Enter the alley

JUNE  2024
Written by |
Brian Dema

In the 80’s or 90’s, if you were a punk in Chicago –or just a misunderstood teen- you found yourself at the corner of Clark and Belmont. It was the center of counterculture, surrounded by alternative bars and tattoo parlors.

You danced at Medusa’s, a club that would let you in underage. You spent warm nights loitering in the parking lot of what would become known as the Punkin’ Donuts, surrounded by dozens of other misfits.

The pilot episode of WTTW’s “Wild Chicago” TV series was shot there, with host Ben Hollis wearing a pith helmet interviewing punks on the street. He asked why they were there; one answer he was given was that it was cool, while others talked about getting hassled elsewhere for the way they looked.

A Safe Place for Weirdos, Freaks & Misfits

The real answer varied from person to person. Some people were there for drugs, some were shunned by the mainstream, and some had nowhere better to go.

If you were there at the Punkin’ Donuts, you would have seen an imposing figure wearing a motorcycle vest sitting atop a hearse tricked out with red and orange flames. The enforcer of that rowdy lot –a responsibility given to him unofficially by the local alderman– was Mark Thomas.

Mark kept an eye on the crowd and any bad actors, moving along heroin dealers and white supremacist skinheads, while tolerating pot dealers. But he was no thug. Mark was doing what he always did: giving people a place to express themselves, and building a community of acceptance that grows to this day.

At the heart of that community is The Alley. Topped by huge fiberglass gargoyles above its arched entrance, and with murals of Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin along exterior walls, The Alley’s Clark and Belmont store was hard to miss.

The Alley has been many things. At one time, bongs and roach clips were its main sellers; at another, it rented vinyl records. It has had a cafe, a tattoo parlor and a piercing studio. It is best known as a retailer of alternative clothing.

Famous musicians like the Misfits and Ministry have appeared there, and it has had license agreements with the Rolling Stones and Black Sabbath. Disney once used its gargoyle statues as models for a movie. The Alley logo has graced the covers of multiple books, not to mention the chests of thousands of people who wear its iconic black t-shirts.  

For many, going to Clark and Belmont was going to The Alley.

It’s a foreboding place full of spikes and skulls, with a giant statue of the alien from the 1979 film just inside the door. The Alley is a mecca for punks, goths, alts, metal heads, bikers, stoners, and a lot of people that wouldn’t choose to be called by any of those names.

One clue as to why is the creed that is printed on its door: A Safe Place for Weirdos, Freaks & Misfits.

As Mark Thomas says: “The Alley is for everybody that is not one of them. It’s their heart and soul and their ally.”

One lifelong customer told Mark that he would sneak out of church to come to The Alley in secret, hoping that his parents wouldn’t notice. Today, second and even third generation customers come into the store together, with parents buying kids their first pair of studded boots.

The sign that led customers to The Alley
Jerry Only from the Misfits at The Alley

For many, going to Clark and Belmont was going to The Alley.

The Road to
Clark and Belmont

The Alley hearse parked in the Punkin’ Donuts lot
Artists like Ace Frehley from Kiss know The Alley

When Mark attends concerts for hardcore bands like Skinny Puppy, people know him and snap his photo. His arms are covered in tattoos, and he stands out in leather vests and Alley gear. He wears rings on multiple fingers and chains around his neck, artifacts from years in the jewelry business. “It’s a lifestyle,” says Mark.

But there is more to Mark Thomas than leather. He once ran for alderman of the 44th Ward (losing to Tom Tuney, a political machine). Mark works to promote small business, including helping craft marijuana growers and independent dispensaries. He is also on the Chicago Economic Committee for the Federal Reserve Board. True to form, he still drove a hearse when he first took the role.

The son of a doctor, and a mother who wanted him to be a lawyer, his future might have been mapped out for him. But when Mark was 9 or 10 years old, his parents got divorced and the world changed.

“My parents were so busy fighting that I had to take over,” he says. At 13, he started running the house finances.

Mark worked in retail stores in the Old Town area during highschool. He tried many ventures, including running a small candle factory that he purchased for $1726, though this business failed. He once bought $500 worth of posters of a nude Burt Reynolds and resold them, tripling his money.

A black entrepreneur named John Hall eventually took him under his wing. Hall owned a store on Wells Street called Wildflower, and sold Mark the design for his first Buffalo Nickel roach clip. As Mark puts it, “That is how I went from Culver Military Academy to having to reset my mind.”

For a time, Mark attended the private Latin High School, and was on track to attend Harvard University. But as Mark says, “the tuition never got paid,” and he was forced to leave private school.

Mark used the savings bonds meant for Harvard to purchase casting equipment and a small jewelry business. He opened his own retail store called Moonchild. He also sold to a chain of head shops under what would become a very familiar name: The Alley.

The Alley has been a mecca for punks, goths, alts, metal heads, bikers, stoners, and a lot of people that wouldn’t choose to be called by any of those names.

The Alley was founded by a man named Don Lin in 1974. He had opened 13 stores before Mark became involved two years later.

Don was known for having started the food court concept in malls, though he was arguably a con man. At the time, The Alley was a fantastic failure; Don had lost $1,000,000 in the business. Don also came to owe Mark more than $20,000 after just weeks of selling his goods.

Mark barged into Don’s office to demand payment, scaring out a couple of suits with whom Don had been meeting in the process. At nearly 300 pounds, Mark was a formidable character.

In one great sweep of his arm, Mark crashed everything from Don’s desk to the floor. After threatening to turn over the desk itself, Don relented and paid Mark a part of what he was owed. “You’ve got guts, kid,” Mark remembers Don saying.

Amid the wreckage of his office, Don also asked Mark to become his partner in The Alley.

The Alley catered to stoners, and only the location in Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg ever made any money. Don suspected that his employees were stealing from him but wasn’t close enough to the business to confirm it, so he asked Mark to go undercover.

Mark was young and not known to the other store employees, so he was able to infiltrate their group. Mark quickly learned that a crime ring led by the store manager was indeed stealing merchandise. “This register is for me. That one is for the store,” the manager told Mark.

Multiple store managers across the mall were in on the scam, so Mark worked with the Schaumburg police to run a sting operation that brought down the entire network.

Things quickly began to look up. The Alley became the highest grossing store in Woodfield per square foot. He and Don split $1,000,000 in profit in the first 3 years. “The place was a home run,” says Mark.

Mark bought Don out of the business, and began to run The Alley on his own.

Early days of The Alley at Woodfield Mall
art by Paul Sonju

A Picket Fence with Little Skulls on Top

Early on, while running The Alley, Mark worked at a home healthcare center in Indiana started by his father. His father saw it as a chance to bring Mark back to the straight life. “My dad was trying to get me out of the bong business,” says Mark.

Ironically, it was Mark’s dad that gave him the idea for a cornerstone of The Alley brand: Mark was looking for a cheap van, but his dad told him to buy a used hearse from a mortician for $50.

Mark remembers driving that first hearse up to Door County, Wisconsin. He and his wife Adrian were planning to go antiquing, and had to drop off his sister-in-law at a school in the area.

When they pulled up in that monster of a vehicle, the doors of the school slammed open and the entire student body emptied out front to have a look. The principal thanked Mark for ruining the day. Mark said that the kids learned more than on most days.

When describing this period, Mark says, “It was a nice life, living in a house with a white picket fence. But there were little skulls on top.”

Photo of Mark outside The Alley by Mark Hauser
An ad layout for the Chicago Reader before The Alley went punk

Times weren’t always easy. Before The Alley came to Clark and Belmont, Mark ran a location at Broadway and Surf in the LGBTQ+ community now known as Northalsted. When the AIDS epidemic swept through the world in the early 1980’s, Mark’s clientele was hit hard.

Gross sales dropped 40% in about a year as AIDS devastated Chicago’s LGBTQ+ community.

“When AIDS hit Broadway, we lost a lot of culture,” says Mark.

The government also increasingly began to hassle stores like The Alley for selling marijuana paraphernalia, and he had to close that part of the business.

“At 28, I felt like a failure,” says Mark. “I slept in the factory on a pull-out couch for two years.”

The Alley TImeline

1971 -

Mark opens Moonchild

After working in stores in Old Town, Mark Thomas uses his tuition meant for Harvard to buy a jewelry casting business. He opens his first retail store, Moonchild. It is his junior year of high school.

1974 -

The Alley opens its doors

Founded by Don Lin, creator of the mall food court, The Alley starts as a chain of head shops but loses $1mm in two years. Mark begins to sell roach clips to The Alley.

1976 -

Mark joins The Alley

Mark becomes a partner in the business and exposes a crime ring in Woodfield Mall. The Alley takes off, and Mark buys Don out of the business.

1982 -

The Alley presents Rent-A-Record!

The Alley begins renting vinyl records, but has to stop after just 2 years due to regulatory pressure. Radio stations refuse to play The Alley’s advertising spots. Billboard Magazine publishes an article on The Alley.

1983 -

AIDS epidemic strikes

The Alley store at Broadway and Surf sees a 40% drop in gross sales in one year as AIDS devastates the LGBTQ+ community.

1984 -

Mark buys his first hearse

Mark helps his father manage a home healthcare clinic in Indiana while running The Alley. His father gives him the idea to buy a used hearse from a mortician for $50. 

1984 -

The Alley goes punk

Mark purchases a punk t-shirt business in Ann Arbor called Making Waves, and brings the concept to Chicago. The Alley would go on to sign license agreements with bands like the Ramones. 

1987 -

Clark and Belmont

The Alley follows Medusa’s nightclub to the neighborhood. Before the store moved to its iconic building on Clark, the entrance to its first location was through an actual alley. The government increasingly hassles stores like The Alley for selling marijuana paraphernalia. 

1989 -

The first Hot Topic opens

Mark estimates that there were 900 stores like The Alley in the U.S. before Hot Topic saturated the market. Today, there are only 25-100 independent stores like The Alley left.

1990 -

Wild Chicago visits Punkin’ Donuts

TV host Ben Hollis interviews punks at Clark and Belmont. For years, Mark Thomas was the unofficial enforcer of the Punkin’ Donuts lot, moving along heroin dealers and white supremacists.

1995 -

Wicker Park revolts

The Alley opens a location at North and Milwaukee, years before the area becomes gentrified, but was seen as too capitalistic. Every window in the store was broken the night before it was to open. 

1995 -

Disney calls

Disney models characters for an animated film on gargoyles sold at The Alley.

1996 -

Rob Zombie wears an Alley jacket on MTV

Rob Zombie wears The Alley’s bones jacket on MTV.

2015 -

Punkin’ Donuts closes

The infamous Punkin’ Donuts at Clark and Belmont closes to make way for a new development, including a large Target store that went up right next to The Alley.

2015 -

Mark runs for 44th ward alderman

He loses to incumbent Tom Tuney, but takes 24% of the vote.

2016 -

The Alley holds a funeral

Due to the changing neighborhood and his own health issues, Mark closes The Alley’s iconic location at Clark and Belmont, moving to a smaller storefront nearby. More than 400 people attend The Alley’s “Funeral”.

2020 -

Move to Avondale

After working in stores in Old Town, Mark Thomas uses his tuition meant for Harvard to buy a jewelry casting business. He opens his first retail store, Moonchild. It is his junior year in high school.

2024 -

48 years strong

The Alley holds its 48th annual block party, complete with a contest of 30+ hearses. Mark is 69 years old, and he is looking for a partner for the next evolution of The Alley.

I’m a Punk;
I Didn’t Mean For This To Be a Success

It was music that would save The Alley, but not in the way that Mark predicted.

In 1982, he began renting vinyl records. Thirty years before the streaming audio revolution, Mark had hit on the novel business model of renting music.

“The Alley presents Rent-A-Record!” was the beginning of radio ads that ran at the time on Chicago’s WXRT-FM station. The Alley rented up to 1,000 records per week. Pricing began with an introductory offer of 99 cents a record per 36 hour rental.

Billboard Magazine wrote about the record rental concept in an August 1982 article. The same issue had full-page ads for albums by Joan Jett, Peter Frampton and Santana. 

Outside The Alley with the Punkin' Donuts in the distance
Multiple generations of customers visiting The Alley

But the business was mired in legal issues with recording companies. A bill was rushed through Congress forbidding records rentals, and radio stations refused to play The Alley’s radio spots.

“I had to pull out of the store,” says Mark, “because I didn’t want to fight the government.”

Billboard Magazine published an article in 1984 titled: “GRIEF for Four Alley Stores: Chicago Chain Ends LP Rentals.”

Searching for what was next, Mark found a small business in Ann Arbor, Michigan named Making Waves that sold t-shirts featuring punk bands.

Punk music was still relatively young: The Clash and Sex Pistols had come out in the late 70’s, and debut albums from The Misfits and Dead Kennedy’s dropped in 1982. Max’s Kansas City, a club in New York that was once the hangout of the Warhol crowd, re-opened in 1975 to launch the careers of Blondie and The New York Dolls. Not far away, CBGB’s featured Patti Smith, the Ramones and the Talking Heads.

At Making Waves, business was booming, but the owner wasn’t ready. He told Mark that he was a punk and had never meant for it to be a success.

Mark bought the business and brought the concept to Chicago. The Alley would soon sign license agreements with bands like the Ramones. Mark ran an ad in SPIN Magazine. The Misfits even visited the store in the early 2000’s.

“So I turned The Alley into a punk store,” Mark says. “Later, people asked for metal and other genres, and we became a music brand.”

Into The Alley

Entrance to The Alley’s iconic location at Clark & Belmont
Photo by Sher Dionisio

In 1987, Mark followed Medusa’s nightclub over to the Clark and Belmont neighborhood to open what would become the most famous Alley location.

You entered the first store at Clark and Belmont through an actual alley. Larger than life murals of Frank Zappa, John Lennon and Kurt Cobain watched as you snuck your way off of the main street towards the entrance.

Painted high on a brick wall, a white arrow showed the way to the store. It reassured you that it was OK to be there, even though you might feel like you were breaking the rules just by showing up.

Mark put on concerts in that alley, with hundreds of kids squeezed in to hear local bands.

The store soon moved out to Clark Street in an old theater from the 1910’s. Six-foot high gargoyles guarded each corner of the roof, and an oversized arched doorway welcomed you inside.

Entering The Alley was and is an assault on the senses. Visitors are hit with the smell of leather and incense. For many years, you had to walk past a tattoo parlor and piercing studio on the first floor before you could ever try on clothes.

Narrow aisles with glass cases of pewter figurines, skull rings, and necklaces with coffins line your path. The grim reaper is everywhere, seeming to follow you through the store but indifferent to your own personal suffering.

Motorcycle jackets hang row after row, nearly all designed by The Alley and made of animal hide or vegan leather. The $99 motorcycle jacket was The Alley’s first big seller; Mark has sold over 30,000 of them.

Tartan kilts hang near the jackets. “Kilts have been part of the line for 25 years,” says Mark. “They are a part of our all-inclusive program.” The Alley was once voted the 2nd best gender neutral clothing retailer by the Chicago Reader.

Boots cover the walls, some with platforms so high that you physically have to look up to see the laces. Today, there are brands like Demonia, but in the past, they would have been Dr. Martens in every possible variety.

As Mark warns Alley shoppers: “Be careful. These shoes will be addictive to your personality and hurt your pocketbook.”

Posters don the walls. One is a black and white image of the skeleton from the 1946 movie Crimson Ghost. It’s rumored that this film is the basis for the skull mascot of The Misfits.

Metal studs are everywhere, from tiny ones to 3-inch monsters –everything that a metal head would need to adorn a denim battle jacket in style. Some are physically dangerous; you wouldn’t want to trip inside The Alley.

The widest variety of items are t-shirts, filling both sides of deep shelves at the center of the store. Mark started with just six styles, but today has 150. Nearly every t-shirt is black.

Many shirts feature The Alley logo. Others have illustrated fantasy characters or are about Chicago; Al Capone is a long-running best seller. For a fan of both goth and the Chicago Cubs, it is hard to pass up a shirt that features the skeleton of the little bear.

Mark does the art direction for The Alley, but being so immersed in the brand, he knows to caution himself. “We have a saying at The Alley,” he says, “if we love it, it probably won’t sell. If we hate it, it will blow out the door.”

“I’ve traveled 4 million miles all over the world to figure out how to keep The Alley store on the edge.”

-Mark Thomas

If I Couldn’t Find It, I Made It.

T-shirt designs by The Alley
The Alley has long been known for  boots, including brands like Demonia.
The Alley prints its own designs

As The Alley grew, so did its product line, much of which can be found nowhere else. The Alley is still the only store of its kind within five states.

“If I couldn’t find it, I made it,” says Mark.

Mark runs a factory under his Mobtown wholesale brand for screen printing and jewelry casting. His casting equipment looks a bit like a vat of acid from old cartoons, bubbling with liquid lead-free pewter.

Hundreds of black rubber molds line the walls, each numbered, though many haven’t seen use for years. He has produced 750 different styles of belt buckles alone.

Mark has also manufactured gargoyle statues and roman columns. He once made Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich gargoyles that were featured on the front page of USA Today.

Mark can’t even fit all of his businesses on a business card; when he goes to tradeshows, he hands out postcards instead.

Over the course of his career, Mark has traveled the globe. “I’ve traveled 4 million miles all over the world to figure out how to keep The Alley store on the edge,” he says.

He took his first international flight to London, where he looked up the address for a small company called Dr. Martens in a hotel phonebook.

At the time, Docs didn’t make boots, just the soles, working with different bootmakers on the finished product. Mark took black cabs to the offices of five different bootmakers, where he ordered Dr. Martens to bring back to the states.

During the 80’s, The Alley sold $40,000-$50,000 of Docs each month.

Mark has built a network of suppliers in many countries, including leather suppliers in Pakistan and artisans in Bali, Indonesia, where they work with organics like wood, stone and horn.

“The farther I go to find a product, the less likely people are to compete,” says Mark.

In Bali, he worked with small enterprises of 8-10 people living in small villages off the beaten track. “We were buying from family workshops,” says Mark. “We’d meet with the village elders.” When he would come to town, the entire village would open the doors of its shops just for him.

The Alley has also always been bigger than Mark Thomas. Mark refers to his team as “The Alley Family”.

As Mark told new employee Sasha Kreynina, “If you didn’t put your family first, I wouldn’t want to do business with you.”

Mark has employed 3,000 people over the years. He has stacks of photo albums of store employees from years past, even if he can no longer recall all of their names. He has tried to be there when they needed him, helping some get off drugs and others through custody issues. Alley employees have gone on to start their own businesses.

The Alley has employed 30 felons in 40 years. “I think that people are entitled to a second chance,” says Mark.

The Alley community extends to art and music. About 300 artists and musicians work out of 100 studios in Mark’s factory building. Thirty percent of these tenants have been with Mark for more than five years.

Old Goths Walking Around Europe

Mark estimates that there were 900 stores like The Alley in the U.S. at one point. But that was before so much manufacturing moved to China, and before Hot Topic became a fixture of nearly every mall in America. Today, there may be less than 100 independent punk stores left.

Hot Topic oversaturated the market with what Mark calls “crap goth”. This bankrupted many local suppliers that couldn’t compete on price.

Mark now has to go far afield to find something of quality, often bringing in clothing from Europe. Today, even he sells Chinese-made goods.

Mark believes that Hot Topic has also driven aging goths in the U.S. away from the lifestyle, though goth culture has a longer half life in other countries. “There are lots of old goths in Europe walking around in trenchcoats in their 50’s and 60’s,” says Mark.

The Clark and Belmont neighborhood has also changed. In 2015, construction was everywhere in Lakeview, with strip malls and hotels replacing old Wrigleyville haunts.

The addition of a Target store next to The Alley’s building was the nail in the coffin for a neighborhood trying to bury its alternative past. The Punkin’ Donuts was demolished to make space for it.

Mark decided to close The Alley’s main location at Clark and Belmont, moving to a smaller storefront nearby. On January 16, 2016, The Alley held a Funeral Party to commemorate leaving Clark Street. The hearse was parked out front, complete with an animatronic grim reaper heckling guests. The Alley team ceremoniously carried out a casket.

More than 400 people braved winter temperatures to be there, forming a line that snaked past the Punkin’ Donuts lot for blocks. YouTuber @artistmac was there with the shivering line of Alley supporters, nearly all wearing black. “It’s a sad day in Lakeview,” he said in a video

Mark’s home office
Mark with the Batmobile outside the Avondale store

Dealing With Pain is Cognitive

Mark Thomas recently turned 69 years old. With age has come failing health; he’s had 15 surgeries in the last 7 years. He suffers from fibromyalgia, and deals with brain fog, blurry eyes, arthritis, and the effects of long Covid. He lives with pain every day.

“Dealing with pain is cognitive,” he says, “and I walk into that store every day and I get love.” His ability to operate The Alley is diminishing, but the store is what keeps him going.

“We are coming to a point where I need to figure out how to keep the story going beyond me,” he says. “I don’t want to let people down.”

He must find a successor - one that can handle the business and that understands the community that surrounds it. Marks hopes to find the right person to buy into The Alley in the next 1-2 years.

A Safe Place for Weirdos, Misfits & Freaks is still on the door

While Clark and Belmont may have traded loitering punks for scented candles, the rest of America has moved closer to the world of The Alley. “People used to buy our shoes to wear to concerts or clubs; now they wear them daily,” says Mark.

“It’s culture; it might have been counter culture 20 years ago,” he says. For example, while only 13% of baby boomers have tattoos, 41% of millennials now have ink (Statistica). As Mark puts it, “America has come our way.”

What was once counterculture has become mainstream, but Mark is fearful of a political climate that seems to be driving people apart. “This division is killing the world,” he says. “We have to learn to forgive each other and make a path forward. We need to find ways to run together.”

After all, the clients of The Alley have never come from a single culture; if anything, it is their independence that unites them. The bikers and punks and goths that visit the store might not know each other outside its doors, but The Alley makes them all feel at home.

Mark gets recognized so often these days - on planes, on the street - that he carries commemorative coins featuring Alley staples like reapers and skeletons.

“Some day 500 years from now, archaeologists will dig around in Chicago and find these Alley coins and wonder what kind of a private empire or society The Alley was,” Mark says.

Inscribed on the side: “SAFE PLACE FOR PUNKS, MISFITS, WEIRDOS".

Mark hands out the coins to thank people for their own part in creating The Alley culture, counter or otherwise. “It’s a two-sided journey,” he says.

A quote that he gave DNAinfo sums up what The Alley has meant for Mark: "Belmont gave me the greatest life in the world."

Three generations of people in Chicago know what The Alley has given to them: freedom, community, and a great pair of boots.

Rob Zombie in the bones jacket

“We need to find somebody that can make the next generation, as well as the last two or three generations, feel comfortable,” says Mark.

In 2020, The Alley retail store moved to Mark’s factory building in Avondale. One of the original gargoyles still watches over its entrance on Fletcher Street.

The business has grown online, as has The Alley’s social media presence, which is approaching 400,000 followers across channels. Mark posts videos often, some with tens of thousands of views.

But the business has taken a hit. “We think half the customers don’t know that we’re back,” says Mark.

Through any coming transition, Mark must ensure that The Alley style remains consistent; too much great art has graced its fabrics and its walls to let that slip. He is creating a website to catalog its look and feel, and he definitely plans to stay involved.

“I don’t want to stop being a part of The Alley until the day I die.”

“We are coming to a point where I need to figure out how to keep the story going beyond me.”

-Mark Thomas

For inquiries about The Alley, you can reach Mark at mark@thealleystores.com.

Illustration by Wayne Borucki from the original Alley logo

Nuff sAID

Thoughts from those who love The Alley.

“The Alley is for everybody that is not one of them. It’s their heart and soul and their ally.”

-Mark Thomas

“There aren't many neighborhoods in this country where a retailer that peddles leather, chains, condoms and gargoyles is scorned for being too mainstream…”

- Mark Veverka

This is the opening of Mark’s 1995 Crain’s Chicago Business article on the vandalization of The Alley’s store in Wicker Park.

“Doc, I’ve got 200,000 people coming to lunch on Saturday and Sunday.”

- Mark Thomas

Mark rescheduled the planned date to induce labor for the birth of his daughter Alexis because he was running Halsted Market Days, a giant street event. Market Days is second only to Pride in scale and importance to Chicago’s gay community. Alexis never lets him forget it.

“That was edgy for a young kid, especially given that you had to walk by a tattoo parlor and piercing studio just to get in.”

- Maggie Johnson

Maggie Johnson is a musician, recent grad from Columbia College, and self-described “80’s new wave vampire queen”. She first went to The Alley at just 11 or 12 years old. She was there with her mother during the closing sale at Clark and Belmont. They bought purple hair dye for Maggie’s pixie cut mohawk, and a silver skull necklace that she still has today.

“No dog collars at the trial!”

- Maggie’s AP law teacher

Maggie walked to the Fletcher street store during her senior year of high school at nearby Lane Tech, buying chokers and dog collars to wear to school - except at mock trials.

“There’s a sense of community when you come here. I feel safe where everyone is hard.”

-Sasha Kreynina

Sasha is an Alley employee. Her previous job was working in the psych ward of a hospital.

“And for those of you that don’t know what The Alley is, it was the place in Chicago where you went if you were a teenager to buy the obscene t-shirt - one of them had Kurt Cobain’s death certificate on it - that you brought home and your angry parents immediately made you take back…”

- YouTuber @artistmac

@artistmac describes The Alley’s selection in a video on the 2016 Funeral Party.

“Doc, I’ve got 200,000 people coming to lunch on Saturday and Sunday.”

- Mark Thomas

Mark rescheduled the date to induce labor for the birth of his daughter Alexis because he was running Northalsted Market Days, a giant event for Chicago’s LGBTQ+ community. Alexis never lets him forget it.

“You’ve got guts, kid.”

-Don Lin told Mark thomas

Don was the original owner of The Alley. After Mark nearly turned a desk over on him, Don asked Mark to become his partner.

The Art of the Alley

Paul Sonju
Paul Sonju
Al. E. Kat character drawn by Dan Cascardo

Paul Sonju, an illustrator famous for work including the cover of a 1983 George R.R. Martin book, has drawn posters for The Alley. These include two holiday scenes, one with a skeletal Santa near a Christmas tree, and another with a sleigh driven by skeleton reindeer.

Mark Hauser, a famous photographer known for photos of Dolly Parton, Woody Allen, and Michael Jordan, once photographed Mark Thomas in front of the Kurt Cobain mural outside of The Alley.

Dan Cascardo drew the next generation of The Alley’s cat mascot in the 90’s. Dubbed “Al E. Kat”, he’s a 50’s greaser in a leather jacket and cuffed jeans. He also bears a bit of a resemblance to Mark.

Dick Condon (known as DickyArt), a freelance illustrator in West Java, Indonesia, has done 30-40 shirt designs for The Alley. He has also drawn an album cover for Mastodon.

Dicky speaks no English, which presents its challenges. Mark recently ended up with a run of t-shirts with an elven character drawn by Dick in the wrong color. But Mark rolls with it. “I’m wondering if fuchsia might be the new goth color,” he says.

Charles D. Moisant, a talented comic book artist, illustrator and writer has made original t-shirt designs for The Alley. He produces his own comics, including Roller Derby Drama and a government-funded comic book that is now in the archive of The Field Museum. He designs board games and dice for the visually impaired, and worked on the original She-Ra and Dungeons & Dragons animated series.

Wayne Borucki, a famous illustrator, tattoo artist, and an old friend of Mark’s, designed the current version of The Alley logo. The iconic logo has gone through many iterations. As The Alley moved away from marijuana, the roach clip in the cat’s hands got cut. As the brand became synonymous with music, the logo came to look more like a heavy metal patch.

Wayne drew in ink, and created many fantastical drawings for The Alley. But he had his own demons, dying at just 49 years old of a heroin overdose, despite interventions by Mark. Mark is no stranger to vice himself; he is clean today, but has nearly died of cocaine overdose twice.

Frank Mascenic, a talented painter has been a fixture of The Art Colony community for over 12 years.

Courtney BoatwrighT, an illustrator in The Art Colony, is currently working on a beautiful goth-inspired graphic novel.