Once A New Chicagoan, Evan Brown Makes His Mark

 Photos by  Julien Carr

Photos by Julien Carr

Evan Brown leans against a drainpipe on Milwaukee Avenue, engaged in conversation outside of the two-day pop-up shop launching his new streetwear line, Actually On Dirt. Standing in front of a black wall emblazoned with his now-recognizable cigarette-smoking-skull logo, and half aware that somebody’s recording him, he turns towards the camera and waves, a friendly smile of accomplishment stretched across his face. When the scene makes it to a friend’s Instagram story, the bold white text splashed overtop reads “He was once a new Chicagoan….”

Very little could sum up Evan’s ascent in this city’s creative community in just a few short years better than this one disposable clip.

Evan grew up in Springfield, Illinois – the state’s political center, but a far cry from a cultural hotbed. “There’s no scene” he puts it simply. He wasn’t much of a student, and in school opted for basketball over art – which he disliked outright, intimidated by not being able to draw well.

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"He’s great with people, his personality and intellect make him at home in any environment. I know it has contributed to his success here in Chicago and in the creative community."

—Chris Lindsey

A post-grad move to Champaign to live with friends was his first taste of being surrounded by like minded, creative people – collaborating on a blog called Urbana Poppin’ Champaign. The UPC team conducted interviews, and promoted shows for acts like Big Sean and Mac Miller; and Evan formed connections that would carry over when he eventually made the jump to Chicago.

Around the same time, Evan began forming a creative identity for himself through photography. When his photos on Instagram caught the attention of a family friend, he borrowed a camera to shoot for her – $20 to photograph her floral arrangements, but still a paid gig. It was a watershed moment for Evan, “I realized, oh shit – I can actually do this. I can get paid for this?” His life’s been a bit of a whirlwind since.

Evan moved back in with his parents in 2014 so that he could afford to focus his efforts on photography, and quickly started picking up gigs shooting anything he could from bar mitzvahs, to weddings, baby pictures, senior pictures, as well as the political activity in Springfield.

His break into Chicago came not long after, shooting photos at a now-defunct Boystown club called Chloe’s. While there, he connected with a bartender over mutual love for Toro Y Moi. The bartender was Chris Lindsey, Evan’s eventual partner at the Chicago-based media and technology company Ear2Ground. Chris offered Evan the chance to shoot photos for some house-centric parties he was throwing at Lacuna Lofts, and after a few months of the Springfield-to-Chicago shuffle, Evan made the jump to Chicago permanent, joining Ear2Ground as Director of Media Production.

Ear2Ground was originally imagined as a DJ management company, but the scope quickly grew to what it is today, what Chris describes as “part direct-to-fan tech platform for artists and part content studio.” Their tech platform connects artists with their fans, engaging, transacting and rewarding them through one integrated suite of tools. He adds, speaking largely of Evan now, “as a content studio, we document the local creative class.”

Until the launch of Actually On Dirt, that’s primarily what Evan was known for. Snappy video work and his brand of lo-fi-ish photography, offering a first-hand visual account of the Chicago creative community – for Ear2Ground, but also for freelance clients, and for himself.

Evan’s style feels insider and of the moment, a peek behind the curtains to works in progress - seminal moments in Chicago music he’s been granted access to simply by making quick friends with some of the scene’s biggest names. His outgoing nature earned him opportunities quickly, unafraid to introduce himself, or work in person at shows around artists he respected.

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"Evan lets me run wild with art and ideation, and then pulls me back when necessary, it's very nice to have a dynamic with a very good friend and co-owner."

—Sarah Lillz

Chris is quick to praise Evan the collaborator. “He’s great with people, his personality and intellect make him at home in any environment. I know it has contributed to his success here in Chicago and in the creative community.”

Producer Martin $ky was one of Evan’s earliest connections in Chicago’s music scene, meeting by chance in the studio not long after the move. After an introduction, Evan snapped a few photos of Martin, which were shared by both of them on social media, and a collaborative friendship was formed. Catching up with Martin recently, he glowed to me about Evan’s recent string of big wins. “When I met Evan, he was just a guy with a camera that my homie brought to the stu. Now he's making clothes, throwing events, and is one of my best friends.” Not long after, a chance encounter with Pivot Gang’s Dam Dam led to another productive friendship – and a last-minute opportunity to shoot a video with Saba that Evan jumped at.

Through Ear2Ground, his own hard work and growing friendships with Pivot Gang and others, Evan has become one of the most prominent of-the-moment documentarians of the Chicago creative scene. An original talent now with his own brand under the earworm of a moniker, Actually On Dirt. For Evan, the name “Actually On Dirt” marks a break with a former life – the person he was before finding his identity as a creative, and as a Chicagoan. He’s “on dirt” with the version of himself that lacked the tools or the inspiration to create. It’s a simple reminder to keep striving. And the skull logo? Well, that shit just looks cool.

As with seemingly everything Evan does, the logo itself is a collaboration – this time, with New York-based illustrator Sarah Lillz whose work he deeply admires. For Sarah, the project is a chance to grow as an artist, plain and simple. “On Dirt is Evan-Sarah hybrid theory between aesthetics, and culture.” She says. “Evan lets me run wild with art and ideation, and then pulls me back when necessary, it's very nice to have a dynamic with a very good friend and co-owner.”

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Last year, Evan had the idea to throw the skull on a few hoodies and beanies, posting the products to Instagram, where they quickly disappeared. After the initial water-testing run of merch sold out, Evan and Sarah they immediately re-upped for a much larger order. That first true run launched alongside Evan’s first Chicago Exhibition, “Work/Life.” Martin $ky was in the booth providing sounds, and scanning the many recognizable faces present at the event felt a bit like flying down the Actually On Dirt Instagram grid. For many attendees, the price point of the printed work was aspirational, but the merch offered an affordable way to support. It did numbers, inspiring a belief in Evan and Sarah that creating a streetwear line around Actually On Dirt was a real possibility.

For those early orders, Evan had simply dropped the design into an Illustrator file, but going forward things would be different. A brand needed to be built. So he and Sarah went back in the stu, partnering on designs for a complete collection to introduce the label to a larger audience. The result of their efforts was an ambitious first offering, printed up on mostly-black garments that reflect Evan’s laid back “sweats and sneakers everywhere” sensibility.

Over 800 people RSVP’d to the collection’s launch, FDC Studio’s maiden event. Despite still sometimes feeling like an outsider, Evan has referred to himself as a true “connector,” a concept he discovered in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. And it’s easy to believe him, as the weekend saw friends new and old from across the spectrum of Chicago’s various creative worlds meeting and reuniting.

This Summer will see collaborative capsules between Actually On Dirt and artists the duo admires, including Louisiana's Langston Allston. The brand will expand online to new audiences, but they hope to root it to the real-world with events as often as possible.

When pressed for a favorite highlight from the launch, Evan’s mind understandably reels – but eventually it does land on one small moment, which he’s a little bashful to share. Early on in the evening on Friday, Sentrock, a Chicago street art legend who Evan deeply admires but hadn’t yet met, came through to support. When the two unexpectedly ran into each other again later at a Young Chicago Authors event, Sentrock was rocking his On Dirt gear.

That’s kind of just how it goes for Evan lately. Positivity, “connectivity,” and a growing body of work depicting (or on the backs of) the right people.

Evan Brown may not be from here – but Actually On Dirt most definitely is.