If you’ve ever walked down the streets between Avenues A and D in the East Village you have no doubt seen some of the paintings by the artist Chico. Although you might not have noticed, Chico’s paintings decorate buildings all over the neighborhood. Many of his works are difficult to spot at first glance as they blend seamlessly into the backdrop of the neighborhood covering local storefronts and restaurants. But a trained eye will notice his distinctive style as they browse the streets and take note of the bright colors and smiling faces that cover walls and roll-down gates of local establishments. Chico has been creating art across the neighborhood for 35 years and his murals reflect the transitions and the rich history of the neighbor throughout the last decades of the twentieth century.
Chico is a graffiti artist who grew up in the part of the East Village which was often referred to as “Loisaida” (a Spanglish adaptation of “Lower East Side”) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Now known as Alphabet City, the area was predominantly made up of immigrants from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. For these immigrants life in the neighborhood was not easy, as building deteriorated and many residents struggled to combat poverty and rising rates of crime and drug use. The blank walls of run-down buildings however, provided an opportunity for Chico who used them as an artistic outlet throughout his youth. Like many graffiti artists in New York City, Chico started his career by sneaking into subway yards and tagging train cars in the early 1980s. Soon after he shifted his focus to murals and found himself spending most of his wages from his Housing Authority job on spray paint. For Chico his murals were a way to shape his community, which was suffering from serious social and economic problems, in a positive way.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, Chico funneled most of his energy into his art, which began to gain notice from a number of people in the community. Some of his first paid work came from individuals who commissioned him to create memorial murals for their lost loved ones. Many these memorials depicted people who had died as a result of gang violence but he eventually he grew tired of creating tributes to individuals affiliated with crime in the neighborhood. These memorials helped Chico make a name for himself as an artist, but he had to step away from them for a period of time because he became concerned that he was glorifying the wrong kinds of images. In a number of interviews he explained his turn away from memorials stating that he did not want to immortalize gang members and instead wanted to focus on more positive messages.
Chico’s murals shifted to focus on positive messages and representations of community solidarity. Many of his paintings were filled with phrases of like “I love L.E.S.” and “Viva Loisaida,” or declared that “Crack Kills,” and encouraged youth to “Stay in School.” Indeed Chico’s love for his neighborhood and the messages he sent with his art garnered a similar affection from the members of his community. Although many of Chico’s early canvasses were abandoned buildings and train cars, which he illegally covered with Krylon paint, many neighborhood businesses began to pay him to cover their walls with similar images. The result has been a neighborhood that is covered in Chico’s murals, many of which have been preserved because the businesses that he painted them for are proud to display his art.
A special thanks to the artist Chico for permission to use select images of his early artwork.