Graffiti writer Samuel Vázquez is returning to his roots 

A look behind Samuel Vázquez's one-night-only gallery show

click to enlarge Portrait of Samuel E Vázquez - PHOTOGRAPHY BY HAROLD LEE MILLER
  • Portrait of Samuel E Vázquez
  • Photography by Harold Lee Miller

Don't get me wrong — there are some mighty fine graffiti writers in the I-465 loop, but the spray painted murals you see around the country today are usually very distant from their New York ancestors. Samuel Vázquez hit it pretty spot on.

"I was losing roots with my work," says Vázquez. "So this time around I went back ... It's a little more complex, the pieces. I am taking more time to create a lot more layers to it."

The pieces he is referring to are all large scale works that will be in his upcoming show A Rhythmic Pulse. The Herron grad and Indy resident hasn't always been so close to the gallery scene. He was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When he was 9 his family moved to New York, specifically the south Bronx in 1979. By 1983 he was deeply involved in the graffiti writing and music scene; a time that would be known as the birth of hip-hop and using spray paint as an artistic medium. It's these memories that are currently the heartbeat of Vázquez's work.

RELATED: Samuel Vazquez's work, from street to gallery

The exhibit will be his first one in two years in Indy, although he lives here with his wife. The long break was a bit of a jump, having gone from five to seven in-town shows a year to shipping most of his work around the country.

"I think I am more focused now," says Vázquez. "More focused in the sense that my art is not everything... it's part of me, but it's not me. It's part of what I do and part of who I am. In that sense, I can be serious about it but not too serious."

He seems to be striking a balance between his current life and what he remembers as the conditions that created graffiti.

He went onto describe life in the south Bronx during the '70s and '80s. The city was bankrupt, buildings were becoming vacant, and over 7,000 police officers were all laid off causing the crime levels to skyrocket. But the first things to go were social services. Vázquez recalls his school not having any form of art or gym classes. One filmmaker referred to the time as a "decade of fire."

Today this area is the poorest congressional district in the United States.

"It looked like a war zone," says Vázquez. "Even then we found beauty in it, which is interesting."

click to enlarge Never Letting Go, 2015 - PHOTOGRAPHY BY HAROLD LEE MILLER
  • Never Letting Go, 2015
  • Photography by Harold Lee Miller

He and many other young people began to use the city as their playground, channeling their energy into tags and colorful piping that would be later called "graffiti" in an attempt to demonize it.

He was part of a generation that claimed their humanity by literally writing their own names on walls to keep from being dismissed.

Vázquez recalls the mentality: "You are telling me that I have no voice, that I don't exist. When you walk out of your high rise buildings downtown and hop on the train there is my art. You don't think I'm here, but you see me every day."

Once the programs were cut, young artists like Vázquez saw that their education was not considered valuable enough to preserve. For them creating was worth the risk of breaking the law.

"That's one thing I have carried in my psyche," says Vázquez. "To this day, if I feel like I have been overlooked, I will not fight it like I used to. But I will assert myself."

Vázquez will even go as far to say that graffiti writers today need to have an understanding and respect of where the art began.

"Graffiti in its purest form doesn't work here in this city," says Vázquez. "The elements and the conditions that created it — that graffiti was born from — are not here for the most part." He explained that their writing was about access and using what they had.

click to enlarge For comparison's sake, this is one of Samuel's older paintings called "Expelled Lines Fair Safe The Brightest Satellites" - SAMUEL E VAZQUEZ
  • For comparison's sake, this is one of Samuel's older paintings called "Expelled Lines Fair Safe The Brightest Satellites"
  • Samuel E Vazquez

"Once it got to a place where you could stand ten hours, I think it lost something," says Vázquez. "It lost its soul. Part of the soul was immediacy."

This point of origin is something that Vázquez is trying to get back to in his artwork. So much that he will play track after track of subway car sound clips and videos of New York city streets in the background while he paints.

"I can smell the train station," says Vázquez. "... I can close my eyes and see what's around me"

"I think I am exploring the roots of graffiti writing," says Vázquez. "On some pieces I might put seven or nine layers of writing and larger fields of color."

The largest work in the show will be 16 feet by eight feet, similar to a subway car wall in size.

"It's almost like a conversation that happens with the pieces," says Vázquez on his evolving (or revolving?) techniques. As he paints he reacts to each color and stroke as a constant give and take. "I think I am accepting the outcome more than I did before."

When he isn't directly recreating the sights and sounds of his roots, he is listening to music from it.

"Music is playing into the pace of the pieces," he says, noting that his playlist for the gallery show will include about four hours worth of funk, early hip hop and pop music of the '80s.

"The older I'm getting I am listening to things differently between songs."

The main song that stands out from his juvenile artistic years is "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa.

"Being a first-hand participant of the birth of this dynamic culture was amazing," says Vázquez "The energy that we, [youth] at the time, released can be equated to the energy released by an atomic bomb... what we created became a global youth culture... going strong 40 years later. In the midst of New York City's chaotic conditions, our desire to have fun birthed an expression that elevated us to a more beautiful galaxy, a planet we named 'Planet Rock.'"

Life seems to be coming full circle for him as he ages. He no longer participates in First Fridays, nor has his Harrison studio.

"I see myself separating. I am understanding aging. I love to see getting older. ... Now I am just like let me do my work, don't bother me."

Indy is apparently the perfect location for his creative renewal.

"It's home," says Vázquez. "It took me a while to say it, but it's home for me."

The following is a playlist that Samuel played at his show:

Samuel E Vázquez: A Rhythmic Pulse

When: Sept. 4, 7-10 p.m.

Where: 646 Virginia Ave.

Tickets: FREE


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Emily Taylor

Emily Taylor

Emily is the arts editor at NUVO, where she covers everything from visual art to comedy. In fact she is probably at a theater production right now. Before joining the ranks here, she worked for Indianapolis Monthly and Gannett. You can find her thoughts about Indy scattered throughout the NUVO arts section and... more

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