Taylor Swift mural pops up in Chicago with mystery message

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After clocking out following her shift at The Gage restaurant near Millenium Park Monday, Jess Dennsion saw a message on a Taylor Swift fan page that she couldn’t ignore.

She ran to River North, where painters hoisted on a green scissor lift created a fairly inconspicuous QR code using the letters “ttpd” and the number “13” on the side of a building at 33 W. Grand Ave.

The QR code links to a 13-second YouTube short on Swift’s account, where the message “Error 321” and a faded “13” pop up in a typewriter font. Swift’s 11th studio album “The Tortured Poets Department” is set to be released Friday, and it’s well known that she has an affinity for the number 13 — along with teasing projects with carefully placed easter eggs.

On Tuesday, three painters continued placing tiny “ttpd” and “13” in black across the large white canvas. Some were in capital letters, others in lowercase. Some were close together, while others were far apart. By Tuesday afternoon, the name Taylor Swift was placed above “The Tortured Poets Department.”

It was a fun guessing game for the dozens of Swifties who filtered in and out to photograph and analyze the mural — including Dennison.

The crew was finished by the time Dennison arrived Monday, but she vowed to show up first thing Tuesday morning on her day off. The 29-year-old River North resident brought friendship bracelets to hand out to fellow fans and a few for the painters that said “QR King.” She also live-streamed to her more than 60,000 followers on TikTok, where she posts mostly about Swift.

“We haven’t seen anything big involved fan-wise (in Chicago) since ‘Reputation’ when she came out and surprised the fans,” Dennison said. “We haven’t seen any hands-on Taylor action since Rep, so this is really nice.”

Like other fans, Dennison formed theories about the meaning of the “Error 321” message. She definitely thinks Swift is counting down to something. Since it’s on YouTube, her best guess is a music video for one of the unreleased songs.

She also thinks it might connect in some way to a 2021 Swift interview with Stephen Colbert. During the interview, Swift points to a slice of pizza on a vision board, seemingly supposed to represent pizza from Scoozi, a now-closed River North restaurant that used to employ Colbert. The restaurant and mural being in the same neighborhood can’t be a coincidence, Dennison said.

A team from Overall Murals works on a Taylor Swift-themed QR code mural in River North on April 16, 2024. (Eileen T. Meslar/Chicago Tribune)

Others on social media mused the mural’s placement in Chicago could refer to a line in her song, “the lakes,” which includes “Take me to the lakes where all the poets went to die,” as a nod to her new album’s title, “The Tortured Poets Department.”

Swift played the “the lakes” as one of her surprise songs on the first night of the three-show stop in Chicago during the Eras Tour last summer.

While a music video seemed to be one of the leading theories by mural viewers, they differed in what they thought the potential video would look like. Maybe it would be short videos for every song on the upcoming album — similar to the structure of the “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” movie — or maybe it would be a recorded message from Swift herself.

Or maybe a new concert date? A new set during the Eras Tour? A documentary? New merchandise? Maybe it’s actually nothing? The list of guesses was long.

“I’m going to be thinking about this all day now,” said Rita Pillai, a dogwalker who strolled past the mural with two puppies.

Overall Murals, an outdoor advertising company based in New York, oversaw the mural, although a representative said they couldn’t comment on the project.

Swift’s 2006 debut album was the first CD Dennison said she ever owned, and deciphering the superstar artist’s easter eggs and puzzles has become an addicting pastime. She attended the first Eras Tour concert in Chicago last June, calling it “incredible” and “absolutely mind-blowing.”

“I kind of grew up with her. She’s only a few years older than me, so her life and my life lined up perfectly,” Dennison said. “I turned to her music for pretty much all my inspiration or my heartbreak, or if I’m sad. If I want to cry or be happy I turn to her music.”

Nicole Granato takes a photo of Peyton Granato in front of a QR code mural in River North on April 16, 2024, The QR code links to a Taylor Swift web page. (Eileen T. Meslar/Chicago Tribune)
Nicole Granato takes a photo of Peyton Granato in front of a QR code mural in River North on April 16, 2024, The QR code links to a Taylor Swift web page. (Eileen T. Meslar/Chicago Tribune)

Before Swift announced the release of the album — which contains 16 main tracks including two collaborations with Florence + the Machine and Post Malone — at the Grammys in February, a similar “Error 321” message appeared on her website. She’s also hiding clues about the album on Apple Music within lyrics to her old songs and is hosting a library installation with Spotify in Los Angeles.

Kim DeGracia, a 31-year-old Streeterville resident, on the other hand, hopes the 321 countdown is for the much-anticipated “Reputation (Taylor’s Version)” album. Maybe the singer will release two albums at once, DeGracia speculated, and “1, 2, 3, Let’s Go Bitch” is a common chant when Swift performs “Delicate,” a song on “Reputation.”

DeGracia, who moved to Chicago in January, has been a huge fan of Swift since her debut album. When she saw the mural on TikTok, she knew she wanted to check it out and show her sister.

“Her lyrics are really relatable,” DeGracia said. “She’s around the same age as me, so I feel like I went through different stages, her teenage years, her 20s, experiencing similar things.”

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