Cultural Entrepreneur. Ask me about the arts, diversity, culture and inclusion. #Indy

A talk with Samuel Vasquez.

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.

5 x 5: I am an Artist.

I am finalist for 5x5’s Face Your City. We present this Friday 6/28 on Georgia Street. Come vote for my project, I am an Artist.

Here’s a bit about the project:

I am an Artist is a photographic public art exhibition – an advocacy campaign for local, alternative artists (tattoo artists, DJ’s, chefs) to expand the idea of who can be an artist. The project has 3 goals; to expand the idea of what an artist looks like; to show what talent we have in Indy that we might be overlooking; to show positive images of people of color, especially to those in underserved areas.

There will be 52 images. Artists will be photographed in their element. 15 of them will be printed on vinyl window adhesive (exterior) for public display for 4 weeks.  J. Benzal , Service Center and Silver in the City have offered window spaces.  Remaining 37 images will show up in surprising places –advertisement in Nuvo,  poster on Starbucks community board.

Mallory Talty will be the photographer.  Images will be transferred to playing cards to keep the project alive. Silver in the City will sell the Indy playing cards.

Photographs will live online where public can find artist contact info. 

Register here:

Mosaic City 101.

I once described diversity as a milk run. It’s annoying, it feels forced and it’s just something you have to have around, not always something you really want. There’s something about the word that makes people uncomfortable, it makes people pause, get quiet. I think that’s because it’s one of those things you can’t argue with so you feel powerless when it comes up. I hate that.  After a few years of thinking about why our cultures seem to exist in silos and how there can be a better process for talking about diversity and inclusion, I decided to organize Mosaic City. Indy is at a (great) place in which we are realizing that inclusion has to be a priority. The problem is that I don’t think we know how to tackle it. And it’s different for everyone. So Mosaic City is a place to have those conversations, to figure this thing out together. I think it can be a model for other cities struggling with the same issues.
Mosaic City exists to one day not exist. We’re really here to make inclusion something people are excited to talk about – excited to strategize about. We’re here to be a partner that can be counted on to provide that other perspective.  That partnership should be fun, creative and should always lead to other meaningful connections.
I founded Mosaic City on the premise that if just enough connections are made, the city will be more attached…better associated…more familiar.  And if we’re more familiar with each other, there isn’t as much room for fear and less room for disrespect.  Instead, it allows room for a connected city, enhanced communities and a society of people that better understand each other.  26% of our city is African American. And the Latino market is the fastest growing demographic in Marion County.  The whole notion of minorities as we know it is, well, just not the case anymore. I fear that we are not marketing to, not inviting (intentionally or not) and not aware enough about the new demographic, about our new city.
Think about MC (not Mariah Carey) as a place to make meaningful connections toward better cities. It’s not about forcing diversity and inclusions down the throats of our orgs. I am not the diversity police.  This is recognizing that the world is changing before our eyes and we have to respond to it. If sustainability is in the question, diversity, equity and inclusion have to be in the answer.

Mosaic City is the new way to talk about inclusion. This is not supplier diversity or compliance monitoring or a team of auditors coming to count how many Latino’s you have on staff. This is a safe place to ask questions. It’s a chance to be creative about audience development. It’s a chance to get a customized response to the diversity issues you didn’t know you had and to have a new perspective at the table.  This is Indy’s chance to create a city of togetherness, a city of lots of beautiful pieces that can come together for one gorgeous piece. This is our chance to create a Mosaic City.


Get Down On It.

To all artists and creatives - the Indianapolis Cultural Trail has a Request for Proposals for activity along the 8 mile trail opening celebration on May 11. 

There are GRANTS of up to $1,000 available for WHATEVER YOU WANT TO DO (dirty thoughts excluded) on the trail that day. 

I’m encouraging all local artists, especially African-American artists to APPLY FOR THIS GRANT and get on the trail that day. Visual artist and especially performing artists. The whole event is called Get Down On It (cue Kool & and the Gang). 

The requirements are little to none. The proposals only need to be 1 page and are due by February 28th. 

Please, no excuses.

See the full RFP here.

Find out more about the Cultural Trail and Get Down On It here.


Get Down On It! - Cultural Trail Grand Opening Celebration

12 Cultural Things to do in Indy.

A few times a year someone will publish a list of the “best” things to do and see in Indy. What to do if you’re in town, the things you just have to check out; Indy’s most popular attractions.  While most of them include a lot of our larger and well-funded institutions and restaurants that get a ton of play already, there are ton of gems in the city that are the places that make Indy, well, Indy.

I really don’t want to make this a race thing and I’m not sure if culture is the right word. However, there’s got to be a reason that my (black) family doesn’t respond to the options most often suggested. There has to be a reason tourists still have to stop and ask me “but where are the black people?”  No, I don’t think there needs to be a separate list. We’re not going there.  But, when you go to a new city you want to find out what the people that live there really do. Where do we hang? Where do we eat on Saturday mornings? Where is the cool corner bookstore? That’s what I want to talk about – the gritty, cultural, we-don’t-have-enough-money-for-paid-advertising places in Indy.

Here is my list of 12 cultural things to do in our big small city and what makes them worthy.

Try to finish a meal from Boogie Burger. Boogie Burger just makes you feel cool by walking in. They play good music. There’s a ton of art on the walls. It’s very local feeling. The burgers are amazing. They’re very well- seasoned and can come with crazy toppings like pineapple, eggs, freshly sliced pastrami, even chicken. Then there are the garlic fries. If you like garlic, (and you don’t mind the smell coming through your pores for the rest of the day) get the fries.  The owner of the Broad Ripple restaurant is a young African-American man who is super friendly and tells all on Twitter.

Catch a show at Midtown Arts and Coffee Lounge. From the outside you might not know the place is even open. It’s directly on 38th street in between College and Central. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and some Sundays you’ll find poets on stage doing spoken word. Sometimes there’s a live band, sometimes food. There’s always art happening and there’s a lot of soul in the place.  The mood changes from artist to artist but if you’re up for listening, or spitting something yourself – check it out.

Order a sweet potato waffle from Maxine’s.  I’d always heard about the whole chicken and waffle phenomena but never tried it until I discovered Maxine’s. It’s connected to a gas station but don’t let that deter you. Some of the best collard greens I’ve ever had are from Maxine’s. Also black owned, this place gives you unlimited tiny little pancakes and peach butter during your stay.

Visit west 38th Street. Now called the International Marketplace – the west side of Indy at Lafayette Square is booming with culture. There’s an awesome little Ethiopian restaurant, great Indian food and a variety of Mexican options.  The area has festivals every now and then, parades, parties and everything. Stop by the Service Center that Big Car runs for a complete guide to the festivities in the area.

Listen to live music at the Rathskeller.  Where can you get German beer, German food, live music outdoors AND be on one of Indy’s trendiest streets? Answer: Only at the Rathskeller on Mass Ave.  Connected to the historic Athenaeum, this place is always bustling. If you don’t eat pork, don’t go there hungry.

Go to Coaches on a Tuesday night. DJ Metrognome is one of Indy’s best music mixers. Every Tuesday late at night he plays pretty much whatever he wants at Coaches, a bar downtown on Penn.  On stage with him is a host that goes by J. Moore. He talks everything from politics to the latest in hip-hop.  Although he does not take requests, if you ask nicely, Metrognome might let you take a shot at mixing.

Go to the Vogue on a Wednesday night. Everyone is there. Scratch that. Recent grads are there. And sometimes they’re in costume. Wednesday night is throwback night at the historic Vogue theatre. Music from the 80’s and 90’s, beer, costumes and Broad Ripple? Yes, please.

If you don’t go to the Vogue, go to Jazz Kitchen on a Wednesday night. There’s a group of guys in town that go by Old Soul Entertainment. They throw very jazz/funk/soul/hip-hop infused parties that keep the quality of the music first. This is a crowd of young, urban professionals that crave live music. And every Wednesday night the Jazz Kitchen opens up their space for some hot new jazz artist or a local hip-hop head to take the stage.

Get a donut from Longs. Longs Donuts has been making the intersection of 16th and Lafayette Rd. smell like heaven for decades. You may have to stand in line for 20 minutes but it is so worth it. Oh and take cash. They don’t feel it necessary to offer credit, yet.

Visit the museum at the Madame Walker Theatre Center. Indiana Avenue is one of the most historic streets in Indy. A lot of the nation’s jazz greats got their start on Indiana Avenue, some playing right there at the Walker. Inside the 85 year old building is a small museum. They are the biggest collector of Madam C. J. Walker’s artifacts. The piano Duke Ellington played is there.   You can even get a tour from Mr. Ridley, a 90 year-old man who’s been living and working on IN Avenue his entire life.  

Organize a self-guided tour of the new murals. Indy has 46 new murals scattered about the city. The Arts Council of Indianapolis undertook this huge project that coincided with the Superbowl that Indy hosted. There is an awesome, and gigantic, image of Hoosier Kurt Vonnegut on Mass. There’s a mural of jazz musicians by Pamela Bliss on Indiana Avenue. There’s an almost life-like saxophone on 30th and MLK. This one of Indy’s biggest public art projects and certainly one to keep an eye out for.

Visit the City Market.  There’s something about Indiana’s oldest buildings that are still changing with the times to stay fresh and relevant. City Market has such an awesome variety of food, a place to try local beers, and an area to just hang out. Located on Market Street across from the City Council, City Market is creative and resilient. It’s the place to buy locally grown produce and the place to find cool merchandise to show off your Indy pride.

That’s 12. Enjoy Indy. 

No guts, no glory. Right?

Everyone’s gotta die.

Ever since I can remember my mother, grandmother and I would go grocery shopping on Saturday mornings. My sister never wanted to go. My mom and I would go pick up “Tanchie” (grandmother) and we’d go to Keystone at the Crossing, sometimes Glendale and then the Kroger on Keystone and 65th. Every single Saturday. Tanchie would buy me something from Parisian or Penny’s or Macy’s.

That happened for 28 years. Now, my grandmother is 90. She doesn’t leave the house much so for the past couple of years my mom and I would just go or I’d go for all three of our households (omg, its horrible). 

Today, my mom (and my two toddlers) decided to take Tanchie out for air and whisk her off to Kroger to highlight her week. She’s in a wheelchair now and that thing is so heavy. So we’re wheeling her around, my girls are whiny and reaching for everything, we have too many carts - omg. 

I’m not writing to talk about how annoying that trip was. I’m reflecting on the circle of life, I guess. It’s just weird how generations literally die off and how its happening directly to me. I’m watching my grandmother decline. Her hands are super wrinkly. She kept asking me the same questions 10 minutes apart from each other. She gets tired so easily. She had so much spunk. And now she’s 90 years old - 3 times my life. She’ll die soon. We’ll miss her. And then it’ll happen to my mom. And then it’ll happen to me. My girls will be wheeling me around Kroger one day. This whole thing is just nuts. It’s beautiful, and interesting. And sad.