To Be Determined

#1 – Ralph Parez

Interviewed by Ismaelly Pena* and Rachel Barnard**

The following is the inaugural interview for the To Be Determined series, completed on the occasion of the inaugural issue of Interventions. This series intends to survey varying positions, commitments and approaches to art as social practice.

Art as social practice is a broad topic and the subject of both critical discourse and artistic practice.  For the purpose of this series we are looking specifically at work that speaks to a particular social issue by employing an artistic practice as either a form of advocacy, in which a larger, perhaps unwittingly culpable audience is addressed; or as a restorative practice for individuals within a community directly involved with the social issue in question.  Given this line of inquiry, our questions center on a number of issues including whether interviewees position themselves within, or detached from the social issue at hand; the importance of the artistic mediums in which they choose to work; the significance of the inevitable public component to their artistic practice; and, finally, the impacts of their practice on the individuals and larger communities they are working with.

Apart from being published here, the To Be Determined conversations are formative research for Young New Yorkers, this year’s Goodman Fellowship project awarded to Rachel Barnard with Sara Feinberg, and administered through the Buell Center at Columbia University. The Young New Yorkers project, in partnership with Brooklyn Defender Services, will work with sixteen and seventeen year-olds who are being treated as adults within the New York State criminal justice system.  Over the long term, the project will develop a large-scale public installation that gives voice to these young people’s experiences so that these Young New Yorkers may be seen, heard and known. In the short term, a diverse group of professionals, including lawyers, artists, architects, designers, community leaders and social workers are developing a series of workshops for the project. The workshops are designed to provide the young people access to personal and educational development through the experimentation with different media, while allowing the participants to determine the mode of representation of the final installation.  The workshops are also the process through which the Young New Yorkers will establish, as a group, what it is they would like to say.

As a key intention of the workshops is to provide a framework from which the message and media of the Young New Yorkers’ public installation is “to be determined,” the concluding question for each of the interviews is: if given the chance, how would you run the workshops? What mediums would you work with? What advice might you offer the Young New Yorkers team during this development phase?

Ralph Perez is legendary on the streets of New York and beyond as TATU, the founder of the XMEN crew.  In the early 80’s the XMEN became famous for their multiple train-line and city-wide street bombs (graffiti hits), not limiting their tagging efforts to their own South Brooklyn neighborhood like many other crews.  Never caught by the police himself, Perez painted ‘permanent’ position in highly visible public spaces with his tag ‘TATU’ and that of his crew ‘XMEN’. Today, Perez is both a critically celebrated graffiti artist and a historical figure in the graffiti world.  Along with his partner Tynneal Grant (Tyrox, of the XMEN crew) Perez is also the founder of Paint Straight, a mandatory restorative justice program that teaches young people convicted of graffiti charges to paint better graffiti, legally.  Of the first sixty participants in the Paint Straight program between the ages of fourteen and twenty, there has only been one reconviction.

IP&RB: Paint Straight is a program that you started under XMENTAL inc, a non-profit organization founded by you and fellow hip hop artist, Tynneal “Tyrox” Grant.  Can you tell us the story of how you got started as a graffiti artist and now run a restorative justice program?

RP: I started to write graffiti when I was twelve. Everyone was doing it and I wanted to be respected by my peers. After writing for a few months I realized that it was all about who you knew and belonging to the biggest crew.  In a way it was elitist. The problem for me at the time was that no one wanted me to be in their crew. I decided to make my own crew – that’s how XMEN started.

The name XMEN comes from the Marvel Comics. I thought: who are the baddest guys out there – in comic-land? Nobody messes with the Xmen.  Most crews are three letter initials like OTB – Out To Bomb. Our name is different.

We started bombing all the train lines of New York and all of a sudden everyone wanted to be a part of our crew, but I didn’t want to pick kids that were already in other crews. I wanted to pick kids that no one wanted, like me.

We started with just graffiti, then we were dj-ing, rapping and break dancing.  We were famous for our parties.  We were doing all that for a while and then I fell into the dark side of things.  I started hanging out with the wrong people.  I started selling drugs and I stopped writing graffiti altogether.

Years later I decided to leave all that behind me and pursue the American dream.  Even though I only had my GED [General Education Diploma], I started my own delivery company.  Then about four years ago after a tragic incident where I was attacked by some pit bulls, I lost everything.

Out of nowhere, someone reached out to me via email – Yo, we need you to come down to an art show.

I replied – Art show? Who is this?

They replied – you don’t know what you started when you were a kid.  XMEN has grown and it is well alive, all over the world.  You are a legend in the streets and we are having an Urban Legend show and we need you to come down.

I replied – I don’t do graffiti no more.

They replied – just come down.

So I went, and there were hundreds of kids. I saw all of their faces, all of these kids waiting for me to sign their book. Looking out, it hit me, I knew what I had to do, I had to work with these kids.

A friend of mine approached me to talk to her son.  The kid’s father, my brother from the XMEN crew, had died in a graffiti fight when he was a baby.  Their son had now started writing [graffiti] and had been arrested twice.  I told him – listen, I’ll teach you how to be a master like all the legends that you look up to, you’ll get to meet them and paint with them.  But you’ve got to stop getting arrested and getting in trouble.  You have to do good in school and listen to your Mom.  And he said– I bet.  I saw him change overnight.  I took him everywhere with me, and his probation officer saw the change in him too, in his grades, in everything.  He explained to the probation officer what he was up to with me and that he would rather hang out with the big guys than doing stupid stuff and getting arrested.

The probation officer approached me and asked if I could have this kind of affect on other kids.  I said yes, and after a couple of presentations, and then waiting for a year, I got a call and the parole office asked if I was ready.  So Tynneal Grant (a break dancer from Chicago’s XMEN crew) and I put together the Paint Straight curriculum.  We did the first ten weeks with the kids.  It was successful.  It got a lot of media attention and the kids were so proud they wanted to come back even after they were out of probation. The probation officers saw that it worked, and Paint Straight got started.

IP&RB: Do you think it is important that some of the work you do is in public?

RP: These kids are used to bombing the streets so people know who they are. One of the first questions we ask them is why do you write graffiti? Some of them say- so people know who I am. Others say- so people know I exist. And some others say- for the fame.

When we do public installations with the Paint Straight program these kids get so much, they feel so good about themselves. They are doing it on a wall and they don’t have run—the cops are right there. They get so much gratification and people aren’t going to paint over it.

When we have what we call the “Paint Straight Finale” – a big public show and their graduation in a sense – the kids feel like stars. You have these kids being interviewed by channel 12 and 1 and ABC.  They call me at night saying things like- yo I video taped it. They get more gratification and respect, not only from their friends, but from people that they would never have expected. We had the last one (Paint Straight Finale) at an art gallery, and one kids said- I never thought I would be in art gallery; one kid cried- I did it!!

Brooklyn Cupcakes asked us to paint some walls for them. And the kids say- what, I’m artist! I have my stuff hanging in stores and galleries – what!

The program works.  The kids start feeling legitimate. They start looking up to us and start finding a home. I have learned that some of the parents that these kids have are decent, hard working people and some others are not. My mother was a decent hard working mother, but wasn’t supportive of my art. She saw it as a crime, so she used to throw out all my paints and all my art stuff. I discovered that some of these kids were going through the same thing. So I speak to their parents, and tell them that they need to start supporting their kids, that if they support them, they might take their art somewhere else.

The kids start becoming a family and critiquing each other’s work. They become the Paint Straight Crew. They go do stuff together, they go places to paint legally. And they come to us- yo we got a wall that they’ll let us paint on. Can we have some paint? (It is illegal in New York state to sell aerosol spray paint to people under the age of 18). I tell them I’ll go over there with you and watch you, and I give them the paint.

To do something in a public place legitimately is validating – it shows the kids that people take them and what they have to offer seriously.

IP&RB: How do you see yourself in relation to the kids you work with? Do you view yourself as part of their community or as coming from outside to help?  How does this position impact your work with the kids?

Portrait of Ralph Perez

RP: I work mostly with kids that have been arrested for graffiti.  I definitely see myself as being on the inside, because I am a graffiti artist myself.  The person I once was, and how I’ve changed my life, gains the respect of the kids.  If I were only ‘book smart’ I wouldn’t have the same kind of affect.  I am completely honest with the kids, they are smart and they know when you are lying to them about who you are.  Being upfront with my own experiences and who I am now is key.

An extract from one of Parez’s spoken word pieces:

My words…

My words enlighten you…

Freeing you of invisible chains…

Help you to understand…

That there’s growth…

True growth after pain…

That you’re not alone…

That you and I…

We have fought the same fight…

Have had similar nightmares…

With eyes open during the day…

And especially with eyes shut during the night…

IP&RB: Do you see part of your Paint Straight work as raising a certain level of awareness with the larger New York community?  Or are you primarily committed to empowering the kids?

RP: To tell you the truth, I couldn’t care less about what the rest of the world thinks. I am here for the kids, so that they don’t go through the same thing I went through.  When you are a kid doing graffiti, it is almost like an addiction. You bleed ink, you sweat paint and you have to keep on doing it, get your mark out in the street.  It leads to other illegal activities. These kids don’t have the money to buy the material so they steal it. It can lead to graffiti fights. You can die over graffiti fights. I’m not here to raise awareness but if it happens it’s a bonus. The city notices that our program works and is expanding it to other boroughs. But my main focus is to change kids’ lives, and if it has to be done one kid at a time, so be it.

IP&RB: Thinking about representation, why do you think graffiti in the street is so effective? Have you considered working with other mediums?

RP: Graffiti is marketing and you are marketing yourself so that people know who you are.  The Paint Straight shows in public space also allow people to get to know the kids’ works. People realize what the kids are capable of. Some people say that the program will make the kids want to do more of the illegal graffiti, but if you give them places to go do their art, why would they have to do it illegally?

In regards to other mediums, I am also a spoken word artist and so we are working on a curriculum to help them vent their feelings and express their spirits. We are going to get the kids to put their feelings on paper. We are working on this so that it has a public component – reciting the poems in public and documenting it with video.

IP&RB: If you were to run a Young New Yorkers workshop what would it be?

RP: I would do a graffiti workshop!  I would teach the group how to do lettering and have sessions on how to use the paints.  We would then have a session on how to tell their story using the art form.  We would finish with a public installation where the kids could create a piece as a group – as a crew.

*Ismaelly Pena is a second year student in the MA Program in Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Practices in Architecture at The Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation.

**Rachel Barnard received her M.S. degree in Architecture and Advanced Architectural Design from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation in 2011. She is currently the Goodman Fellow at Columbia University’s Buell Center.