The spray-painted image of Tony’s tightly clipped mustache and smooth fade is beginning to show its age — but his dark eyes still stare out intently from the wall at indifferent passersby. This is still the Loisaida, he might boast: Spanglish for the Lower East Side. Tony’s pupils are guarded, harboring the memory of the violent episode in 1993 that brought about his untimely demise, and led to his immortalization by the guy they call Chico.
Ten years on, this graffiti memorial to Tony, along 10th Street at Avenue B, slowly sheds its spray-painted skin. Perhaps soon to disappear completely, like so many other murals, should a new building owner have a different concept of what constitutes art. The neighborhood has been constantly changing. Defiantly though, the history of these streets is recorded on the walls in bright color. In the early morning hours, as the fierce sounds of rising metal gates echo through the neighborhood, Chico’s murals tell the story of the Loisaida.
People say Chico never wears a mask when he works, and the story goes that the noxious Krylon fumes have made him insane. No one can remember a time when the neighborhood wasn’t one big gallery of his work. He used to do his own thing, hitting abandoned buildings with bright motifs. Got arrested a few times. His first mural — long gone — was a jab at then President Reagan: a tank driving toward the words "World War III." Then local businesses offered to pay him $100, then more, to paint walls near their stores. It’s strange to see his rendition of larger-than-life cutesy pets on one corner, and the sounds and sights of the barrio on the next, but someone was footing the bill — Chico was making ends meet, he was getting known. Families and dealers came knocking to put up memorials to the dead.
There are distinct qualities within each piece: tone, depth and subject. At 12th and A, a cartoonish cucaracha holds court with a fiendish rat, promoting a local pest control service. Just after September 11th, 2001, Chico painted a simple, lasting memorial on Avenue A, just south of 14th Street. Flowers and candles showed up within minutes. Today, it ages peacefully, unblemished, part of the neighborhood’s fabric.
According to those in the neighborhood, Chico’s been at it since the early 1980s, maybe even before that, tagging the old redbird subway cars after sneaking into locked rail yards. Grew up in the projects on Avenue D, the Jacob Riis Houses. Just moved back there recently from a few avenues over. Actually started working there again, too. Wanted a job so badly after he dropped out of high school, that he would tag "Chico" on the building manager’s door — the name his mom used when he was little because he looked like old man Chico back in Puerto Rico. Each time it was painted over he would tag it again. One evening, the police showed up at his door. Word on the street had it that Antonio Garcia was the perpetrator. They saw Antonio’s – err, Chico’s – canvasses stacked against the wall next to cans of spray paint. He pleaded that he was an artist and simply wanted a job. He wanted to beautify and speak to his neighborhood. Fight back against the graffiti. Next thing, Chico got paid to color the drab high-rise community.
It seems remarkable how difficult it is to find this man whose name dots block after block within the area bounded by Avenues A and D, from Houston to 14th Streets. Someone mentioned a bar he frequents after work. A few more inquiries and ensuing directives to other bars and it seems pretty clear that the man enjoys a drink. Walking into a tiny joint on C, a small, three-dimensional, spray-painted bust protrudes from a canvas, "Chico" scrawled tightly in its corner. The bartender hasn’t seen Chico in a while. No one has seen him, actually. Seems he disappears on occasion. Heard he was over in Germany doing murals in restaurants. Or was it Japan this time? They love his stuff over there.
The slick-haired bar manager saunters over in a pair of black, pleated pants. Two henchmen with indecipherable foreign accents cackle next to him. They speak about Chico with simultaneous fondness for his art and disgust with his antics, clenching and unclenching their enormous fists as they talk. A head pops out from behind two turntables. This guy, skinny, pale, practically trips over himself as he busts out a laptop. He throws a greasy bang behind his ear and begins a slideshow of the mural that Chico recently painted in his apartment. A subway car bursts through a brick wall. One of those old redbird varieties. He proceeds to pull over other slackers at the bar to show this off, then he jumps back behind the decks.
Over on Avenue D, an explosion of bright faces and messages to people flicker from the walls, the drab browns replaced. Even in the snow, with bike frames rusting along a sagging chain link fence, it feels like summer, thanks to a huge bright mural of the weekly farmers mercado.
Houston marks the end of the line and the gateway to other distinct parts of the city. High above the street, the recently departed Celia Cruz smiles broadly from a mural that went up right after she died. A guy cruises past and notes that before Celia, the canvas contained the Pope, his hands held out with Saddam on one side and Bush on the other. Legend has it, the FBI told Chico to take the mural down. Facing the heat, he proceeded to paint over the politicos and left the Pope. Here and there, a few posers have left weak tags on Chico’s art. But for the most part, his work is left untouched. This is Chico’s Loisaida. But he is nowhere to be found. And he seems to like it that way.