Chico is the man for youth in Legends project

Graffiti artist Antonio Garcia a.k.a. Chico, third from left, and Eric Diaz, director of Vision Urbana, at rear right, working with teenagers in the Legends of L.E.S. Project.  Photo by Michael Ossorguine
Graffiti artist Antonio Garcia a.k.a. Chico, third from left, and Eric Diaz, director of Vision Urbana, at rear right, working with teenagers in the Legends of L.E.S. Project. Photo by Michael Ossorguine

BY MICHAEL OSSORGUINE | Antonio “Chico” Garcia, the famed Lower East Side graffiti artist, is back visiting his home turf with a mission to educate and inspire local youth through the legacy of Puerto Rican leaders of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

Chico, who relocated to Tampa several years ago, was contacted by Eric Diaz, the director of Vision Urbana Inc., a nonprofit after-school program focused on keeping youth on a positive path. Diaz’s pitch: a weekly arts and culture class — the Legends of L.E.S. Project — at which community leaders speak with local teenagers about the role models of their own youth who diffused Puerto Rican culture into the community, New York City and even the United States as a whole. Chico didn’t hesitate to say “yes.”

“I want these kids to have a role model, and continue my legacy as an artist,” the graffiti legend said. “When Eric asked me to come down, I said, ‘Well, that’s a great project. I want to jump on it.’”

“When he came back, it was almost a mob. You know: Pied Piper,” Diaz said.

Along with Chico, Diaz teaches volunteers about iconic Lower East Side figures, such as Tato Laviera, who attended the National Poets Dinner by invitation of former President Jimmy Carter, and coined the term “Spanglish” in his poetic verse; or Mary Spink, the woman responsible for many of the neighborhood’s affordable housing projects.

Chico, on the other hand, is the guiding hand and inspiration for the kids, helping them create canvasses for the revered figures that will be on display at the Sixth Street Community Center, at 638 E. Sixth St., among other venues.

Chico’s goal is to encourage kids to use their own imagination in relating the legacies of these legends to everyday life in the Lower East Side. For last week’s session, Chico suggested two ideas: drawing the Campos Plaza public-housing development or a visual representation of the word “Spanglish.”

Campos Plaza, on E. 13th St. between Avenues B and C, is named for Pedro Albizu Campos, a key political leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement against the colonial powers of Spain and later the U.S.

After the kids come up with the concept for the piece, Chico will take it home and refine it, using graffiti and airbrush. The canvases will be small and portable, so that they can make the rounds of local venues.

In fact, Chico is still sore about losing what he considered to be “his wall,” at Sixth St. and Avenue C, after RNC gave it to a New Jersey-based graffiti crew to decorate a few years ago. This long stretch of wall is where Chico had originally planned to depict his L.E.S. Legends. He feels RNC took it away from him because he was “too political,” having done a mural there endorsing Barack Obama over John McCain.

Despite that setback, Chico’s murals adorn countless gates and walls in the East Village and Lower East Side, and according to Diaz, most commissioned graffiti art in that neighborhood is attributed to the artist, who is now in his early 50s. With so much experience, Chico can churn out a vibrant “masterpiece” in only a few hours, as he did in the evening twilight on Sun., June 5, in a mural dedicated to Muhammad Ali, who he called a friend and role model.

“Art is just a gift — it’s something I can’t control sometimes,” Chico said.

Sixty percent of Hispanics on the Lower East Side identify as Puerto Rican, according to Vision Urbana. Learning about their rich history in the neighborhood is essential to growing up as an “AmeRican,” Diaz said.

“We want to give our young people an understanding of the cultural history of men and women who were amazing, brilliant people, to inspire them to say they can be amazing and brilliant, as well,” he said.

Vision Urbana uses donated space, plus grants from organizations, such as the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, to coordinate their banner projects. In return, Vision Urbana engages the 160 children it services by posting volunteer opportunities with organizations that provide them funding and space. For the Legends of L.E.S. Project, New Life, a local youth outreach program that also targets teens who are at risk for drug use and crime, donated a classroom at 66 Clinton St.