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Ben Rojas--The Warrior's Weapon is a Paint Brush

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Ben Rojas--The Warrior's Weapon is a Paint Brush

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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Bisco and Jasmine: Unifying Visions, Youth, and (While They're At It) The Middle East

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Bisco and Jasmine: Unifying Visions, Youth, and (While They're At It) The Middle East

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I met Bisco Smith (a.k.a. Brad) several years ago after having first been enamored with his visual art as a designer for one of my favorite music labels growing up, Definitive Jux, after my friend put me onto his work. I also admired the aerosol art that he adorned New York City walls with, his thoughtful lyricism as an emcee, his passion as a youth art educator. After just relocating to LA this past summer, Bisco, along with his creative partner (and girlfriend)--cinematographer and photographer Jasmine Hemery--banded together with a few other talented friends to bring their love of hip-hop and youth development to Israel as a vehicle to unify Israeli and Arab Israeli youth. There they used their hip-hop sensibility to teach mural painting, song-writing, and dance. In this joint interview with Bisc and Jasmine, we give you a glimpse into how their fleeting idea became a transcontinental art program, and how this Jack and Jacqueline-of-all-trades pair continuously push each other to the next level.

As U.S.-based multimedia artists, how did you develop an arts enrichment program in Israel? 

Bisc:I work with an organization called Arts By the People. They're based out of New Jersey, and I got involved with them via my friend Gus doing street art workshops. Gus connected me to this guy Paul who's got a lot of friends in Israel. We were driving around one day and we were just like, “It would be crazy to run this workshop in Israel,” and two weeks later Gus, Paul and I put together a PDF to get money--just breaking down what we wanted to do--and boom! He got us funding in a week. Okay, maybe not a week. It took a few steps, but he  reached out to one person, who reached out to another person, and maybe a few steps later, we got funding and we got a place to go to. It was a very fast process.

We then connected with Project Harmony, a program who works with a great organization in Israel called Hand In Hand. The umbrella that we went to Israel under is Hand In Hand, and inside of it was Arts By The People and Project Harmony. The airfare was privately funded for, and the accommodations were privately funded. We raised money for the materials, which were all donated by friends and family in a really quick matter of time. Between Hand-In-Hand, Arts By The People, and Project Harmony, and donors and friends and family, a lot of people got together to make it work. I went to do the street art workshop. Jasmine came to document everything, Gus planned to do hip-hop song writing, and our friend Renee Floresca came to teach dance.

How many kids did you work with? 

Bisc: We worked with about 50-60 youth. It fluctuated especially because Ramadan started around then. It was an English language summer camp that is run out of Hand In Hand, which is an English language school, so they teach in each classroom--they have one teacher who teaches Hebrew, and one teacher that speaks Arabic in each classroom. They use English as the common thread. It’s a mix of Jewish and Arab kids. Some from Palestine and some from Jerusalem. It’s very progressive and political. There are a few of those schools in Israel.

How does religion play a role in the day-to-day life of the Israeli youth that you worked with?

Bisc: In Israel, things are segregated by religion. I don’t know too much about the experiences of Christian and Muslim Arabs, vs. Jews, but pretty much, everyone is separated because religion is the key factor out there. Younger generations and more progressive people are changing stuff. Most of the parents of the kids that we worked with are artists or creative people. They function in not your everyday world.

Going there, we went for art. We didn’t go for politics, we didn’t go for religion.

As Americans, did the actual experience of being there change your initial view of that region of the world? 

Jasmine: I feel like our experience was only formed through our actual journey out there. Initially, we went to Palestine, but we also saw The Holocaust Museum in Israel, and so understanding both perspectives changed what we thought. I think we ended the trip realizing that it's just such a complex situation beyond what we thought we knew. Both sides have views that are relatable. I left feeling much more empathetic to both sides. I think being in The States you have such a skewed perception that leans towards one end.

Bisc:Going there, we went for art. We didn’t go for politics, we didn’t go for religion. Everyone goes to Israel for religion and politics. People don’t really go there for art, so our political knowledge was only what we hear on the internet and it was very skewed. I wasn’t scared by that. I was more focused on the kids than I was about the political climate.

Was working with the youth there challenging because of language or cultural barriers? 

Bisc:I don’t think so. The kids we worked with were very educated. I initially thought that we were going to go to a more underserved area. I think it was actually pretty privileged--not super rich and balling out--but the kids, even to be in a program like that you have to have a family that is doing pretty okay out there.

The kids just loved what we were doing. After the first day, we had their full attention, they were excited about it. I’d say, the age for me was the toughest part. We worked with some kids that were as young as nine, and I’m used to working with kids who are older than that. It was harder to do what I normally do--and I had to on the spot change my approach--but only because of their age, not because they were Israeli or Palestinian.

Jasmine:One of the things that struck us the most was that they had all of the same kid mannerisms as anywhere. Kids are kids no matter where they are from, but sometimes we did experience a language barrier.

Watch Words to the World: The Making of a Mural,a short documentary about the Israel youth project:

WORDS TO THE WORLD - The Making of a Mural from Little Giant on Vimeo.

How did the Israel project fit into the natural scope of your work? 

Jasmine: I feel that this fits into the evolution of our careers that will include more philanthropic causes, including service as part of our common work.

Bisc: I think it’s important to work with young people. I’ve been doing that for a long time. I have definitely been fortunate enough to give back through my work, and I’m sure that’s not going to stop, but I really want to work with all ages sharing these skills and crafts.

Why hip-hop?

I believe that hip-hop is great at breaking boundaries and uniting different ages and cultures, and bring them under one umbrella. Who knows?--Those kids could form an Arab-Jewish collaborative rap group, or slowly make their way to create change through the continuation of hip-hop--which is about unification.

To flip the script and talk about your working relationship, what other major work have you two collaborated on? 

Bisc:Jasmine hasbeen working on these shorts, and she’s been letting me help her assist direct, and do a lot of different stuff on that. I started working with her on her films, and I would score her movies. Then we did a project where it was my music, and she shot me a music video. This is the first time that we’ve travelled overseas and created a documentary piece. Definitely it’s just the first one. We’re both kind of hyped on doing more of it, and it’s a great opportunity for dope co-created projects. We’ve been doing that since day one.

How do you guys keep inspired and sustain your rhythm for creating, individually or in a partnership?

Jasmine: I think as an artist, you are inspired daily. It can be something as simple as someone crossing the street, that you just want to explore and dig deeper, whether it's in film or writing, or painting. I think my rhythm is just everyday life, allowing myself to be inspired to make something. And this guy here is super creative and multi-talented, so naturally in conversation, we’ll be listening to the same thing, and talking about it, and then we create something.

Bisc:We think on the same wavelength. I mean, we’ll both look at the same thing and say “that’s dope." For me, because I always work alone, we’ve had some struggles with Jasmine giving me real criticism and feedback, but it’s a lot of growing and a lot of learning. It’s working in a way that it’s only going to be iller. I think we push each other. I think that where I fall short, she steps in and makes it better. I think we really do fill in the space for each other where we aren’t as strong. It’s done very effortlessly. Say I’m writing something for a client--I’m not the best writer--I ask her, and she will change my perspective and make me better. Boom!

Jasmine: And I’m not the best talker [laughs].

Bisc:You’ll see that I like talking a lot, so I’ll talk for her. It works like that. It’s something creative where we both do for each other. Like when we are directing partners in film; I talk for her, I don’t mind talking where I’m telling people what to do or where to fall on set, and she’s the eye, and together we create a really good overall holistic and creative person. One more thing to add to are both of our goals. Right now I don’t have an ultimate goal, or there's absence of an overall goal. That’s something that I am struggling with in the present--not struggling with--but I think creatively, it’s something that I have to work towards because I have to see it in order to get there. She’s been helping me a lot with visualizing that imagery.

Looking forward, I have no idea what it will lead me to. I’m going to quote Steve Jobs and say, “you can’t connect the dots going forward.” Right now, I just don’t know.

Did Israel fulfill any long standing goals that you had for your careers? 

Jasmine: In terms of traveling, I’ve always traveled and brought a camera and took to photographs, but now that I’m studying film, it was an opportunity to evolve my skills and try to do film, creating what is going to be a miniature documentary. I was trying to capture moments. It’s very different than just taking a photo. You’re capturing an elongated period of time. It was a really interesting experience.

Bisc: For me, I can’t specifically answer that. I don’t know. It’s weird for me to say it, but I don’t really know what I’m doing. I don’t really have a "thing." I just kind of take the art as it comes, and this just came to me. I just feel like I was fortunate to get the opportunity and I mean--I paint walls, and I come from that world for more than half of my life. I’ve been involved in that culture for a long time. It’s definitely a continuation of what I come from--the root to my art and creativity. It was also a continuation of being Jewish and coming from that as a whole. Looking forward, I have no idea what it will lead me to. I’m going to quote Steve Jobs and say, "you can’t connect the dots going forward." Right now, I just don’t know.

On the surface it looks like you guys are living the dream. In your day-to-day reality, are there ever times where being in a creative profession is exhausting or unproductive? 

Jasmine: I definitely have creative blocks. For me, I have to force myself to sit there and work through it. Editing for me is really hard. I kind of have to just sit there and force myself to do it. It makes it easier to think in terms of projects. I try to do one project at a time.

Bisc: I don’t know man, for me, I just work. Somedays like today I didn’t do shit. I sat at this desk all day and I organized files. I did bullshit all day. Because I’m in a creative block right now…I don’t know, I guess it comes and goes, at the end I just have faith that everything comes my way, and I’ll make art and I’ll make money. There’s a lot of shit that I want to do. If I write it all out, like I did recently, it becomes overwhelming. I mean, our day-to-day, it’s pretty normal. We don’t stay up until the morning doing art and smoking weed and shit. I feel like I’m getting old, and I’m trying to be healthy. I’m just going to the gym and trying to eat well. It’s a balance between professionalism and artistry, business and personal, love and relationships, and regular life stuff too...

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photography and video by Jasmine Hemery

Check out Bisco's creative agency Daylight Curfew Creative, a creative agency that specializes in design, apparel, identity, instillation, web, video, and audio.

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Sheryo's Imaginary Creatures

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Sheryo's Imaginary Creatures

My boyfriend met Sheryo at our neighbor's going away party this past summer, where I made a grandma move and went to bed early. They kicked it for a while on our building's rooftop with some folks, drinking beers and sitting stale in the mid-July humidity talking about her street art exploits. "You've got to meet this girl!" he kept telling me. "Her work is ridiculously dope."

Sheryo's work is like your childhood's dream cartoon show. Her characters are blocky, bold, and off kilter. They are playful, and mischievous, and totally saturated with bright colors, and strong lines--like the kind in a really good coloring book. 

When I finally met her, it was at a North Brooklyn bar, where we ate salty tacos in the rain, and talked about each of our travel experiences in Asia. Sheryo, originally from Singapore is a pixie of a woman, and ferocious as hell. She met her Australian boyfriend while he was traveling in South East Asia. They connected over a shared interest in street art.  When he was ready to move onto the next leg of his trip to Cambodia, he asked her on a whim to go with him. Of course she did. That's the kind of person Sheryo is. By the time of our meeting, they had been together for several months, and were living in Williamsburg on work visas. 

Sheryo's art has become a traveling graffiti show, which is now a self sustaining lifestyle, sometimes supplemented by a handsome list of corporate clientele. As I write this, she's in Cambodia commissioned for the branding of a new hotel. Last I heard from her, she had managed to get herself chased down the street by a flock of angry cops for beautifying a wall, and broke her ankle on the get-away route. The self proclaimed "spirit painter" is confined by no limits, and evokes her childhood to draw up the most imaginary characters, and will stop at nothing to actualize her imagination. Here's a little glimpse into her head:

At what age did you start to become fascinated with drawing different types of characters? 

The first thing I ever drew was a squiggly apple. I remember the moment my pencil hit the paper. It was bliss. The characters came shortly after. Characters were always sorta my thing...they were like toys but even better.

You mentioned before to me that your mom doesn't really get it, and she often asks you what is going on in your head. Along those lines, where do the characters come from, and how do they relate to one another?

My mom's really supportive but she says she doesn't know where I got my drawing skills or characters from because no one in my family's an artist, and I have eight aunties haha. I just tell her it was the sunday cartoons, '90s sci-fi movies and the horror books I read. I also had a nanny and her son taught me how to draw bubble letters. I remember watching certain movies so many times, Total Recall, Robocop, The Shining, Back to the Future, Kingpin, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Beetlejuice, wrestling (WWF). I really do remember my childhood in vivid detail, but recent adventures escape me for some reason, I think these characters all came from my childhood.

Is there a certain world in your mind where they all exist and interact with one another?

Yeah, I party with them all the time.

You mentioned that Singapore is a very Westernized country. What were some of the positives and negatives of that growing up as it related to your art? 

As you can tell by now, most of my art's influenced by American movies and culture. I don't think there is any positive or negative from it, but I do hope Singapore had a stronger culture I could tap from.

You're quite the globetrotter these days. When did you start traveling heavily, and how much of it was made possible through your art?

I started travelling a lot at the end of 2009. There was just so much to see, to do, to learn and to paint! I got addicted to painting walls in new places, meeting rad artists, getting lost--everything was so fresh and fun. Last year I went on a volunteer art teaching project at the Thai/Burma border with the Little Lotus Project. It opened up a lot of things for me. I was really glad to be able to be a part of this project. I think I took more than I gave from the children and families living there. I hope to go back soon and also do more community-based projects wherever I go.

How would you describe the experience of being a woman within graffiti/street art culture, where the majority is dominated by dudes?

It's not too big a deal. It's good. Just do what you do. Put good work out. Get the boys to help move your ladder around because it's too heavy...

If someone took your art supplies away forever, what would you do?

Go batshit crayyyyzeee.

Did having bigger access to the world--through travel--change any fundamental beliefs or ideas that you previously had?

Definitely. In general, you just grow a lot more by meeting people on your travels. Some good, some bad, they mold you and make you awesome. I think material possessions are overrated. Live simple. Have faith. Always give people the benefit of the doubt. Make your life count. Do things that make you happy. You know, all that stuff you get when you google self-help related topics. LOL.

What are things in everyday life that inspire you? You mentioned cartoons that you used to watch growing up and still now, but are there other things like food, music, anything else that helps color your imagination?

Real life people on the streeets are the best.

How many hours a day do you spend "working,"and do you even consider what you do work?

Nah, I just consider it drawing. I want to make good drawings everyday. I share a studio with the Yok (another dope artist) and we inspire each other a lot.

Any last words of wisdom, or insights you'd like to share about yourself? 

I paint food.

To see more of Sheryo's whimsical characters, visit her Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitterwhere all of the photos in this article were graciously borrowed from.

Words by Boyuan Gao

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