Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada's Return to NYC
The final mural at the 42nd Street Crossing. Photo: Just A Spectator.
In April, five murals highlighting good causes were painted near the UN for Street Art Mankind and the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency whose mandate is to advance social justice, promote good work practices and set international labour standards.
The line-up of international artists include Mr. Cenz, Clandestinos, Victor Ash, Faith XLVll and Jorge Gerada. If you've walked along 42nd Street east of Grand Central in the last month, you'll have seen Cuban-born, Barcelona-based Jorge Gerada working painstakingly on his 13-floor high mural, often far up on a lift.
On his second day of painting, I sat down with the artist and talked about his mural, his philosophy, an interlude from art and the New York art scene in the eighties.
Though Gerada is well known for his see-it-from space terrestrial art and beautiful murals over entire buildings, he is lesser known for his past work here in New York City...
'We chose Jorge first for his big heart and engagement towards social justice. As a man, in his personal life, and as an artist he has this experience and capacity to conceptualize and transcend the expected to draw people's attention.
But we also chose Jorge for his big art!! Jorge is among the rare artists who can manage large scale projects whether on the ground or on walls. He does incredibly realistic portraits and very expressive eyes. For this key theme for us, child labor and forced labor, we had to have an artist that was capable of delivering a message in a positive yet impactful way...' - Thibault & Audrey Decker, SAM.
Perpetual Flow, Morocco. extends over 37,500 square meters and was created using rakes, stones and 36 tons of gravel. Commissioned for the 2019 Lavazza Calendar ‘Good to Earth’, the hands symbolize a project that reuses waste water to create a greenbelt around the city. Photos courtesy of the artist.
Rodríguez-Gerada was a founding member of the Culture Jamming anti-consumerist movement during the early 90's with the groups Artfux and Cicada Corps, altering billboards and advertising on the street. He worked alongside Ron English, both helping each other with their billboard work. At the same time, Shepard Fairey was starting up his OBEY stickers.
Sarah Sansom: How did you get into the Culture Jamming Movement?
Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada: In the beginning, I was running around with a couple of friends, and then a crew called Artflux. Artflux was really in-your-face street art - nobody knew it as street art, because it wasn’t named then. And from there I went to Cicada Corps of Artists. Noami Klein did a 6-page spread in the Village Voice about me and the philosophy of Culture Jam, which became part of her No Logo book.
I started with little things like hand-cut lettering on stop signs in the same color, but reflective - when headlights passed it would light up (you couldn’t find them if you didn’t know). Then I decided if I kept doing billboards, by using 'their' infrastructure I was giving them attention. After a while companies started to fake being altered to get more attention, like, ‘The Captain was Here’ graffitied. Even then my goal was to take it to doing murals. It was a plan, but I got sidetracked for almost 10 years. When Swoon found out I was the same guy from No Logo, she was like, ‘Oh shit, you’re the guy!’ It blows people minds that it’s this thing not everyone knows about.
'Gerada is widely recognised as one of the most skilled and creative founders of the culture jamming, the practice of parodying advertisements and hijacking billboards in order to drastically alter their messages' - Naomi Klein, No Logo. Images may be subject to copyright.
SS: Though the artist was born in Cuba, he moved to North Plainfield, New Jersey as a child. This allowed him to hop on a train to New York City as a teenager.
JRG: I used to cut school at 14. People would say, ‘Are you nuts, it’s New York City! You’ve got to understand: cars would have their windows rolled down with signs saying ‘nothing left to steal’. Tompkins Square Park was tent city – a drug store filled with junkies. One of the guys living there killed a girl, a really young tourist. Her bones were found in a locker at Port Authority and traced back to him. Right after that was the beginning of Giuliani’s regime – cleaning up the streets, squats being taken out. Giuliani and Bratton changed Manhattan in ten years.
But New York was really vibrant in the late eighties. Punk was alive and well, and grunge was an extension of punk It was a counter-culture revolution that blossomed then was completely wiped out. There were places that were absolutely creative, like Collective Unconscious, with alternative performance art really pushing the limits. I’d play pinball with Lemmy from Motörhead at the Scrap Bar - all welded metal. It was cool, nobody bothered anybody. Iggy Pop could walk in and nobody would say anything.
The only time something weird happened was over at 7B, which used to be ‘the place’ – it had the best juke box, and everyone would just hang out. Courtney Love came in, and said ‘Let’s put on something for Kurt’ but everyone knew that she was part of the problem. We literally started throwing stuff at her until she left. And that was New York! The scene was really tight, there were a lot of really good artists. It was out of control, like a Burning Man vibe, but in the East Village.
SS: So what happened?
JRG: I got into a big problem with the guy documenting the emergence of the group, which focused on me. We really worked as a group - we had personal directions and ideas, but we also collaborated. The documentary won at the Chicago Film Festival. He started showing my stuff on the street as if it were his. When I contacted him, he said, ‘If you want me to stop, sue me.’ got hit with a double whammy because after this happened, I had an idea for a small business with the work but he signed a cease and desist. That took a lot of wind out of my sails.
Getting started in NYC, 4.07.19. Photos by Just a Spectator
SS: Why did you choose to move to Barcelona?
JRG: Quality of life. A lot of sun, beautiful architecture. You walk and you go though Roman, Romanesque, Gothic, Art Nouveau, I mean, it just keeps going.
When my first child was born in 1999, he had a severe neurological condition. By the time he was two, he was really sick. He was having multiple seizures and a cocktail of drugs that made him catatonic. The kid that was there, who would eat and smile, was gone. Within a couple of years, the feeding tube would’ve given him an infection.
We didn’t want our kid to die like that.We would rather have had him die in our arms than a hospital. If you go against a doctor’s wishes in the US, they make the child a ward of the state. So we decided to go to Barcelona to give him a better quality of life. We spent a year feeding him with a dropper, while he was having 60 seizures a day. Through alternatives, like homeopathy and oils, his seizures calmed and he stabilized. He can’t walk or talk, but he’s fine. And now he’s 19!
It took me years to start back up. When I did, I started with my charcoal portraits that were made to fade away.
SS: Did going through that influence you?
JRG: Yes. There’s nothing you can’t do. There are no limits! To see this little kid struggle so hard when we have all of our faculties, makes me realize the only thing that really stops you is yourself.
The right flower incorporates a dove (click to enlarge). Photos: Just A Spectator.
SS: Many would be overwhelmed by your projects. Is your philosophy now that you can do anything?
JRG: If you have it thought out, yes. Knowing is half the battle, the rest is just work. It’s that simple. If the process is clear in your mind, e.g. it takes this much, this many people… it’s done!
SS: Was it hard convincing people to do the first piece?
JRG: Nobody believes you can do it. The first was in Barcelona around Obama’s 2008 election, about the impact of his election on the world: one of the few times I got directly political. I’ve always been social. I was asked to do a mural against Trump recently, but I’m really against giving people attention when they don’t deserve it. I prefer to choose people like social workers who’ve helped dozens of kids and have never had anyone say thank you. You don’t have to wait until they die.
Expectation, portrait of Barack Obama, created with 650 metric tons of sand and gravel, Barcelona, 2008. Photos courtesy of the artist and Digital Globe.
SS: How do you choose who to portray?
JRG: That’s interesting - a couple of my artworks are a blend of people, because of model rights, or they don’t want a real person. When they wanted to depict women working at the civic center in Barcelona, for example, it would’ve caused conflict if I’d chosen one of them and made it her portrait. I did a photoshoot with 10 women, photographing sections of their face, and brought it together so they’re ALL part of the portrait. They’re part of the process, and they all remember it. They’re like, ‘I think that’s my nose…’ Composite portraits are an interesting way of getting around issues.
Identity Milla, at the Fabra i Coats Factory arts complex, Sant Adriá, Barcelona, 2012.
SS: Who did you depict here in NYC?
JRG: The first idea was to have children on the towers - they said no, but activate the towers in some way. I said we could talk about nature, or real life, can we add a child? The child had to not look Third World, meaning not of color, so we can contrast. This is not just a problem in the Third World, because there are children who are trafficked and enslaved here in New York City. We talked about how to tie that in.
I said, 'the eyes are going to be about 6 feet, so I could do a reflection in the irises of children doing work they shouldn’t be doing.' So that what the mural is about. So this BIG mural is all just for that.
It’s an amalgam of children, because in circumstances like this, you don’t want the child to get attention. This is three kids photoshopped together, nose, eyes and hair, but you’d never know. I sent in about 16 layouts. It’s the Westin. the Wynn, Street Art for Mankind and the ILO, so it was one of those projects where I sit back, breathe, and say, ‘OK, this is the way it is’.
This mural has huge importance because it is the main topic that we represent. There are currently 125 million children in forced labor, 73 million of them in hazardous environments, and 22,000 die every year.
- Thibault Becker, Street Art for Mankind.
Work like this is more powerful than speeches - Vinicius Pinheiro, ILO New York.
Getting into the details. (Photos: Just A Spectator)
SS: Are there moments that make it all worthwhile, times when you realize, 'this is why I do this?'
JRG: It could be something as sublimely beautiful as your kid looking at you as a superhero because, ‘Look what Dad did’ to where I do a piece and see a hundred people crying. Because what happened is just that wonderful.
SS: Is there any piece that you’re particularly proud of in terms of impact?
JRG: It was right next to the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, all made with in-kind donations. It was about the importance of the multi-cultural aspect of the United States. Even though White Supremacists say it’s not, diversity is it’s backbone.
It was going to go really big – a big press launch, on all the talk shows, photographed by satellite, but it got stifled. I have a couple of theories. Maybe the director got scared it would get out of our hands and destroy her career. The people at Google weren’t getting permission from Washington DC to update the image. It was literally up for an hour then it came down. There was direct decision-making to stop it.
Thats when I made the decision that I need a team. If I had a major team around me when that was happening, that wouldn’t have happened. Because what’s coming next is even bigger than that.
'Out of Many One', Washington DC, 2014. Photos courtesy of the artist
SS: A lot of street artists are about impact, whereas your work is serene. Is that a conscious decision?
JRG: Yes, I would rather have the concept of blending, and ‘being in unison with’ than being jarring and in conflict with everything. The whole idea of harmony is something I value a lot. You take a building, maybe it’s not that nice, but why not blend with it instead of imposing art?
There are two ways of doing street art: One is the parachute effect, the other is diving in. One is the artist with his or her style that’s set, dropping in, doing their style then flying out. No talking to anybody, and the new image is being sold as prints the next week.
Then there the other one, who comes in, stays, talks, understands, feels, looks at tones. It’s not like ‘I use these colors’ - I switch colors based on what’s around me. What’s being said makes sense to the people who live there. It makes them want to have that piece. They understand that the work behind it is something about them. As opposed to being, Oh, that’s a commercially recognizable work by _____’. I’m more comfortable with the second, because it becomes my recognizable way of working.
SS: How do you feel about your seeing your work deteriorating or gone?
JRG: I do both: I do things that last forever, and I do things that fade away. It’s another way of using the medium – 'What do I want to say?' If I want it to fade away, it’s because the narrative talks about our impermanence; how we should take care of each other today, because tomorrow we’re not here. So the concept of how the material acts is put into the final artwork.
If it fades away, it’s because we should worry about it, or contemplate it. It’s poetic.
If I want it to stay forever, it’s because it’s the narrative. If it’s permanent, it’s because it's ok for it to be permanent, in the way it effects the people there. We are no different than a billboard advertising company. As an artist, imposing your artwork for years – for some people it’s not ok. You have to take that into account; in this place they’re not all comfortable with it = this is going to fade. In this place, if they’re more cool with it = it’ll stay for years. So it's all about listening.
Santa Coloma de Gramenet, Barcelona, tasked Gerada with unifying a diverse community of 114 nationalities 'CÔR' depicts the municipality as a heart, where the city’s multiculturalism beats through its veins. Photo courtesy of the artist,
SS: You’ve put a lot of work into it, you don’t feel…
JRG: Oh man. I’ve got to tell you, I think it’s absolutely beautiful to be able to do a lot of work… just to let it go. To do something that intensely defined on something so difficult is like a performance Then to sit back and let it go, it’s like a Mandala. It’s that kind of contemplational – there’s something sort of sacred about it.
It’ll last forever on the internet. There will always be images – photographs and video. We’re living in an age where how that work lives on is curious – it doesn’t have to be physically in the location. So it’s not like I just completely let go. There is care in the images taken.
Beirut Digital District and BBAD (Built by Associative Data) commisioned Gerada to paint a building that bears the marks of war in Bachoura, on the front line of the 1975 Civil war. 'Connection' 2017, portrays a boy with an Arduino circuit board, alluding to the need for innovation and education for a better future. Photo courtesy of the artist
SS: How do you do it all?
JRG: Slowly but surely. I’d like to do more. I’m looking for that major expansion. I'm actively looking. 2030 is going to be a big thing, with a lot of initiatives with artists like me giving attention to projects that are really good for us.
Even sponsors I’m difficult about. I did my project with Lavazza because everything they’re doing is going towards ecological causes. The whole company has done a U-turn. Francesco Lavazza has taken these billions that they have, and they’re leading research on changing capsules to degradable plastic. That’s the last bad thing they do.
SS: What’s happening in 2030?
JRG: The UN put out goals they want to reach by the year 2030 – more gender equality, ending child slavery… there are projects happening around the world to give attention to these. And those projects are working. One of the problems about doing street art for these is that it stays in the anecdotal. What I’m hoping to do in the future is to change that around, where artwork becomes something much more.
I’ve been talking to a lot of artists about what they’re doing in the future. People don’t realize that a lot of these guys are like hardcore, studied historians. They’re intellectual, really smart.The most amazing conversation I’ve ever had was with Blu. That guy is smart, a full-on anarchist. He just gave a big middle finger to this whole thing, because he sees it as just empty… a circus, being usurped by people who just care about the market. He’s just backed out 100%. When this idiot did this thing to him in Bologna where he [took work from the streets into his gallery] and Blu greyed out all of his murals – that curator is an idiot, especially to Blu. You can’t just suck that up.
SS: Who else do you admire?
JRG: Inti from Chile, that guy’s super-brilliant, C215, he’s an expert on Caravaggio.They’re interesting, smart, intellectual – they’ll go out and drink and be funny, but if you sit down and have a conversation they’re like encyclopedias. When you think about this group of people, like Faith XV11 and Swoon, these are really deep, smart people.
It’s not just that they can draw or paint. It’s a philosophical endeavor. That’s why when you get it, you get to these levels. You live this! This is all you are. You wake up in the morning, this is what you do. You go to sleep, this is what you do. It’s not like you pop in and out. You live this. You’re born this, you couldn’t do anything else.
Top right - with Thibault Becker and Martha Cooper. Photos: Just A Spectator. Bottom row: Sarah Sansom.
SS: A lot of artists do work for themselves, like Kobra dong 18 murals here last year, and it’s all about him. What drives you to make it about a social cause?