local flavor

De La Vega

James De La Vega stands quietly in his St Mark’s Place gallery. His sidewalk chalk drawings have been transferred from the street to canvas, and pictures of his Mom as Picasso – or his mom just plain hating on him – hang throughout the space. A woman with a stroller opens the door and shouts from outside.

“Excuse me? Do you know what grades that school is down there?” she asks, referring to the elementary school a few doors down.

He answers her as politely as he can, half expecting her to apologize for her haste.

Instead she says, “Thanks. I’ll be back,” as if offering some sort of consolation for not coming in and browsing. As if that’s what most artists would want to hear. But De La Vega isn’t like most artists.

“I’ll be here waiting,” he replies smugly as she shuts the door.

He snickers for a minute, then says, “It’s not so much arrogance as it’s brutal honesty.”

And it was honest. This honesty is evident in his work, as well as in his 10009 gallery, which he refers to as a NYC institution. Its purpose is to cut through all the bull, to actually reach people, specifically New Yorkers, on another level. It’s that kind of keeping it real De La Vega expresses and embodies both in everyday life and in his art.

“Pressure to survive in the big city can make you lose sight of your dream. Hang in there.” The idea isn’t new, and chances are it’s appeared before in inspirational tear-off calendars or coffee table books, but never as graffiti. Yet according to De La Vega, it’s not.

“I never identified with the graffiti movement; there’s a certain amount of deviance and negativity that comes with the connotation,” he says.

Since avoiding jail time for one graffiti-related incident back in his Spanish Harlem days, the artist is sensitive when it comes to the name “graffiti artist.” Instead, he’s a self-proclaimed sidewalk philosopher, a guerrilla performance artist, an artist for and of the street.

What challenges De La Vega in his quest for positivity is the audience to whom he’s reaching out. He believes New Yorkers are famously thick-skinned. Notions about becoming your dream are lost in a concrete sea of huffs, puffs, and “whatever’s.” But De La Vega’s message seems to have found a way to get through. He is an icon in the Spanish Harlem neighborhood where he first started out, and now that same street cred has followed him down to the East Village where he reigns as a kind of St Mark’s Confucius.

There’s a level of hard core no nonsense that makes New Yorkers listen, or at least stop to read, depending on where the message is positioned.

“I’m not trying to Walt Disney or Sesame Street this message. That’s not De La Vega. It’s creating a unique language that reaches people to tell them to do something with their lives, to push forward, to fight back.” This is something many New Yorkers already know, or else they wouldn’t live here, but all could stand to hear it more often. And when they’re ready, like the lady with the stroller, De La Vega will be waiting.

102 St. Mark’s Place


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