That’s all I saw. We used to stuff newspapers in velvet caps with big brims to make them look like a big crown. They were dressed so sharp and nice. I thought that was the top of the game. Some of them twirled chains. They’d just twirl them all day, twirl them, twirl them…,” and he looks at his aluminum cane propped against a soft library chair. Davis leans forward and dozes off. Time plays strange tricks.