Northwest Side Hero: Tony Passero


The latest from our Northwest Side Hero Project--highlighting stories about local heroes, as nominated by their neighbors, doing great things on the Northwest Side of Chicago.

Tony Passero was CEO of his own advertising firm, the ‘idea guy’ behind many successful ad campaigns, and making a 6-figure salary. He worked long hours and had little work/life balance. In 2012, he decided to walk away. Tony left it all behind, trading in digital art for a simple sketchbook, and now has been nominated as a neighborhood hero for his public art.


“I started questioning my legacy. What will I be remembered for—a car commercial? A website?”


Tony’s legacy now includes several large-scale public art murals throughout the city, and in particular the Northwest side where he and his family live. Most recently he painted “Swan Song,” elaborate illustrations on a working outdoor piano that will remain along Milwaukee Avenue near the Six-Corners Intersection for anyone to admire and play.  


Turning to art got him out of his head and the stress of many years of working corporate hours just fell away.


“I view my murals as gifts to the neighborhood and to my city.”


Tony wants to give back to the city that shaped him through the years. He remembers walking under the very same crumbling viaducts that his murals now adorn.


RamZelle Mural

“Being able to transform that into art is pretty powerful.”


Tony grew up in Avondale and has called Independence Park home for the past 16 years. He thinks there is something very unique about the Northwest side.


“The people are real. We have one of the last communities where you see ‘porch culture.’ Neighbors who say hi to each other, who look out for one another, and shovel each other’s walkways.”


Tony’s contributions to this area have been plenty, but he admits he does not work alone. In the last 4 years, he has enjoyed working with other like-minded artists such as Cyd Smillie and Jerry Rogowski as a part of Arts Alive Chicago. Together they have brought at least 30 different murals and installations to the Northwest side.


When Tony first started painting, he realized he had a lot to learn.


“My first mural, I think I made every mistake in the book. Cyd was very fostering and sharing with her talent. Jerry is a formally trained artist who paints houses. He is a very creative guy. We have all become huge advocates for one another.”


In addition to his professional relationships, he credits his parents for a strong upbringing and his ‘better half’ wife Shannon for allowing him to follow his dream.


“I feel incredibly blessed.”


He has channeled those blessings to help many local organizations. Tony is an active board member of Arts Alive Chicago, and is helping with an emerging group called the Public Art Trust to oversee the preservation and restoration of public art all over Chicago. Here on the Northwest Side, he has worked with the 45th Ward’s Art Advisory Committee, the Independence Park Advisory Council, Old Irving Park Association, Greater Independence Park Advisory Committee, the Avondale Neighborhood Association, the Athletic Field Park Advisory Council, and the Northwest Arts Connection.


At any given time, Tony has his hands in 4 or 5 different art installations and looks forward to what the future may bring. Public art can take up to a year to plan out with paperwork and permissions a plenty.


“There are a fair amount of political hoops you have to jump through.”


But the effort is worth it. The recognition that a public art installation brings has brought him exposure, but that’s not why he does it.


“I hope my art speaks to people.”


His work has also brought many unexpected benefits.


‘I’m more plugged into my kids’ lives, my relationships are stronger, I have serenity and a sense of purpose.”


Tony urges people to follow suit and get involved in their community.


“When you see something that interests you, get involved. It could be gardening, starting a business, making the schools better. Just show up. It can be contagious.”


Nora Kerr is the owner of Memoir for Me, specializing in preserving the stories that matter.

© 2020 Memoir for Me

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