I met Ben Rojas sometime around 2008 at a little wellness gym called Embora in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, where we trained in ninjitsu and combative street fighting. Embora was a default gathering place for boho people-of-color--an alternative fitness joint --where yoga, dance, and other specialized classes were taught. The place naturally attracted artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs from around the way. Ben's vibrant life-sized paintings, incorporating faces of community members, adorned the mustard yellow walls of the space that overlooked us while we trained.

Ben has long employed a multimedia approach to depicting universal themes of warriorhood, resistance, colonialism, through his personal subjectivity of spirituality, ancestry, and Latin American culture. A native of the Bay Area, Ben helped found a street art collective called Trust Your Struggle, which has toured around the country, and throughout parts of Latin America, the U.S. and the Philippines.  An art teacher at New Design High School in the Lower East Side, a new husband and father, and a grad student at NYU's Art Education Masters program at the Steinhart school, Ben has integrated his many creative worlds to effect change in his community. 

Your family is from El Salvador. What made them come to the U.S. and settle down in the Bay Area?

My father’s mother was already in the Bay Area so my father followed in hope to be reunited with his mother who had left him with his father in El Salvador. My mother had an aunt and uncle already here in the States working so they applied to have my mother join them.  I am assuming they both wanted to leave El Salvador to make a better living in the U.S.

The Bay Area seems like a pretty open-minded place for budding artists. How did growing up there help support your creative development?

Artists are everywhere in the Bay Area. Most people you meet are some kind of artist, which is both great and not so great at the same time. I was introduced to that artistic world as a youth writing graffiti and being involved in Hiphop culture. Within that Bay Area culture you quickly meet so many types of artists, MCs, filmmakers, writers, actors, painters, poets, musicians, dancers you name it. So being enveloped in that world so young helped establish a strong love for the arts, not only the arts but also art that meant something, art that fought for something. It was also very DIY. Most of the painters that I learned the most from were not art school graduates, they taught themselves and hung out with other great painters.

Were there people who discouraged you from going in this direction, and to find a more conventional path?

A few, but nothing that held me back from doing the art that I wanted to do. My parents were always supportive of my art. Their biggest concern was how I was going to pay bills as an artist, which any artist could probably relate to.

You are a multimedia artist, but what medium was the one that sparked your passion first?

That’s a tough question to answer. I would have to say illustration; I have always loved to draw. I remember as a child my father stealing tracing paper from his office job to give to me and I would trace all kinds of images from the books we had at home.

How do you think your art communicates who you are?

I believe my art communicates who I am through the stories that are told. I love stories. I was a bookworm from day one and still am. My visual pieces always have stories on top of stories. I am a visual storyteller, a trickster in many ways.

You are an arts educator as well, working mostly with high school aged youth. In a culture where pursuing art is not coveted or encouraged by most people, how do you speak to your students about the value of art in society?

I don’t actually do a lot of talking regarding that subject, the young people already know of the value even if they cannot speak on it. They show me they know by their love for my class, even if they don’t “do well” in an academic sense. They are constantly comparing my class to others and they thirst for the freedom they feel in an art class in other classes. I can on my part show my thrill and love for the art by just being enthusiastic about my work and their art. I also am constantly showing them contemporary artists that are doing fresh work, that isn’t just frozen in a museum or gallery.

My murals are usually created with the surrounding communities, folks on the block. There is a very interactive element with other people. It is also a different experience in that while you work on a mural in a public space you are always being asked questions and being given feedback from the average person walking by.

A lot of your work speaks on topics of colonialism, indigenous history, spirituality, and your ancestors, etc. Can you talk about how these topics became prevailing themes in your work?

In high school I became part of student empowerment group for Black and Brown youth called ST.E.P. which placed college students of color to mentor high school students. Through that group I learned so much of my people’s history, spirituality and most importantly lit that fire that made me want to educate myself the correct way. From that point on I was basically hooked on learning as much as I could on colonialism, indigenous spirituality, and the brutal and beautiful history of Natives, Europeans, and Africans in the Americas.  Ancestors hold a powerful role in my life. I see it as a duty and an honor to place the ancestors in my art as a homage to what they have done to keep us alive.

Being a new parent, how do you pass on to your little one how she can explore her own creativity?

I am currently in NYU’s Art Education Masters program where I am reading and learning a ton on how to cultivate human development through the arts. So I am more aware of what my role should be in letting her explore and learn on her own. Play is also so powerful for children, especially toddlers for development, just letting her play, play with other children, play with different materials, basically touching all the bases for her multiple senses. My wife does a great job at taking her to classes that help with that. Also my wife usually has our daughter in her dance company rehearsals which is great.

Your wife Adia is an Afro-Haitian dance instructor. How does her cultural history— that is so prevalent in her work—intersect with yours in an artistic context, as well as a personal context?

Both of our art forms are clearly understood to be part of lives, not something separate. We are our art, our art is us. We not only share that quality but also a great love for our ancestors, which we work with in our art forms all the time.

What materials do you enjoy creating the most with?

At this moment in my life I am really enjoying working with ink, pencil, charcoal and markers. In regards to my 3D work with altars I love working with a large variety of materials, from animal skulls, knives, machetes, food and textiles.

What’s the difference in experience for you between creating life-size mural pieces in a live environment (like a mural on a wall) compared to a stationary canvas in a contained space?

Huge difference. My murals are usually created with the surrounding communities, folks on the block. There is a very interactive element with other people. It is also a different experience in that while you work on a mural in a public space you are always being asked questions and being given feedback from the average person walking by. A piece on a canvas that ends up in an enclosed space is way more personal, I can meditate and reflect on my process on an individual level.

You love doing portraits. How do you find your subjects?

I used to use other artist’s photography up until a few years ago. Now I take my own photos of friends. For the series that I’ve been working on for the last few years I focus on Brown people of the Americas and the Caribbean.

Practice people skills, learn how to speak to all kinds of people, learn the art of Code Switching. Practice speaking and writing about your art. Most of the time its how you speak about your art that makes people love your art or give you funding.

Your portraits are a bit re-imagined, not literally what you see of the person. They are placed in a different context, like what you see in your warrior series. Do you imagine the character first, or do you first depict the person and then figure out how to adorn them later?

I’ve done both. Sometimes I see the images in my head before and then adorn their bodies. Often I take a portrait of a person then add images onto their person, inspired by their personality or position of their body.

What’s the most difficult part about getting your work out there to the public?

I don’t know. I guess not having an agent or a gallery to endorse you.

What did the name Borish come from?

When I started writing graffiti as a youth my friends and I formed a crew called ISH. My intials are BOR so I just put them together. My other name Mincho is actually a kind of family name, all boys named Benjamin in El Salvador are called Mincho as a nickname. Vega is one of my family last names.

Can you speak a little about Trust Your Struggle and Trust Your Hustle?

Trust Your Struggle (TYS) is an artist collective that was formed in 2004 with myself and two other friends, Robert Trujillo and Scott Hoag. At that time we individually were part of different crews but felt that the three of us together shared a common goal of a visual art based on social justice, so we formed TYS. Trust Your Hustle was the name of two mural tours we did as a group in 2004 and 2006. The tour’s name was changed the other year when part of TYS went to the Philippines. Essentially what the tour was about was creating a network between us and communities we visited and painting as many murals as we could. In 2004 we traveled through Mexico and parts of Central America and in 2006 we crossed the US in a van from New York to San Francisco. You can view videos of our work on Vimeo or Youtube, just search under those names. On a side note our names have been used by others (clothing line named Trust Your Hustle and Urbanoutfitters using Trust Your Struggle) so just to put that out there that that isn’t us. We always thought of the slogan Trust Your Struggle to be of the People, free to use, its a state of mind not really “ours.” We always love seeing people online getting tattooed TYS, it's beautiful.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am still working on the series “Elegy” which are the illustrated portraits on paper. I am working on some new pieces which I hope will be part of a new solo show for September in Philly.

Any words of wisdom to budding young artists who are just finding their passion to pursue art professionally?

Practice people skills, learn how to speak to all kinds of people, learn the art of Code Switching. Practice speaking and writing about your art. Most of the time its how you speak about your art that makes people love your art or give you funding. Pay dues and know your place amongst elders who have been doing art before you were born. Take advantage of any free classes or studio sessions. and last, be humble in your rumble.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photos courtesy of Ben's website, Boyuan Gao, and feature photo by Miguel "Bounce" Perez

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