I had the opportunity to paint with a large group of very talented local Artists, and put out a message that’s near to my heart recently. To put this wall in perspective: Prescription drug abuse is an epidemic in my hometown of Staten Island, NY. In 2010 alone, 31 souls were lost here to “unintentional opioid analgesic poisoning”. We have the highest rate of painkiller prescriptions, and deaths, per capita, in New York City.
A few weeks prior, Magie Serpica and I were looking for a wall to paint, and we wanted it to mean something. Originally, we wanted to do a “solidarity” wall for the members of Pussy Riot, who had just been sentenced to prison in Russia for expressing their outrage with their church being in bed with the government there in what was, essentially, a peaceful protest.
Tariq from Richmond Hood Company approached us to paint the side wall on Castleton Avenue, and we realized it was too big for just the two of us. He threw out a bigger net, and we started talking to Cody Prez, Mike Shane, Chris Malfi and crew from Art Off Paper, Kwue Molly, Charlie B. from the NYC Arts Cypher, and one of my all-time graff heroes – Gano Grillz! Gano had been involved with painting the existing mural that already ran for over a year, and we felt that whatever we did would have to be worthy of painting over an already great piece!
Kwue and Prez had each, independently, done small paintings with an all-too-familiar theme, indicting both the government and the healthcare industry for their roles in prescription drug abuse and deaths. So when Prez asked if we should do a piece addressing the pill problem – it struck a chord for everyone in the room. I hadn’t really talked about it, outside of my inner-inner-circle, but I had just lost someone that had been struggling with this demon about a month prior. I still haven’t really addressed it publicly, but suffice it to say – this person had at one time been very close to me, and I still sometimes wonder if I could have done more. Unfortunately, she wasn’t the first person we’ve lost, and (God help me) may not be the last. So when I looked around the room, and there was not one person there who hadn’t felt the sting of a similar loss – I became resolved to confront this painful subject and address it in a positive way through my Art. We drew out a basic sketch, and were blessed with an outpouring of support from people willing to sponsor the project.
Our Sponsors: Richmond Hood Co / NYC Arts Cypher / Against Da’ Grill / Tackling Youth Substance Abuse Initiative / Sherwin Williams of Port Richmond / H.A.T. Marine
With the subject chosen, and everyone given their approximate placement on the wall – we set out to prep! For what I wanted to do, I needed the most “pre-gaming” of the group. For my subject matter, I envisioned two portraits. Very dark. Faces in blues and purples, floating on a black background – ghostly images, representing people we’ve lost – lives ruined, as the end-product of this unbelievably vast government-regulated machine that chews up families and communities until there’s nothing left on the bones. With all of this negativity inherent our chosen subject matter, I wanted those faces to belong to people that I have positive associations with, people I respect and admire. I immediately thought of two such people, both teachers, both having “skin in the game”, in that they’re on the front-lines, looking into the faces of kids who are using, or are considering using, these drugs every day. I made my calls, and they both graciously agreed to be my models.
Once I had my images- every free minute I had was dedicated to drawing and cutting, drawing-cutting-draw-cut-draw, for days! The walls of my bedroom were like acetate monuments to the fire in my gut driving me to get this done. I finished my prep work, and painted that wall in my mind a hundred times, step-by-step, until it was time to actually do it.
I arrived at the wall on a Saturday morning, after it had rained late into Friday night. Tariq was alone on the second level of the rickety scaffolding, since before the Sun came up, buffing the wall like his life depended on it! We worked out some last minute details with Chris, Jared and Brendan from Art Off Paper, and decided that my faces should be emerging from black smoke that’s pouring out of a pill bottle that Brendan was going to paint. Magie started sketching out her piece, a demented pink elephant, crying blood, with candy pills raining down from the heavens. Magie knows how to make a point. All those present began painting, and I remember this immediate feeling of camaraderie, painting as a team, painting with purpose.
We worked into the night, dodging Chinese food delivery drivers, talking and sharing our own stories. It was like the Breakfast Club with vandals! We knew Mike Shane was working on something. Something big. Like- “holy shit!” Big. As a gifted photographer and people-wrangler, he orchestrated a guerilla-style photo-shoot, complete with costumes, the night before. By all accounts, he had been a man-possessed / screaming direction at his models until their bodies did what he saw in his Vision for the wall! He edited his photos behind the counter at Richmond Hood for hours, until it was time to venture to Staples and make them rich on large copy fees.
In the following days I finished up the faces, painted some smoke and dropped my signature. Kwue and Gano came through during the week, painting in the rain with Magie. It never did stop raining that week. Mike set about wheat pasting his photos to the wall and attached duct-work. Kwue incorporated his Uncle Sam character into the surrounding work by Mike and Magie. Gano killed the lettering and an angel character proclaiming a grim statistic: “8 out of 1000 babies are born addicted to opiates on Staten Island!” Chris from AOP finished his prisoner, leg-shackled to a giant pill, and gave the wall our mission statement: “Prescription drug abuse has reached an epidemic level on Staten Island and we’re talking about it.”
I remember being impressed by how seamlessly these Artists worked together, how they improvised and collaborated to tie it all together, teach each other what they knew, and how proud I was to be on this wall with each and every one of them.
The wall made the front page of the local papers (a few times!) There was a ribbon cutting, and the press was there with questions and cameras. We did what we set out to do, which was to get the conversation moving. We plan to do more. We need to do more.