Many may recognize Jeff Henriquez as the artist who recently painted a memorial wall to Queens rapper, Prodigy, at the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City. Vandalized within 24 hours of its completion, it was through sheer force of will that he managed to recreate the entire wall in one 15-hour marathon session. It is this determination, this force, that is at the root of who Jeff is and at the heart of his philosophy on art and life in general.
Prodigy Tribute, Long Island City, Queens - July 2017
This is not Jeff Henriquez's first attempt at taking a bite out of the big apple. He has been here before, but this time is different. This time it is all or nothing and he is living the dream. A conversation with Jeff about his life and art is a whirlwind ride full of ups, downs and amazing accomplishments, all told with the passion and enthusiasm of someone whose work is the very essence of their soul.
"An artist is a person who expresses him or herself creatively by their definition of creativity. Using whatever their medium of choice is. So if you are a dancer, a chef, a sculptor, a draftsman you deal with line, texture, color, shape, all of those things. Anyone who deals with those things in a creative way can call themselves an artist." Jeff Henriquez
Art comes as naturally as breathing to Jeff. He talks about his father and how he passed on his need to be creative. "I grew up with it already almost expected because my father was a creative person, he had the creative gene, he was a billboard painter in the Dominican Republic in the 1940s,” he recounts fondly.
Outside his home, others also saw potential at an early age. When he was in third grade he remembers drawing something with horses and having it discovered by his school principal who then asked if he could use it in a school play. "That was the first time someone actually noticed or paid attention to my artwork.” He soon started drawing and making art to giveaway to his friends in the neighborhood. Around that time a friend of his mother's gave him a book about horses. "I copied every freaking picture in the book. I ended up drawing about fifteen or sixteen different horses and it was kind of fun. "People started calling me an artist since I was about eight or nine and they were always asking me to draw stuff”, he states with pride.
The Well, East Williamsburg, Brooklyn - June 2017
Other early influences include an older friend [son of another of his mother’s friends], Gringo. "Dominican as anyone else but we called him Gringo because he had the lightest skin and goofy curly hair” he says with a smile. Gringo drew Dungeons & Dragons and his drawings immediately attracted a young Jeff’s attention: someone else close to him who was also artistic. And while Gringo was older he allowed Jeff to tag along, to copy his drawings and treated him like a peer. For Jeff this was a huge turning point, it was during this period, he says, that he fell in love with art. Gringo becoming his single biggest influence outside of history books, he tells me.
His mother was the pragmatist in the family. He describes her as more of a structured person. She encouraged him to get a job to make sure he “got his stuff done.” But whatever he did, as long as he gave it his all, she was supportive within reason. She almost kicked him out of the house at one point when he attempted to be a writer. "Like a graffiti writer and I was terrible at it, I never pretended to be a graff writer. I wasn’t even all that into it but I thought it was cool.”
By High School he had started doing murals, getting out of class to paint being one of the major perks. This is also when he taught himself how to do lettering and characters. He couldn’t afford paper [like big sketchbooks] so he would get regular sized paper and tape them together to make big pieces. Using magazines as references he drew nudes and more. "I have always respected those that are good at their craft, so I worked at it,” he says.
It wasn’t until college that Jeff realized he could actually make a living out of his calling. He sold a painting to fellow student and remembers thinking "Oh shit, this really works you can actually do this... I mean you read about it but… I’m from the hood, I grew up on welfare we weren’t poor.. but crack came to my neighborhood so I didn’t think I could be one of these people that they write about."
Underhill Walls, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn - May 2017
Our conversation switches topics from the past into his style and its development. Over the years he has tested almost every style. He settled on realism because it is one of the most technically-difficult styles to master. "I still don’t consider myself good at it, because there are certain things you have to practice for a long freaking time and I am still practicing.” The trick he says is to get everything crisp and clear but to still leave enough in the composition for the viewer to wonder off inside and listen to the painting. Quiet moments in front of art are becoming more and more rare in his opinion. He speaks of masters like Edward Hopper, Hans Hoffman and James Rosenquist. "James Rosenquist was a monster, damn if I could ever get close to painting like that…he is one of my favorite painters, one of the great masters,” he tells me with enthusiasm.
"I failed so many times, but I will never let the dream die. I will never let go of it"
We turn back again to the past and that first time in NYC. He was living in a friend’s art studio, no shower, no kitchen, just a toilet and a space to make art. He was making no money and everything he attempted led to failure. A dollar in his pocket was the highlight of his week because it allowed him to go across the street to McDonalds and splurge on the dollar menu. It was that experience that makes this second time so sweet. "I know I am going to keep doing this,” he says, " I don’t want to do anything else. There is nothing else. I have been at that point for a few years now where it is art only. Twenty, thirty years on this path to just make a living on my work. It is a surreal feeling, every time I strike a deal or sell a painting I think back to when I was poor…I failed so many times, but I will never let the dream die. I will never let go of it. Oh shit… this is where I wanted to be and I am still not at the highest level yet. But I keep wanting to do pieces that will challenge me artistically.”
Bushwick Collective, Bushwick, Brooklyn - June 2017
And what advice would today’s Jeff give to that young man struggling on the streets of NYC? To go paint murals, worry about that first, you can get a job anywhere. If you have to wash dishes, wash dishes, but paint murals. Focus on what it is you want to do. Build relationships, treat everybody with respect. Be professional. Be on time. Be early. If they ask you for one give them three. If they ask you for three give them five. Just be there. "Don’t be a rockstar. I don’t care how nasty you are.. if you treat people poorly they won’t call you back.” he says… "Be a good person…"