First published: Fall 2023

Hidden in plain sight on the shore of Chicago’s Lake Michigan is a vast collection of carvings made over the last century by a horde of anonymous creators


It’s not part of the renowned Art Institute of Chicago, nor linked to the many “official” statues around Lake Michigan. This collection of treasures is anonymous, virtually unknown, and entirely unexpected in scale – a spontaneous flowering of artistic creativity in thousands of rock carvings stretching for miles on the large quarried blocks separating Chicago’s parkland from the lake edge.


Untitled (Abraham Lincoln), overlooking Foster Avenue Beach
all carvings shown: anonymous, n.d., unless otherwise stated, photos: William Swislow and Aron Packer


Created over the last hundred years, the carvings are a modern, urban version of petroglyphs found in places like the American Southwest or Hawaii. They have been walked across, sat upon, graffitied over, damaged by the erection of signs and other man-made structures, and beaten by the elements. Some have been lost entirely to natural erosion or, more recently, buried or hauled away in the name of shoreline improvement. All the while, most people have not even registered their existence.


Untitled (Mermaid), carved by Roman Villareal and friends, originally at 39th Street, now at Oakwood Beach


The carvings constitute a kind of social history of Chicago at play, an unplanned monument to the city’s people and their lives at the lake. From the southern end of the city near 100th Street up 22 miles to Hollywood Avenue on the north, you can look down and see countless spots where someone has put their name, memorialised a summer day, or declared their love in the outline of a heart. These people did it to no particular effect other than leaving a mark, albeit with a little bit of meaning attached even when encountered decades later.


Untitled (Seahorse), at Montrose Harbor


While many of the carvings are nothing more than names or initials casually scratched into the stone, perhaps with a pocket knife or a key, others are carefully rendered in elaborate typography. All together, they make a statement, a large-scale legacy from an unknown horde of creators: “Forget me not. I was here once,” they all say. Also carved into the rocks are fully realised images that range in size from a few inches to several feet and include portraits of presidents, bathing beauties, architectural renderings, cryptic abstractions, political commentary, skulls and crossbones, and a whole menagerie of animals, from birds and fish to lions and sphinxes. Exposed to the elements, some are faded and hard to decipher, and they all show some signs of weathering.



This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #116.

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