I had the honor of sitting down with graffiti artist, Samuel Vazquez. Talking to him for an hour nearly blew me away. I learned so much about the art of graffiti, where it started, and got a glimpse into the work of this very special artist. Vazquez has announced that he won’t show any more of his work in Indy. I’ll help to explain why.
Vazquez moved to New York from Puerto Rico in 1979. He remembers being very depressed because there were no trees, no leaves; the city was brown because of all the tall brick buildings and the sky was gray. It was a different world from the one in which he grew up. He learned to love it and got his start at being an artist in New York City, studying at the NYC College of Technology in Brooklyn. In 1991, the rent at his apartment in the city went from $700 a month to $1,400. So, he moved to Indianapolis.
There was a gradual, 20-year span between being a graphic designer and a graffiti artist. Now, he considers himself an abstract expressionist painter. I wanted to know more about the graffiti world. I asked why some don’t respect it as an art form. Vazquez explained that the first known graffiti artist was an African American boy named “Corn Bread.” He tagged his name on walls and open spaces. Vazquez believes that because of who the artist was and because he wasn’t expected to be the type to create, the art form wasn’t called art and was not respected.
Writers (graffiti artists) began their work as a result of the economic and social climate of their environment. This started at a time when inner cities were economically void, parents worked two jobs each and weren’t home. Kids, then, had no supervision. Social and artistic programs were cut from schools. Children had no outlet and black and Hispanic children especially, had no place. Graffiti art began as a way to offer a voice to a segment of the community that was seemingly invisible. Vazquez said that writers needed a sense of worth. They would write their name on buildings as if to say “you will know my name even if you don’t see me.”
It didn’t take long to criminalize these writers instead of determining that it came from their social structure and fixing that. “The graffiti world is a community. It just came from a place that was unexpected.”
Vazquez says that because the roots of graffiti art come from social and economic injustice, it doesn’t work in Indy. It isn’t authentic. Here, the graffiti artists look like the majority. “If I come to a building owner and ask to put a piece on their wall, they look at me like I’m a criminal. But when the kids do it here, since they look like the majority - it’s more accepted. So in a sense, even though the kids are mastering the techniques of graffiti, it’s great. But it’s not the same because of the context of their environment - that’s not the environment from which graffiti was born,” says Vazquez.
When Samuel wonders why he’s never been invited to participate in the graffiti shows happening around town, he guesses it’s because they’re “not coming from truth.” “It’s kind of like Elvis. Elvis wasn’t the king, he was just the vehicle to take black dances and black passionate music and make money off of it. It’s not the truth.”
Recently Vazquez has determined that he won’t show the same piece of artwork to the same audience twice. After five solo shows in Indy, with different work at each show, (the artists admits that in order to maintain his sanity, he cannot show the same body of work over and over and over) he has decided to leave Indianapolis. “I won’t show the same painting twice in the same city. I’ve decided not to show any more work in Indy. It’s time to move on. There are other places that I’d like to explore. I need culture. I don’t want the same person to see the same piece twice. Someone has already seen it here.”
December at the Cultural Arts Gallery in the Campus Center on IUPUI’s campus will be Samuel Vazquez’s last Indianapolis solo show. It will run from December 4 - January 3.