Right before we started talking De la Vega covered himself with a wooly cap and sunglasses. His anonymity somewhat preserved he opened up to us very honestly with great advice for aspiring artists or anyone who wants to accomplish something people say can't be done. De La Vega is an inspiration to those who refuse to work for someone else, but still want to give something back to the community around them.
We sat talking in his store on little wooden chairs he provided, surrounded by his artwork in various forms from t-shirts, cards, paintings, prints, and images of his mother as many different personas. He later explained that he sees his mom as the most powerful person in the world. She’s the one who told him, “Surround yourself with positive people and don’t let anyone hold you down.”
CCB: Do you consider yourself an artist or an entrepreneur?
DLV: To be called nothing but a street artist, I get annoyed. Part of this journey has been to prove others wrong. I was told at Cornell that I couldn’t make it and people were always asking me if I knew how hard it is to make it as an artist. I had a list of people to prove wrong. Why should someone be able to tell you you can’t be something or that you don’t look the part? I believe you can win. I already won. I work for myself. I do it my way. A big lesson I learned from my mom is that you go out there and just do it.
CCB: Do you ever go into schools to speak about your art or do you want your art to speak for itself?
DLV: I often get invited to speak at high schools and I believe that young people are my most important venue. I am not as interested in the adults who are the ones with money. Ultimately young people are the most important piece of the whole thing. The reason I do what I do with my art is because I am trying to inspire people to be powerful and make change.
CCB: Do you have any advice for people interested in becoming artists?
At first he was not sure what advice to give an aspiring artist, but throughout our talk gave some wonderful and motivating tips. He mentioned there are several types of artists. One is the type that goes home and tries to reproduce the work of other artists that he enjoys. Another type is the artist who is very talented but not a good business person. His advice for all the different types of artists is that they should read and learn about other artists. Study their work, try and copy it, develop likes and dislikes about different artists, and also then keep a sketch book full of your thoughts and images.
“The artists that I learned from were very successful artists of their time, Picasso, Warhol, Harring. They were some of the richest alive. Kids should learn about other artists who they enjoy.”
He also warns young artists that the art world can be very snobby. “A good friend of mine Leroy Neiman who does incredible work is considered by some to just be some colorful b.s.” He continued talking about how it is very hard to be successful emphasizing that if he came across a young artist who he believed in and found to be genuine he would keep him around and help guide him.
CCB: How do you put a price on your artwork?
“I didn’t go to business school and there is not necessarily a formula for how I place value on my work. It all sort of followed a progression.” He used to sit in a very small space and paint. People would come and tap on the window and tell him they liked his artwork. He would sell it for whatever he could get. When he did manage to sell a work for something like $75 he would sit back and think that was pretty cool. Then he realized not everyone could afford to pay that much for a painting. So, he started making t-shirts and selling those for about $10 dollars. After that he sold cards with his artwork on them for those who couldn’t afford the shirts. He really wanted to make sure he didn’t deny anyone who wanted a piece of his artwork the chance to have it because they couldn’t afford it. However, he also wanted to make sure that his artwork was not cheap because he wanted to maintain respect for the brand he had created, which is himself.
CCB: How would you advise artists interested in doing unauthorized public works of art? Any tips so that they can stay out of trouble?
“This is the best question I’ve ever been asked.” He began to speak about previous arrests including one in the Bronx for a mural he did. His first arrest was for writing “Become Your Dream” on a dumpster, for which he plead guilty. Unauthorized painting and artwork in public is called graffiti which is considered vandalism. De La Vega actually seemed to know the dictionary definition of the word vandalism verbatim, “the marking of property with the intent of destruction.” He hates when people call his artwork graffiti because he wants his work to speak for more. That said he still made it clear that he has great respect for graffiti artists and recognizes some of them as great artists.
“Being arrested (even though it might bring good press) requires so much emotional energy and is a very negative experience.” De La Vega’s advice is that if you are caught and arrested the best thing to do is to not try and talk your way out of it. He told us that’s a mistake he made when he was caught for the first time and decided to plead guilty. “This can then come back to hurt you later if you are caught a second time.” In this case the pleading guilty stayed on his record and the next time he was arrested they saw it as his not learning from previous warnings and they sentenced him to thirty days in jail. They will decide whether to arrest you or not depending on their judgment of you and the artwork. That’s why he asserts that public artists should keep their messages positive because this creates a rational for the officer to think well since he’s not doing anything negative maybe I can let him go or at least you will be getting arrested for something inspiring.
Another suggestion he offered is that you really need a good lawyer. “The legal aides provided for you are the worst. Their intentions are to get you through the system as quickly as possible and leave you with a stain on your record.” You should try and do positive things because it will help your case and also you should try your best to get to know people (The political people uptown) because they can help you.
For a mural he did in the Bronx De La Vega was sentenced to community service and was sent up to Hunt’s Pt in the Bronx where the legendary Tats graffiti crew have their offices. He noticed how interconnected art and politics are. It was during this time that he was running for senate and the person he was up against was a congressman from the Bronx’s son. They wouldn’t have wanted to jail him during this period because it would look bad putting an artist in jail.
CCB: Can you talk about what your messages are meant to inspire?
“I believe you can win because I have won.” What he tries to do is not as simple as inspiring people. He believes strongly that in a wealthy society such as ours in the United States we shouldn’t still have a system of class. He wants to inspire young people to become economically independent and be able to work for themselves. Then strive to make the world fairer for themselves and the people around them. He is an artist and a self sufficient businessman.
The truth is however that we live in a capitalist society run by money and improving ones own economic status or focusing on ourselves and saying F everybody else. He knows that in some way he exists in that as well, when dealing with the tougher business side of being an artist that young people really need to learn about if they want to make it. “I sit with a calculator all the time. You don’t think of artists as having calculators, you think about them with paint brushes and clay sculpting. But when you are trying to run a business like my shop, it becomes all about the numbers.”
CCB: Do artists need to develop a toughness or confrontational nature to make it in the business?
He is confronting people with his artwork in the streets. De La Vega replied that what young artists really need to learn is sensitivity. If they don’t have that then he doesn’t want to be around them. They have to learn how to be in tune with others energies, to be able to sense if they are in danger or if someone will hurt them. You need to learn about others and meeting with lots of people can help sharpen one’s sense of intuition to other’s intentions.
Referring to his store and the reputation he has built, he said that, “This wasn’t built from money. No one in my family had a lot of money. I built it one t-shirt at a time, one drawing at a time, and I’ve been hustled. I also worked the system to be successful; there is a give and take.”
CCB: Will a rainy day like today stop you from getting out in the streets with your art?
He pointed to work that he still had outside the store. On a day like this he would tend to stay in more and withdraw to himself. Especially because he is still new to the neighborhood, (Having recently moved his store downtown to the Village) “I’m still building relationships and you can’t expect everyone to love you.”
De La Vega acknowledges that at this point in his life, “I have a special opportunity in front of me to touch thousands of people and make their experience positive. It does take time, but carry this out in to the world.”
In his travels to different countries he was amazed what he could do with drawings to break language barriers and boundaries like when he was in Brazil. He could not speak Portuguese, but he did some drawings for people in a café and was able to make them laugh. “Everyone should learn how to draw. Words are intimidating and not everyone is able to use them. Drawings are like magic, the way they can make people smile.”
It was at this point of the interview that he seemed to become amused by my brother and I and our relationship, the way we helped each other out and worked together. He talked about how his brother drives a truck and will come in to the store to pick up some shirts and then share the work around with others and the people he meets. He also appreciates how one side of what we do is getting to meet cool people and invest in those relationships.
CCB: Which comes first the text or the images?
The text and images can come at the same time. “The words and the images work together”. When he started out creating on the streets he would just have the words. This then turned in to pictures when people started saying that, “De La Vega didn’t know how to draw.” So he started making these simple comical images and they still might be able to say, “Aw, he still doesn’t know how to draw. He just does little fishies.”
CCB: You once said in an interview that you are challenging minds outside so you have to be a challenging person sometimes. Would you say that this toughness is necessary to be successful as a public artist?
DLV: You need to be humble, humility is important. But you also need to know when to be difficult if you need to be, when you have to remove disrespectful energy. We interact with all of society, it all comes in here, (referring to his store) and we have to manage that and make sure they respect this situation. Young artists need to learn sensitivity. Be prepared to feel people, if they are uncomfortable. Become in tune with other people’s energies. If you want to have public dialogue some people aren’t going to like what you say. Some artists don’t understand how to be successful communicators. People don’t understand what it takes to be a successful communicator. You guys use the internet and I use my shirts.
He shared with us a conversation he had with an ex-girlfriend. She told him that she didn’t think his artwork was as powerful anymore because he used to do it for other people and not for himself. But he thinks it has always been that way. She said he used to have powerful imagery like of Jesus (The whole concept of which is very emotionally powerful) but he explained that he’s not interested in Jesus right now. He’s interested in the world around him, not this idea specifically of religion. He created characters like the fish and his mom so that he might be able to talk through them like Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. “I don’t need to paint Jesus to tell a story.” With regards to the images of his mother in different personas and situations he forgets that it’s his mom and focuses on what’s being said, the message, and the contradictions like, “My mom as a religious prostitute.”
CCB: Can you talk about your association with the character Zorro? (Whose name, James De La Vega, he shares)
Zorro is a character that goes out anonymously to fight against injustice. “He is the only Latin superhero.” His parents didn’t consciously name him after Zorro, a character who goes out in disguise and leaves his mark. He does identify with revolutionary characters that are not armed, such as Marcos, who delivered his message through poetry, telling Mexicans to unite and rise up against the government. “I have an idea in my mind; there is a message I have to deliver.” He likes to study poetry by artists like Neruda and muralism asking himself, “How can I incorporate this in my art, how can I explore Latin culture?”
CCB: Are you surprised that there are not more people using chalk and making street art?
“I am surprised that there aren’t more artists doing provocative things on the street.” He thinks that people should do provocative and harmless acts (like working with chalk) so that they won’t get in trouble because it is still an awesome way to communicate with the public.
CCB: Where do you get inspiration for your work?
“I get inspiration for painting in the studio when I am sitting here looking around and thinking to myself I need a drawing up there.” His mom is the biggest influence, inspiration in his life. His art also responds to what is going on in the news. He is responding to world issues and the things going on around him. For example, in the “My Mom as” series he has her as Richard Pryor, which he created after Richard passed away. Part of his desire to make that particular work came from the simple fact that he likes comedy and comedians.
CCB: Can you talk a little bit about how you have used street art as community building?
“I like playing with people. One day when a man from the neighborhood walked in and asked me if I had met anyone interesting today, I responded by saying that the only interesting people I meet in this store are those who spend money. If not then they can get the F out.” As we laughed at this he began to discuss how although he was joking around and it is a harsh thing to say there is a lot of truth to it. If I spend on you, you will spend on me. It is a reciprocal relationship where you support each other and help build each other.
“This neighborhood needs me, making it think, and giving hope through the art of the streets.”
CCB: What kind of a legacy do you want to leave behind?
DLV: However long my life might be I want kids to think that I did some good and that they can do it too.
CCB: Where do you see you career headed?
DLV: This is just the beginning. This is nothing yet.
Visit De La Vega's Store in New York City: 102 St. Mark's Place in the East Village (8th Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A).