I light a cigarette cause I want the train to come. Standing outside of the Astor Place subway station, I feel the sidewalk rumble with the approach of the number 6 local. "Works like a charm". I toss the smoke and double time it down the steps, cross the turn-style and hop through the closing doors of the subway train that will take me to see East Harlem muralist, James De La Vega.
Something about these rides uptown make me feel reflective somehow. May be it has to do with the rattling and battling of the subway cars or maybe it's the florescent lights. Or maybe it is the rush and flow of the average New Yorker as he gets on and get off at his respective stops. Whatever the reason, I think back to the first time I met James at his art show opening held at the Caribbean Arts Center, this past October. I remember being overcome by the way that his paintings drew me close to their warmth. There is something unsettling, yet familiar about his work. Like smoke they permeate and quietly invade every crease of your sensibilities. That is why I was thrilled that he would be sitting for an interview with IMNYC. I lean against a pole, while visions of ABSOLUT bottles and crucifixes fill my head like the smoky plumes of distant fire. I inhale deeply. I envision the figures of angels and devils laying stenciled over the cobble stone alleyways of SoHo. The images of poisonous asps and fallen saints are permanent graffiti in my mind, all according to the gospel of artist James. Reaching the 103 rd street station, the voice on the intercom tells me to watch my step then quickly fades into the familiar bing-bong door slide tunnel hum, which signifies my time to get out.
I am in Spanish Harlem once again. Where plantains and yucca root are sold on street corners. Where old men smoke tobacco, drink white rum and sing songs as the livery cab line makes its way down the avenues. When walking to De La Vega's Fish Tank studio, I can't help but stumble over the spray painted murals that stain the sidewalks here. James manifested these larger than life stenciled figures on the concrete. Generally they are inked in reds and black, the colors of revolution.
Turning a corner I walk past streets dotted with street vendors and small Dominican shops. Looking through the inviting windows of the Fish Tank Studio I see James with his back to me concentrating on another painting. The studio walls are spray paint stenciled. Stacks of portraits everywhere. The studio is small making the scene all the more colorful and abundant. His hair is cut close, a casual man of medium build and unassuming style. His boots carry him here and there around the single room gallery and his jeans are clean of any paint splatters. I knock on the pane of glass and greet his attention with a smile. He does the same and motions for me to enter through the side door.
The following is an excerpt from our conversation:

IM: "How long have you been making murals? When did you move from the mural wall to the New York City streets and sidewalks?"
JDV: "Well I started, you know the tape stuff_ I did last year on the ground when Mother Teresa passed away. And I did it on the ground_"

He stops to rethink his answer but goes with his first thought.
"Because I thought that a lot of the downtown artists_ the mural artists downtown, like Chico and Andre Charles and the_"

Again he stops to balance his humbleness with his truth's weight.

" Just my personal take on them, was that their murals were a way of getting media attention. And I did not want to do my mural off the same idea. I just wanted to make something on the ground paying homage to her. And then as I kept doing these tape things, someone sprayed one of my things on the ground, as a way to make it more permanent. I liked the idea so I started doing it since. It [his first sprayed sidewalk piece] was an 'Absolute Boriqua' Bottle that I did."
IM: "That is inspiring. To build off of what someone else has done before and use it in your work is very special. Who or what else inspires your work?"
JDV: "In terms of artists?"

IM: "Anyone. Just in general." Giving him options.
JDV: " Well the real big inspiration is the dream, to like work hard at this and one day be a successful painter or a successful artist by doing this."
De La Vega is a success if not for any other reason that he is making his art amidst the competitive landscape of other artists, who he himself admits may have more talent than himself. He still sends his smoke signals. He still sticks with it, just as his mother had told him to years before in a dream experience. We continue.

IM: "I know you produce a lot of imagery that pertains to your mother_"
JDV: "That's my mother right there"

He points to her new painting still wet.

IM: "Oh is that your mother?"
JDV: "Yeah."

IM: "Beautiful"

JDV: "Yeah_ I did this big mural paying homage to my mother over there" pointing through the wall towards [107th street].
"Basically I am always looking for symbols that describe something about the neighborhood and I think my mother describes something about the neighborhood, something about the suffering that exists here, about the strength that comes out of here".

Picture a coffee table book size portrait of a healthy Hispanic woman and a small pocketsize photo positioned below; a thumbnail of the former.

IM: " That reminds me of something I read about you_ where your mother said 'be free my son, be free' and it inspired you to do this mural on the ground_"

[Referring to a 15-foot masking tape mural that was done directly on 103-rd street of a woman releasing a dove into a manhole cover sun].

JDV: "The one with the bird_"

IM: "The one with the dove. And it was like thirty feet long or something like that."

Leaning back from a crouched position James grabs a sheet of paper containing an article about the very same masking tape mural we are now discussing.

IM: "Right_ Right that's the one."
JDV: "It was like as long as three cars. That one came from a dream. Well, it was actually from a conversation we had first_ me and her. Just cause we always used to talk about this, you know whole thing. I would ask here Ma do you think I should stick with it. Should I stay with this."
His voice is like he's asking a question.

"And her thing was always like_ the idea is that you keep sticking with it. Cause this is..."

His eyes settle on mine and I notice a gold pendant around his neck. I zoom in and read the letters spelling D.A.D.

" You know, this has been my really been my connection to the rest of the world. Like I met you guys through doing this stuff and I have met so many people because of what I have been doing here. "

There is a moment of acknowledgement and quick reflection.

IM: "So does it make you feel like you are on the right path?"

JDV: "Yeah it seems like it's the right path to connect to the rest of the world. Like people out here don't connect to anything , we don't connect to anything_ we live and die here. And think in order to bring some positive attention to this place and to make things better here_ we need help. So these things_ [waving at his paintings] These are like big smoke signals."

But although this neighborhood needs his help, James smiles the smile of the well supplied.

As he talks there is a bang at the window. I pan to see a little brown boy's head and tiny palms pressed against the glass. He scans the studio and De la Vega's progress. Approvingly, he flashes a smile, a tooth missing but is quickly shuffled away by the stream of pedestrian flow.

It seems odd to me that he would then say

JDV: " It seems like we're like slaves out here".

Shakes a Krylon can, making it pop and crackle that certain sound.

"You get up in the morning, you wash up, shower you go to work_ you know like one 'til five or whatever, but people out here we don't connect to anything. People don't care and they want to run you over but it is all just like slavery."

Among slaves, James De La Vega is still searching for freedom of expression and for the community. His mother smiles up from her portrait. He cuts a stencil of his letters out of loose card stock and an unsharpened 'Xacto' blade. And held it up to his still wet canvas then using spray paint he finishes the portrait. The can begins to hiss and with it, James signs De La Vega. Fish Tank Studios
is located between
Lexington and 3rd
at
159E 103rd St
in east harlem.
CREDITS

Interview : Sean O'Connor

Location : Fish Tank Studios
of Harlem

Photo : IMNYC

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