Felipe Funderburg grew up on the West Side of Chicago where he vividly remembers painting and drawing at his mother’s kitchen table. His sisters and other family members marveled at his art. Despite this gift, Felipe stopped drawing as he got older because he never considered art a career path, mostly due to the fact that he didn’t know any artists from his neighborhood who looked like him. “I had no jumping off point, no one to look up to, and my art eventually fell to the wayside. Once I was out of school as a teenager, I started to feel really out of place,” said Felipe.
Unsure of what to do, Felipe experienced an especially difficult time in his life, hanging with the wrong crowd, battling homelessness, having several cars repossessed, and building an unfortunate credit history. He knew things had to change. Felipe’s mother encouraged him to become a tattoo artist as it would be an excellent source of income and also a way to engage his artistic gift.
Felipe was instantly intrigued but learned that this profession was not very accessible. He visited local tattoo parlors to learn more on how to get started. Every parlor told Felipe that he needed $10,000 to purchase his own equipment kit. This was money he did not have. He offered to sweep, pick up food, anything to gain experience in the tattoo industry. Finally, he visited a store in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood where a woman was impressed by his art and offered to teach him. With help from his cousin, Felipe was able to purchase his own equipment kit and get started.
The next three years Felipe spent training to be a tattoo artist. He recalled, “there was a book that came with the equipment kit, Tattooing A to Z, I essentially taught myself the first year through that book.” After the first year, he was eager to tattoo anyone that let him. He practiced on family members and after a few months, started charging for his work. He began tattooing at barbershops, a basement of a furniture store, and his apartment. Business was going so well that in 2007, Felipe decided it was time to open his own shop.
The business, Tat2k, located on Chicago’s West Side in West Garfield Park, became not only a tattoo parlor, but a place where Felipe could apprentice other emerging artists around the city. “Anyone that walked in my door, I wanted to help, because I never had those opportunities.” Over the course of nine years, Felipe hosted more than 15 different artists in the studio space, and apprenticed five artists. Felipe boasted, “All the guys I taught are still tattooing to this day.”
Despite the small following Felipe created over the years, he recognized the trouble of owning a business in such a rough part of Chicago. Artists were afraid to come to the studio, and at the time, the neighborhood was not conducive to economic growth. Felipe knew that eventually he needed to make a change. He started painting again as a hobby at the Oak Park Art League. “I was keeping my sword sharp! Painting is really different from tattooing, and I recognized how much I was enjoying rebuilding this skill. The West Garfield neighborhood was becoming really taxing, I was burnt out from tattooing, and eventually, all things come to an end.” So in 2016, Felipe closed his doors in West Garfield and looked for a new space.
Originally, Felipe had his heart set on Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, given the emerging artist scene. He fell in love with a specific space but the funding he had planned on quickly fell through. Felipe recalls driving home, feeling heartbroken, when he saw a “For Rent” sign on a building in the Near West Side community, at Madison and Western. “I looked inside and saw the walls were painted yellow and cranberry and the ceilings were high. It was beautiful.” He immediately called and learned that the owners were looking for a renter. It was meant to be.
A New Beginning
In early 2016, Felipe opened Legendary Art Gallery, an event space and artist studio, which hosts paint parties, mixed socials, poetry readings, birthday parties, art nights for the community, and showcases local artists as well as different topics such as Black History Month and cancer awareness. He still tattoos on the side.
When asked about the name of his art gallery, Felipe explained that the gallery is a call to everyone, regardless of what you do, to become the best version of themselves. Felipe said he often hears people say “I wish I could create,” or “I wish I could paint,” but he believes everyone has a gift that makes them special. “Be the Michael Jordan of your passion, be the best version of whatever gift you’ve been given,” he advised. Felipe envisions Legendary Art Gallery not only for those that have a love or appreciation of art but also as an open space that anybody can use.
In 2018, Felipe learned about Accion through the Entrepreneurs of Color Fund. He went into his local Fifth Third branch, and met with Lionel Gomez. Felipe was looking for working capital to maintain his gallery space and while Fifth Third was unable to provide assistance, Lionel referred him to Accion, where he met with Community Lender Tierra Bradford. “Tierra was really interested in helping me out, even with my damaged credit,” said Felipe, “I definitely want to continue working with her.”
As far as the future? Felipe is determined to purchase the building to be his own. “I am working on my credit now with Tierra and I have started saving for the down payment.” He also has plans to grow his events and offerings in 2019, such as creating an organization for emerging, younger, artists who also draw at their mother’s kitchen table. “I am passionate about this and I love it. I will continue to stay in the fight,” he says.