James de la Vega's drawings, paintings, and taglines can be found on sidewalks, park benches, and brick walls throughout the city. A gallery of his work can be seen at VirtualBoricua.org, or you can visit his store and studio on 104th and Lexington.
You've got one of the largest galleries in the world: the streets of New York. How does the location you choose affect the art?
I don't change what I'm doing for the audience, though I do think about what's going on. A lot of the work I'm doing these days particularly is really about things I'm going through myself. So I've tried to simplify these things into simple drawings and simple thoughts, but they really do cater to everybody. It's capturing people's thoughts. You've got to react quickly. And a lot of the time it's about world issues which affect everybody, like the Pope. I've been doing more work downtown recently, below 86th Street, but I never change the work for the audience.
Is there a difference for you between painting something permanent on a canvas and something fleeting on the street that will be washed away?
I like doing permanent works sometimes. But I've found that my message is more effective in its impermanence. It's like, we take each other for granted in this world. We don't even know how to appreciate people anymore. People are so consumed with the chasing of a dollar that we really have lost touch with each other. Have you ever bumped into someone and they asked, "How are you?" You'll say, "Oh, I'm fine," but deep down inside, you don't feel so good. I want to know the real answer. Why are you sad? Why are you happy? Those things interest me more. You'll never find me saying, "Hey, how are you?" because I don't give a shit. I want to know how you feel for real. And to me, I think I can best deliver some of these messages in their brevity, as opposed to if they were engraved in the ground forever.
From who or what do you draw inspiration?
You study everybody. Every major artist, you learn from them, and you apply what you've learned. Picasso teaches us freedom. Keith Herring and Andy Warhol, that's marketing and promotion. Salvador Dali was into that too, Paul Klee, the line drawings in The New Yorker, I love all of that, and I take what I've learned from that and what I've learned on the streets, and I put that into language people can understand.
When you considered running for state senate, your platform was "Free teeth for the toothless." That's the most decent thing a candidate can offer. Do you still have political aspirations? Will you run again?
All the art has always been about social issues, political issues. It's always been about getting people to rethink the injustices in the world, but more importantly to empower people, to try and strengthen them to believe in themselves, and to believe that they can do something powerful with their lives. That they don't have to be victims of a machine. I can engage in politics in so many different levels. I've considered running for mayor. At one point, people questioned the idea. People said to me, "Why would you run for political office? You're an artist." And to me, they've always been connected those worlds. My art has always been about politics. Running for mayor, or running for anything I might want to do, is still in sync with the idea that we encourage people to become their dreams. To believe that they can do something powerful with their lives. One of the biggest problems you'll find out here is people having self-doubt, people not believing that the world can belong to them also, that they can think outside these boundaries.
What advice would you give Mayor Bloomberg?
I think Bloomberg is a genius. He bought the election, and became a major figure in New York City and in politics. Personally, I wish he would visit poor neighborhoods like this. Maybe walk through and really talk to the people, say hi. The city was in trouble, and here's this guy with money and a plan. I'm not for or against his politics, but I think he's brilliant.