Home > Chicago, Legal & Copyright, Shellie Lewis' Art, Uncategorized > Artist’s Reflection: Street Art Sales and the Peddling Laws in Chicago

Artist’s Reflection: Street Art Sales and the Peddling Laws in Chicago

Artist’s Reflection: Street Art Sales and the Peddling Laws in Chicago

I started working with Chris Drew on the Art Patch Project through the Uptown MultiCultural Art Center (UMCAC) in September of 2011 until his death from cancer on 5/7/2012.  I was the last artist to work with him, the last person to show up on a regular basis and the only person to create new art in that time span.  We met for four hours on Sundays, except for a brief hospital stay that took Chris out of circulation for two weeks in 2011 and the final weeks leading to his death. The UMCAC / Art Patch Project and related Free Speech Artist’s Movement (SAM) were a collective invention by Chris Drew, a shoe-string enterprise coming out of our own pockets and small cash donations.  I bought sheets at thrift stores, washed them and cut them into patches with a rotary cutter and bought a few jars of Speedball.  Chris really watered down his silkscreen inks; although he preferred  work with really fluid inks, this was also a money saver.  Operating in borrowed space in the crumbling sections of the American Indian Center on Wilson Avenue without running water or plumbing, using the crudest equipment possible, we silkscreened fabric art patches to bring awareness to the lack of street culture in Chicago, including the absence of street artists.  With selling art on the streets being effectively illegal, Chris gave the art patches away for free in protest.  Money could be given in return if people wished to donate.   This kept the activist Art Patch Project effort within the laws of the First Amendment and outside of the definition of commerce.

I began my independent research and peddler’s license application process to try and legally sell art on the streets of Chicago on 5/22/2013 .  Due to poverty, there had not been a funeral for Chris in 2012.  After going to his memorial service held on 4/28/2013, I learned there was no ongoing effort to challenge the current system of laws and make street sales accessible to artists and the people of Chicago.  There were people exchanging contact information about an effort to march to City Hall and protest the barriers to street sales but so far nothing has happened in that regard since April 2013.

To be honest, protesting in and of itself is useless. Without divulging proprietary training on tactics from The Yes Men, one of the first things I was taught is that protesting does not do anything.  Scream all you want, protest your heads off and the larger system and authority figures do not care -and even want you to protest- because protesting is an illusion of power that does not actually change anything. Protesting can be used as a tool, as a step in a series of steps for a plan towards a greater goal; on its own, protesting is useless without a larger plan that includes other tools as an effort to bring actual social or political change.  Real power lies in positions of authority and who can control money.  Real power lies in the laws which govern our towns, counties, cities and nation.

My goal was to get a peddler’s license and to document all aspects of negotiating the Chicago bureaucracy.  My efforts were spent on a slew of phone calls, long distance phone calls, emails, reading websites, calls to Springfield looking for paperwork misdirected by the state, applications to state and city entities, in-person visits to City Hall, and an in-person meeting and follow up email with my Ward Alderman to get both a peddler’s license and learn the rules surrounding the license.  The regulations are neither given in person nor published online by the Business Administration & Consumer Protection department in City Hall.  BACP is the entity that issues peddler licenses.  I made a further visit to City Hall and a third application to gain a permit to sell downtown via the Speech Peddler’s Permit (being the third permit acquired) and a separate trip to the 1st District Central Police Department to inform the police of my permits and intentions on 7/12/2013.  That took two train rides, two bus trips and the entire day.

Actually getting a peddler’s license and acquiring the rules for the license took a total of 49 days of continual effort beginning 5/22/2013 and ending 7/09/2013 resulting in 11 pages of documentation.  Gaining a permit to sell downtown ups the total to 51 days of effort.  I’m a white, college educated person that still found the bureaucracy daunting and time consuming.  In addition to approaching the government system from a position of privilege, I also had access to a civil rights attorney that was willing to meet with me in person and take my calls to answer questions for free.  All of the steps I had to go through to apply for a simple business license and learn its regulations, the amount of time it took to accomplish this task -a month and a half of persistent inquiries and action- is appalling.

Here are my findings from my effort at social and legal change from working within the legal system:

1. The Chicago Municipal Code including the Peddlers Licence laws and restrictions are not hosted on any Chicago website.  The Chicago Municipal Code is externally published through the American Legal Publishing Corporation at:


Peddling and street performers are covered under Chapter 4-244 of the Municipal Code of Chicago:


I archived the laws as they were in effect in 2013 here.


2.  The eight pages of banned areas rules out all lucrative areas for peddling, including all of downtown, which makes the peddling license useless for myself and others since this is the prime location sell items to people visiting for local attractions, tourism and recreation.  The entire 47th Ward, the entire 50th Ward, all of downtown, the whole Magnificent Mile shopping district, all sports arena neighborhoods, all city sponsored events, Millennium Park and more are banned areas.  I was able to find a legal loophole and applied for and received a Political Speech Permit that allowed for sales of items and this permit allowed me to sell from one single location downtown.  I was strictly allowed to only be on the northwest corner of Washington Street at the intersection of Washington Street and Michigan Avenue for access to downtown via this particular, location specific Political Speech Permit.

The days I was downtown, I watched hoards of people streaming across Michigan Avenue to go see “The Bean” – the Cloudgate sculpture by Anish Kapoor in Millennium Park.  If I could have crossed the street to the other side of Michigan Avenue, I would have had quadruple (or more) the number of pedestrians pass in front of me.  As it was, I sat in front of the Chicago Cultural Center separated by law from the dominant flow of foot traffic and watched people, children and adults alike, climb all over the bronze cow statue.

My Alderman Ameya Pawar was going to look into the peddling laws and their origins and get back to me in a month after a face-to-face meeting 7/10/2013 and a follow up email 7/11/2013, but he never contacted me with any response.


3.  The current peddling laws and extreme restrictions set by the laws crush micro-business at its smallest level by making peddling impossible.  I’m a white, college educated person that still found the bureaucracy daunting and time consuming, how much worse would these barriers be for someone who struggles with legal verbiage or is afraid to be discriminated against due to ethnicity?  The $100 fee for the peddler’s license and the fact that there are no exceptions to waive the fee for the poor or indigent makes begging and panhandling the most economically viable legal method to making money on the streets.  The $100 fee for the peddler’s license does cover two years, but how many people living in poverty can come up with $100?

The counts I kept on the street economy (illustrated in the pie chart above) reflect the days I was downtown and covers the path I traveled from the El train to and from my authorized sales location and the time spent there.  I only counted each person once, not duplicating anyone.  People asking for money for activist, social, political or religious causes were not counted as they were representatives of a larger non-profit, activist or parochial entity and were not panhandling in the sense of the definition of asking people for money for their own personal needs.  A 69% majority of street commerce was panhandling but if you count illegal, unlicensed street sales as a form of panhandling that total is 86% of people making unlicensed monetary solicitations versus the 14% of legally licensed street performers such as musicians.  To clarify, panhandling is legal in Chicago.  If I beg for money on State Street or in front of the Art Institute, that is legal.  If I sell you a painting or a t-shirt in the same location, I have broken the law.

The irony of the current system of laws is that it goes against what Americans love to teach children about enterprise.  Many a child is sent out to a sidewalk or street corner in summer to start their first business: a lemonade stand.  The basic lesson of the childhood lemonade stand is that the public is accessed, something is offered for sale and money is earned through the exchange.  The reality is that government has unlimited power to regulate commerce, and commerce is legally defined not as earning money; commerce is defined as any good or tangible item that is exchanged for money.  Commerce on the streets of Chicago is taking place on a daily basis; the majority of the street commerce is extra-legal.  The lemonade stand is an ideal not reflected by the reality of our laws.  People are barred from beginning a micro-business, a legally run small scale sales business, on the most elementary level by being denied economic access to the public.  The high cost of the license and the complexity of the laws, the vast banned areas and the up to $200 penalty fines for making a mistake crush innovation.  The current laws bar people with only a small amount of start up money or very little investment capital from legally engaging in new enterprises because the cost of the peddling license is high, the risks of being punished are high and the benefits of having a legal license are low.

My total intake from fine art sales was $28 over the summer.  Weekdays had no people approach me so I focused on being in place on Saturdays.  All of the homeless people I hired for $5 for 10 -15 minutes of work to watch my merchandise showed up for the paid job except for one.  I was pleased and surprised that the homeless / panhandlers I hired and paid were both grateful and responsible when presented an opportunity to earn money.  Overall, I did not gain financial benefit from my art sales enterprise.  My total costs including the cost of the peddler’s license, hiring the homeless and buying hardware for the display for merchandise left me at -$97.  To be fair, if I were selling soft drinks, ice cream or t-shirts, peddling would have probably been profitable.  The Peddlers License and subsequent Speech Peddler’s Permit are specific to allowed categories of declared retail goods, the second license requires exemplars to be shown as a part of the application process, and neither can be used to sell a flexible range of goods.

Being trapped on one corner with low foot traffic and not being able to move around crippled my efforts to find customers.  Customers had to find me as I was totally restricted in mobility in addition to being restricted in salable wares.  The current peddling laws perfectly sabotage peddling.  The current system guarantees failure.  Enterprise, innovation and the potential for a small business is blocked for the poorest of citizens.

4.  My in-person and online petition garnered less than 100 signatures.  Explained simply to people, I told everyone I wanted the regional bans removed from the Municipal Code of Chicago and the laws be changed so that if a person pays the $100 dollars for a two year peddler’s license, the person peddling should be able to legally operate throughout city limits.  The American public is very complacent; they strongly avoid political complexity, did not want to make an effort to understand the peddling licensing issue and are predominantly too apathetic to care about anything that does not directly involve themselves.  They assume just because something is a law, then it should be a law and changing or removing laws is automatically suspicious.  Encountering this mentality has lead me to feel I have some insight on how travesties like the Jim Crow laws were able to endure for decades.

The Chicago public is so used to homeless people and other people begging downtown, religious preaching and political activists they are utterly hardened to any kind of in-person approach by any stranger.  I went hours where I could not even get one person to look at me.  My longest stretch of time with no human interaction was five hours.  Oddly enough, most children would walk right up to my display to see the paintings closer.  Adults treated me aggressively as if I were a threat, a beggar or doing something illegal.  I always wore my photo ID badge and had my other city permit sticker on display.  I was friendly and courteous.  I brought non-controversial and highly decorative paintings and photography to display.  The majority of people that approached were tourists who used me as an unpaid concierge to get directions to Macy’s, the train they needed, museums and other destinations.

Art Patch by Chris Drew

In conclusion:

How do you change culture?  Mahatma Gandhi taught that in order to change culture, you need to be the change you want to see occur.  In that I was able to infiltrate the Iron Curtain of Chicago’s most powerful core and be the first in decades and the currently only artist to legally sell art downtown, I have succeeded.  In that I was unable to reach out to people and create greater awareness of issues concerning the city’s control of street commerce, create momentum to reform a set of laws and hope for a more egalitarian economic system in the future, I have failed.  One person cannot change culture.  Emails, phone calls and speaking with others failed to garner other participants in this effort even though I reached out to everyone I could think of and as many of Chris Drew’s supporters as I was able to contact.

I feel these issues are an important matter and that I have demonstrated achieving the goal of street art sales can be accomplished.  Making a greater cultural change to bring economic access to the public and street sales to Chicago on a wider scale would take a larger number of people and a longer time commitment.  I feel street vending would benefit Chicago as it does for New York since street vending would provide opportunities for visual artists, street sales of artisan hand crafts, access to public sales would offer singular items uniquely from Chicago residents and overall access to a reformed peddling system would give a legal alternative to panhandling and illegal vending.  People desiring to start a micro-business could learn entrepreneurial skills and have potential for financial improvement.

Shellie Lewis

Chicago 2013


Chronology of Prior Posts:

Why No Artists Vend Work in Public Here in Chicago

Beyond the Impossible

Petition to Remove the Location Restrictions for the Peddler’s License

Street Artist Diary: August 3, 2013

Short link this article: http://bit.ly/14yOyko

  1. March 5, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    At the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship, we’ve advocated that peddling be fully legalized for a long time. We are hard at work to legalize food carts, but we’d be very interested in talking with you about a concerted effort to open Chicago up to sales of art and other goods by microbusinesses. Please reach out to us if you’re interested. clinic@ij.org

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