Wesley Willis

1963 - 2003

  • THE DAN RYAN EXPRESSWAY 33RD ST. (night view), 1986, pen on paper, 74 x 102 cm
  • THE CHICAGO CITYSCAPES, 1984, mixed media on cardboard, 56 x 69 cm
  • BROOKLYN, NEW YORK CITY SKYLINE, 1982, mixed media on cardboard, 74 x 118 cm
  • CHICAGO RIVER, 1991, mixed media on paper, 736 x 107 cm
  • THE DAN RYAN EXPRESSWAY (Rock Island Rail Action), 1985, mixed media on paper, 74 x 102 cm
  • Untitled (Trucks and trailers), 1982-83, pen on paper, 23 x 33 cm
  • Untitled (Truck), 1982-83, pen on paper, 15 x 23 cm
  • Untitled (Trucks and Trailers), ca.1982, pen on paper, 36 x 21 cm

Wesley Willis (*1963 - 2003) was an American singer - songwriter and artist from Chicago, who was well known in the underground for his simple but unique music. He wrote humorous, bizarre, and frequently obscene texts and won a large fan community in the 1990s. Aside from his musical solo work, he was also the front man of the punk rock band Wesley Willis Fiasco.

Wesley Willis sketched hundreds of unusual, complicated, colored ballpoint drawings on paper, most of them showing Chicago street scenes. He sold them in the streets or gave them away to his friends. Later, they appeared on many of his record covers. Chicago, the birthplace of the skyscraper, dominated Willis’s drawings with its impressive skyline as a motif. Almost obsessively, he explored the Dan Ryan Expressway, the congested freeway with its cars and trucks, which connects Chicago’s South Side with the city’s downtown. In Wesley’s work it represents a metaphor for his wish to bridge the two worlds.

After leaving the Wesley Willis Fiasco, Willis’s popularity increased significantly. In 1995, he signed a contract as a solo musician with American Recordings and released two albums. He toured and could be seen frequently on MTV. As a solo artist Willis recorded more than 50 albums with over 20 tracks each. His songs explore themes of daily life such as fast food, bus lines and cultural trends, but also crime and violent confrontations with super heroes. In 2003, the filmmaker Daniel Bitton released a documentary film about Wesley Willis entitled The Daddy of Rock 'N' Roll. The documentary shows Willis ‘talking to himself’ and to others, taking the bus, writing a song on a public computer and visiting his friends.

At age of 28, in 1989, Willis began to hear voices, which he described as "demons." Eventually, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. According to him, music helped to fight these voices in his head. This theme was picked-up by Die Goldenen Zitronen, with whom Willis toured the United States, in the song “Of Wesley Willis’s Demons.” (Album: Lenin, 2006).

Wesley Willis died on August 21, 2003 at age 40 in Skokie, Illinois, from complications resulting from chronic myeloid leukemia.