It's still all about collaboration for Samuel E Vazquez (no period after the E, though it stands for Enrique; he just thinks it reads better that way). A 20-plus-year Indy resident and Herron grad working his way into the gallery scene, Vazquez started out life in San Juan, Puerto Rico (born in 1970), before moving to the Bronx in 1979. He became involved with the NYC graffiti and break dancing scene by 1983, and managed to tag a serious number of subway lines, not to mention the walls of the Graffiti Hall of Fame.
NYC in the '80s was, says Vazquez, defined by friendly competition, by writers (read: graffiti artists) pushing each other creatively, learning the trade from mentors and banding together in gang/guild/clan fashion. Vazquez still identifies himself as the member of several graffiti crews, including the IBS (International Bombing Squad) and UW (Urban Warriors or Urban Writers). And while much of Vazquez's work has moved in the direction of abstract expressionism (his descriptor), he says he still approaches the creative process in the same way, learning from peers, taking inspiration from both the fine art and graffiti world.
And because Vazquez is, in a sense, the genuine article, he's become a resource for Indy-based graffiti writers, as well as the community at large. This Friday he'll demonstrate graffiti technique at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He'll take part this September in Subsurface, a gathering for graffiti artists from around the Midwest. And he has plans for an educational project that could make quite a splash on a green space somewhere in Indy (we can't give details yet, but it sort of involves a subway car).
Vazquez refers to Afrika Bambaataa when he talks about this mentorship process, noting that the DJ was driven to empower former gang members (like Bambaataa) to direct their energies toward creative exploits (hip-hop, b-boying, graffiti) rather than mindless destruction. Not that he styles himself a mentor in the style of Bambaataa, necessarily. Because just as, say, one can learn and master calligraphy, one can certainly learn and practice graffiti art - but because it developed in response to social, economic and political forces, and was unique to its time period, contemporary efforts are doomed to a certain inauthenticity, Vazquez argues.
"When it first started, nobody paid you to paint," Vazquez says over coffee at Mo'Joe provided gratis by a barrista who's among the city's many admirers of his work. "Now kids come in who started writing in high school and who can make a living getting sponsorships. The motivation isn't the same now; the expression isn't a direct response to the environment."
Vazquez distinguishes between street art by trained artists who have chosen to use the street as a canvas and than those who painted on subways and urban buildings because they had nowhere else to turn. "The city's landscape is harsh with stark brick tenements, steel, concrete, rust, rubble, and grey sky," he says. "Graffiti was our way to bring beauty to otherwise decaying and depressing-looking neighborhoods."
That sense of the way in which graffiti responds to environment has something to do with his first leaving the graffiti world behind (he saw no graffiti potential in Indianapolis when he moved here in the early '90s). His work is more abstract and canvas-centric these days - and is often fueled by memories of his formative years. Take his series of abstract paintings named after locations in the Bronx. "Uptown & the Bronx (Van Cortlandt Park-242 St)" - a long horizontal canvas stretched to imitate a subway train - is named after the last Bronx stop for a subway line, and thus refers to the centrality of subway cars to the graffiti scene.
He creates his abstract work in much the same way that he tagged a wall - there's "a sense of being spontaneous; I'll pick colors, but what comes out isn't planned." In the same sense, he says he would do sketches for graffiti work, but that "would only take you to a certain point," with the final product coming about by happenstance and improvisation. He says he heard people say at one time that he hadn't developed much as a graffiti writer, but he argues that was by design: "To me it's about immediacy; you're not thinking about blending colors when you only have 20 minutes; the lines are rough and the colors might have drips here and there."
Samuel E Vazquez
A sampling from Vazquez's graffiti and abstract work.
Not that Vazquez didn't practice his hand during daylight hours; he's scanned sketchbooks from the late '80s and early '90s that show a impressive range of tags in a variety of styles (one might liken them to a variety of types or fonts, some legible, others not so much to the uninitiated). His intention with the designs was "that letters look like they're moving; that they're alive and have funk and motion." Some tags have arrows heading one way or another, to sort of force the words into action. Others intertwine like piping into a tight, closed circuit.
Vazquez says he "still doesn't consider it illegal to just write on a wall," being that it was "innate to just express ourselves and communicate to people." Subway cars were initially a very popular medium; some artists even used them to get out specific messages: Stop the Bomb, Merry Christmas NY. (Vazquez says he avoided embedding political messages in his work because he felt it'd already been done by artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat.)
But by the early '80s, New York City had emerged from a stultifying budget crisis and Mayor Ed Koch had committed himself to ignoring AIDS and cleaning up the city, starting with those graffiti-covered trains. Thus it became dangerous to tag subway cars, with punishment elevated from a slap on the wrist to serious jail time. Vazquez recalls one close call in 1986 when he was collared by an undercover cop while "motion tagging" (or writing on the interior of a car while in motion). He managed to avoid arrest because he ditched his supplies and was left with only a mask (and he couldn't be arrested for merely having paraphernalia).
Vazquez had established himself in the graffiti world by the late '80s, when he was studying at the NYC College of Technology and living in Harlem. He had joined some of the "higher crews" and had written in the Graffiti Hall of Fame (a sort of pocket park dedicated to "legal" graffiti that's been an ever-changing canvas for crews from around the city since the early '80s).
But a gradually gentrifying Harlem was becoming ever more expensive, and when his family moved to Indy, he came along. Graffiti wasn't really a thought when he got here; looking at Indy's downtown he says he thought, "Wow! This is the inner city?"
So he hunkered down to learn graphic design. When he graduated he joined an art direction team responsible for the look of several landmarks, including Conseco (now Bankers Life) Fieldhouse. Still, by the turn of the millennium, he found himself missing the hands-on element of graffiti art, the notion of "attacking a surface rather than a computer screen," the texture of a canvas.
A long road trip in 2002 was something of a rebirth for him, and he began painting at home that year; a graffiti project soon followed, and he began getting involved in both the fine art and graffiti scenes. Vazquez's solo exhibition last year at the Madame Walker Theater Center drew the attention of local press, and 2013 will see a run of shows in spaces both great and small, notably Clowes Memorial Hall, where he hopes to make a splash with larger canvases and reach a different kind of art patron and consumer.
Showing me proposals for upcoming shows, Vazquez impresses with his organizational sense (you can imagine him working in a corporate environment) and enthusiasm. He has a lot of projects in the air, and it would be difficult for the average Indy resident to miss his work in the coming months.
One wonders how the tug and pull of planned/unplanned, authentic/imitative, street/gallery, growth/decay will play out in his work and life in years to come. Because while he's not quite sure about the motives of the next generation of street artists, he's still eager to share his stories and work with them. Meanwhile, he's moving forward into another stage of his own work that's, perhaps ironically, associated with a historical movement similarly born and bred in another time and place (namely, abstract expressionism).
It's all about tension and energy for Vazquez, who thinks of the subway as a writer's muse. "The city is so vibrant; the energy is so intense you not only feel it, but you can touch it. The subway added to the intensity; the sound of its electric sparks bouncing off the third rail, the banging of steel as the subway moved up and down the tracks, the hiss of the breaks and roar of its mechanical system. All in harmony with the attitude of our expression - colorful, lyrical, bold, funky, groove, hip-hop, poetic."
TIMELINE1970: Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico
1979: Moves to temporary residence in Harlem
1981: First involvement with B-boy scene, tags school bathroom walls, spends time in Puerto Rico
1983: Moves back to New York City (settling in Harlem)
1983: Starts seriously writing using graffiti tag of "Brame"; writes on subway lines (1-7, A, C, G) and walls in Bronx and Manhattan before leaving NYC. Becomes member of BTF (Born To Fight)
1985: Becomes member of RTR (Rock Those Rails/Ready To Rock), RFA (Ready for Action), IBS (International Bombing Squad)
1986: Detained by undercover police while motion tagging (or writing while riding a subway train); avoids arrest after ditching tools
1988: Begins attending NYC College of Technology; becomes member of UW (Urban Warriors or United Writers) crews before leaving NYC
1991: Moves to Indianapolis with family; begins studying graphic design at Herron; works throughout '90s as part of team on art direction projects for Indianapolis International Airport, Conseco (now Bankers Life) Fieldhouse
2002: Quits graphic design job; takes solo cross-country trip, making stops in Seattle, Portland, and NYC; starts returning to graffiti world on occasional projects
2004: New work begins to move in direction of abstract art
2006: First public exhibition of graffiti sketches
2012: First solo gallery show at Madame Walker Theater Center; coverage in local and national publications