Be on the lookout for one of Jim Bachor’s mosaics in a pothole near you!
Drawn to the permanence of mosaics during a chance trip to Europe, Jim Bachor set out to learn the ancient art form. Using the same materials, tools, and methods of craftspeople working two millennia ago, the Chicago artist now creates mosaic renderings of modern icons, from junk food to music stars, and uses them to patch potholes in cities around the world. In a phone interview from his home studio, Bachor shared the story of his extraordinary street art project that’s drawing the curiosity and devotion of fans around the world.
What inspired you to create mosaics?
In the late 1990s, a buddy of mine relocated to Paris and said, “You have to come out.” So I went, reluctantly. My career was in the ad biz, and I always had an active imagination, which is required for that work. But going to Paris, London, and Rome and seeing these ruins and things you just can’t see in the States—such as an ancient senator’s name carved underneath a stadium seat—lit my imagination on fire and changed the course of my life.
I became an ancient history dork, which turned me on to mosaics. The idea that you could produce something that could look the way you intended thousands of years later blew me away and drives my work to this day.
I later went back to Italy to learn how to do this ancient technique in a town called Ravenna, in northern Italy. I did my mosaics as a hobby on the side after work at night for 13 to 14 years before I did my first pothole art. There was a stubborn pothole in front of our house that refused to stay fixed, so I combined this passion for this durable, beautiful art form with this unsolvable problem. Now I do mosaics full-time. I’ve never worked more hours for less money. I’m constantly on, but I love it.
Your journey is so inspiring! What’s the most challenging part of making mosaics?
As with all art forms, you’re always confined by your materials. The glass I use comes from Italy and is really expensive. What’s challenging about my craft—and the reason I like it—is that it’s really difficult to do mosaics well, because you’re constantly challenged by the materials on hand and sometimes by budget. I might have to render an orange, and I have certain colors, so I have to figure out how to make that work. There are ways to get almost any color you want, but that gets really expensive really fast. So there are always constraints with mosaics. You can only cut the pieces down so small, and there’s only so much time to do them.
There’s an interesting parallel between mosaics and high-definition screens. I call the pieces ancient pixels. You can do a rendering and use big pieces, and it’ll look a certain way, and you can do it quickly, and that means you can sell it inexpensively because it didn’t take too much time. So it’s like a low-res screen. But you could also do that same rendering with much finer pieces and it’ll look much prettier, but it’ll take that much more time, which means you have to charge more, just like a higher-definition screen. So the biggest challenge is the constraints the art form presents to itself.
With my pothole mosaics, the most challenging part is finding good potholes. People want me to come to their cities, but I have to be cautious about where I put them, because there’s time and money involved, and I want them to have the best chance of lasting a long time. The ideal pothole is perfectly formed and on a decent road that won’t be repaved soon. The asphalt has to be stable enough so that the art won’t pop out, and it can’t be in the center of a street. I have a lot of Instagram followers, and I’ll occasionally put out a call for pothole scouts in a particular area of a city. If I use somebody’s suggestion, I’ll send them a pothole patch.
It’s cool that fans can get involved! What’s the most rewarding part of your craft?
The best part of making art, in my opinion, is approval from strangers. When your family or friends like a piece, it’s nice and all, but you never really know if they’re just saying that because you know them. But when a stranger approves, they have no skin in the game, so that makes my day. The pothole thing has taken off in a big way, and there’s tremendous satisfaction in people knowing what you do, liking what you do, and being curious about what’s gonna happen next.
Most of my pothole mosaics are documented on a map on my website, but people like to just come across them. Someone referred to finding one as being like seeing an image of Jesus on a piece of toast.
It would be exciting to run across one! What advice do you have for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
You’ve gotta be really careful. There’s an element of danger there because you shouldn’t be in the street. So you have to protect yourself. I use traffic cones, orange vests, and I try not to do pothole mosaics in areas that are really busy, because I like being intact.
The other thing is you really have to be into it. A lot of people have asked me how I do it, and I’m not secretive about it, but once they realize how much work is involved, they don’t pursue it. I have yet to see a photo of somebody’s finished product, because when they see how much work it is, they must think, “This guy is nuts. It takes too much time.”
But the main thing is to be really careful out there because you shouldn’t be out there. You don’t really ask people’s opinion or permission. If I’d asked the city early on, they never would’ve approved.
Have you ever gotten an acknowledgment from the city?
The Chicago Tribune did an article on me about four years ago. The writer contacted the city for a response, and the response was that they appreciated the spirit of the campaign but that I should leave the work to the professional pothole fillers.
When I was in New York this past summer, I had an interview with the New York Post and told them where they all were, the specific locations. The writer innocently contacted the Department of Transportation for a response, and they said, “We don’t like ’em, they’re a distraction, and we’re taking them out.” They took them out within a week. That was quite a rebuke. I’ve been in a lot of cities, and I’ve never had that kind of response. It kinda blew me away, but I don’t have a leg to stand on. Yeah, it was a lot of money, Kickstarter-funded, but I wasn’t supposed to be out there.
It’s so compelling that you do it all for the love of it! Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
I started doing street mosaics really as a subtle PR campaign for my fine art works that you can hang on the wall, but street mosaics have kind of taken over. I just finished my first fine art piece in about nine months [above], and these works are available on my site.