Billy Upski Wimsatt’s first book, 1994’s Bomb the Suburbs, beseeched the angry urban population to “change its strategy,” for everyone to turn their wrath and spraypaint cans away from each other—and at the cul-de-sacs and little boxes made of ticky-tacky. “If we have frustrations, we should direct them at people who don’t have any frustrations of their own,” he wrote. “The suburbs are bad for America.” (Tupac Shakur said it was the best book he read in prison.)
Billy Upski Wimsatt uses his graffiti tag as his middle name, to remember the years he spent “redecorating Chicago.” He speaks at Random Row Books on October 21 at 5:30pm, followed by a 7:30pm reading and reception.
But when Wimsatt comes to town on Thursday, October 21, for a string of events that include a public workshop at Random Row Books, don’t expect some invective-laced tirade. His new book, Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs, shows how the world and Wimsatt have both changed in the past 16 years. “A funny thing happened,” he says. “I grew up.” Meanwhile, gentrification has pushed poorer populations from urban centers, changing the make-up of the suburbs.
It’s always been the case that art brings people together; Wimsatt’s notion is that bringing people together can be an art. “There’s a glut of talented artists who are never going to make a living and are struggling to get themselves heard,” he says. “My mission is to get 1 percent of them to turn their talent toward new artistic and literary mediums like the art of making a voter guide, the art of running the country, the art of doing real estate in a way that doesn’t hurt people.” He has also said that philanthropy will be the greatest art form of the 21st century—the message that inspired Greg Kelly, who organized Wimsatt’s visit, to found The Bridge/PAI.
It’s a major about-face for a guy who spent his earlier years advocating change outside the system: He advocates homeschooling, for example, in his book No More Prisons. Wimsatt’s first foray into art and activism was as a graffiti artist in Chicago. “Graffiti was a bridge across race and class,” he said. Arrests followed, and his interests wandered toward music and culture, he wondered why anyone would waste time voting for change. “I thought that politicians are all corrupt and my vote just won’t make a difference,” he says.
But Wimsatt ultimately found motivation when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in Florida, in 2000, by just over 500 votes. “Because of that, I thought, ‘I could have stopped the Iraq War,’” says Wimsatt. So he founded the League of Pissed Off Voters, and has since spent his time as a self-described “Where’s Waldo” character in art and activist circles nationwide. He now runs 12-week voter engagement programs called All Hands on Deck in key battleground states.
Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs includes a shout out to one of his favorite local artists: Tom Perriello. “I met him at a party when he was thinking about running, and he was just this really cool guy who had done some really good work. He said, ‘I’m thinking of running for Congress.’” And, sure enough, in 2008 Perriello unseated longtime Republican incumbent Virgil Goode.
“Over the coming decades, we need tens of thousands of people to do what Tom Perriello did: to run for school board, and get into positions of influence and to actually transform our country.”
Perriello enters the ring with Robert Hurt to defend the Fifth District championship belt on November 2.