Muhammad Ali from Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon premieres on WTTW Sunday, September 19 at 7:00 pm and continues nightly at 8:00 pm through Wednesday, September 22. Discover more about Ali and his time in Chicago at wttw.com/ali.
While Rahmaan Statik was signing his newest work in Little Village recently, a man driving by honked in approval and raised his fist, echoing the gesture made by Muhammad Ali in Statik’s mural. “Muhammad Ali is the athlete equivalent of an artist. And he was an artist,” says Statik, equating Ali’s verbal play—“float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”—to early rap.
The mural, at 2847 S. Kedzie Avenue, is in honor of the upcoming PBS documentary on Ali from Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. Statik took on the work as a fan of Ali and what the boxer stood for; like Ali, he also used to be a member of the Nation of Islam. “I respect athletes who use their power for something greater,” he says.
Statik’s respect for sports is revealed in his brand: a reworked version of the Las Vegas Raiders logo, the pirate’s football helmet replaced by Statik’s signature bucket hat, with a spray can and paint roller taking the place of the swords behind his head. “I kind of consider myself the Oakland Raiders of street art,” he says, referencing an earlier iteration of the team. “They’re that old school football team your dad likes, they love to shout at a game, and they come to win. It’s like pirates on a football field. That’s kind of how I approach painting murals.”
“There are similarities between being an athlete and being an artist in a capitalist society,” contends the South Side native. Being a great athlete “is more complicated than just dominating your sports mates. There’s a sportsmanship that comes along with that drive to be a champion that creates a form of integrity. I admire that evolution and dedication.”
Statik has shown a similar drive in his career as a visual artist, having painted some 600 murals, in his estimation. The Ali mural took about 50 hours to complete. “At first [in my career] it was me going all out just to survive, but now it’s more than that; I’ll make my bills and rent," he says. "Now it’s more about a legacy, and the work behind a legacy.”
Statik first started making his mark as a teenager, scratching his name into bus stops or tagging walls—efforts he now laughs about. He considers his first mural to be a work he did of his name in the city skyline on an underpass leading to Promontory Point, where an “entire underground high school hip hop scene” gathered. Eventually he started picking up “little neighborhood commissions” with his friends.
He then went to art school for multimedia web design and oil painting. “I made the decision to go to art school, not study African American history at Tuskegee University,” he recalls. But he retained his love of history, including through the medium of documentary. A particular favorite is Ken Burns’ Jazz. “I was intrigued by the subculture of jazz, and who these individuals were,” he says. “And [Burns] depicted that pretty well.”
Now Statik is depicting his own historical figures and revealing their individualism, whether it’s Harold Washington and Lori Lightfoot or Muhammad Ali.
Statik thinks Ali is the athlete equivalent of an artist—maybe Statik is the artist equivalent of an athlete.