A couple of Juan Antonio Cortez’s buddies wanted to go ride bikes. There would be music, girls, maybe even some spray paint — everything a teenaged boy could desire. But young Juan could not go because he’d been legally mandated to spend his nights at New Urban Arts. Juan would have to spend another night enclosed in his hoodie, headphones sealing his ears, in stasis with the swirling letters and their shadows in his sketchbook. He was pissed.
But one of his friends wouldn’t come back from the ride. Another would be critically wounded, recover, and then die from a gunshot wound years later. Even at just past 10 in the morning, the decade-old memory dampens Juan’s eyes.
“It’s too early for this shit,” he says over coffee.
He credits New Urban Arts and the world of graffiti it introduced him to for pulling back the hoodie and showing him a place where he could express himself. There, another graffiti artist opened a door to a new life with one simple question: Do you write?
Juan had a tag (though some of his work with that name might be recent enough to fall within the statute of limitations). He started painting more. It kept him out of real trouble even as he and his crew scrambled over highways and up billboard scaffolding. An article in The Providence Journal mentioned him by name for work he did on a mural with the youth group. Positive recognition gave him a feeling of self-worth. It gave him identity in a community. He broke that community down for me into five groups.
The Five Pillars
At the top of the heap are the true graffiti artists — the ones throwing up good work. Whether it’s a simple, single-line signature, or a sprawling message shaped with improvised pizza box stencils, their work adds to rather than takes away from what it touches. They rub shoulders with all sorts and are the true core of the community. Back in its abandoned heyday, the Temple of Junerism, now the Renaissance Hotel, was like a meeting ground. People brought their black books, passports in the graffiti world, to show their sketches and compare. With it came music, breakdancing, intoxicating recognition and the threat of being arrested, which Juan insisted was part of what made it fun.
Police activity was always common, as would be expected. Certain items are considered graffiti tools in the Providence penal codes: spray paint cans, fat brush markers, all the fun stuff. These items are forbidden to be sold to minors, thus creating a necessity of theft, at least when Juan was a kid.
“Don’t jangle, it ain’t Christmas,” was word in the Home Depots and art stores that carried the cherished Montana Gold paint. Take enough to be worth it, but not enough to be conspicuous. Sometimes Juan and his crew would shovel snow and perform other odd jobs to secure paint funds.
Gang members make another pillar. Tags can be used to demarcate turf, not in the playful or braggadocious manner of other typical writers, but to flex and intimidate. Simply put, it’s best to move on to a new wall. There are plenty. In peaceful times, members of rival gangs are sometimes known to work alongside each other or even together on gang-unrelated works. The act of painting is often a respite from brutality and violence.
This subtlety would be lost on the next group: the posers. The wannabes. The pretenders. Those trying to look the look without walking the walk. Some are hopeless hangers-on. Others are like foals taking their first steps.
These are the newbs, those just getting their feet wet. They don’t know about different spray caps, good locations or, most importantly, etiquette. Enough etiquette missteps land you in the lowest rung: the vandals.
Vandals are those who perform acts considered especially heinous — buffing someone else’s good work or a mural or tagging a location considered sacrosanct, like a church, a home (garages are okay) or most schools.
“These are like felonies in the community,” Juan said, shaking his head. “That’s ultimate disrespect.”
In his eyes, acts like this are the true vandalism that groups like Providence’s Graffiti Task Force was created to remove. Instead, they cast a huge and indiscriminate net, making no distinction between meaningful art and simple vandalism.
The Task Force members are commonly known as Ghostbusters in the community. They show up with pressure washers and brushes, clear out entire walls, and move on. They aren’t well-loved. That said, Juan doesn’t fully despise them. There is vandalism out there. There’s needless and hateful messaging to be scrubbed from walls. But the Task Force makes no distinction between art and junk. They’re not a real solution and they erase good work.
“You’re blanding the city. We’re the creative capital. Why do you want to take creativity away?”
Juan would love to see communication between the Task Force administration and the community at large. Vandalism and gang-related tags can go. But art? That should stick around. In his mind, all that money used to pay people to remove graffiti could be used to foster the kids who did the painting in the first place, to give them opportunities and spaces to learn, to collaborate, to grow, much like he did. It’s a hard point to disagree with.
“It’s an incredible art form. It spawned a platform for people who don’t have much to express themselves. Graffiti has been the microphone for a few broken souls. I was one of them. Had I never picked up a spray paint can, had I never involved myself in that culture, what would be my story today? What would be my little brother’s story? If it weren’t for places that embrace the culture, embrace murals, embrace paint and expression, where would a lot of youth in Providence be? If we didn’t have the likes of AS220, The Avenue [Concept], New Urban Arts, where would all those kids be, right now?”
As with any conflict, misunderstanding is what lies between the city’s administration, their Ghostbusters and the writers themselves. Maybe with a little conversation, a whole of listening and some of Rhode Island’s secret sauce — hope — these sides of the Creative Capital could come together and really make something that lasts.