Express Yourself

This article was originally published on on Jan. 19, 2013.

True expression requires a certain strategy. Whether it’s a conscious effort or a style that flows, forms of expression beg certain questions — What are you trying to convey? Who are you speaking to? Why did you paint, sketch, film, photograph or write what you did? Who are you, anyway?

New York City is saturated with struggling artists who have been or are at every stage imaginable in a developing artist’s life. In Dumbo, for example, at a small gallery named Mighty Tanaka (located on the same floor as thirteen other galleries) three talented street artists presented their portraiture at an opening reception last Friday night.

Quel Beast, a young man hailing from Rochester, featured four “Selfish Portraits” that represent his inner turmoil at a turning point in his life. By using a mixture of bright colors over a seemingly Caucasian skin tone, he strove to break the boundaries of race, color, and gender. Three larger-than-life faces framed within three upside-down triangular canvases sneered at visitors.


Each painting is based on the same photograph. The image of a Caucasian male is contrasted three ways using neutral tones and vibrant color. On an adjacent wall hung Quel Beast’s fourth piece: an eye-catching black-and-white self-portrait with colorful outward-bound lines that draw the viewer straight toward flaming eyes.

The Alcoholic
The Alcoholic

Two silk-screen prints created by Toofly, a female street artist from Queens, hung on either side of Quel Beast’s black-and-white. Toofly is heavily inspired by the urban landscape in which she grew up. The woman in each of her prints and sketches hanging on the sheer white walls of Mighty Tanaka is a strong urban character. She is complimented by dark hair with perfectly shaped bangs and waves looping over her fierce, angled eyes. She may have a meaningful tattoo on her powerful body or raw feelings hidden behind that smirk of hers. That night, Toofly’s prints were small and feminine compared to the larger portraits that boasted color and dominance. But her work remained true.

One Village
One Village
Love Warrior - Moon
Love Warrior – Moon

True, in the sense that her work focuses on a conscious character, whereas Tony DePew‘s portraits emphasize a real person. One was a colorful rendition of Chuck Close. Grey lines outline his white beard. Organic multi-colored shapes fill in the textures, shades, and tones of his face. His black collared shirt blends in with the equally black background, making his face explode with color. DePew’s painting of his friend, Rebecca Weinberg, is incredibly similar. But there is one difference: every single color is DePew’s unique blend of powders and paints that were developed one at a time to fill in each organic shape. No color is the same, whether you compare them between paintings or within.

Chuck Close
Chuck Close

There is barely a visible mark of DePew’s paintbrush, which makes the paint look totally flat and smooth like a laser-ink print found in a magazine. DePew also showcased two stained-glass renditions of his Rebecca Weinberg portrait: one opaque, the other transparent. Both beautiful.

Every artist wants his or her work to be considered. To be looked at. To be bought, even. However, it takes courage to sacrifice one’s art, as Quel Beast, an experimental street artist, brought to my attention. Street artists, in particular, sacrifice their work once they paint or spray-paint a portion of their expression onto a gritty wall or a rotting wood fence, which may get torn down, painted over, or spit on. On a good day, someone will actually stop and really look at it. On a great day, someone will admire it, be inspired by it.

This is all part of the sacrifice.

All photos courtesy of Mighty Tanaka.

Dear New York…

New York is rude. It’s ugly. It’s dirty.

New York is beautiful. It’s relaxing. It’s scenic.

This city no longer resembles how it’s projected to be. It’s not how we remember. There are no more Hollywood fantasies or a plenitude of opportunity. It’s simply not that easy to get a job — anywhere. Much less, your dream job.

There are more than 8 million people in New York. In one way or another, most of us are struggling.

But why do I love it so much? Is it the friends I’ve made? The dashing Empire State Building that makes my heart skip a beat at day’s first sight? Or is it the legacy of New York City that lends every “New York”-titled publication a semblance of legitimacy?

I love New York.

Not because I should love New York, and not because I shouldn’t. I guess it’s just a feeling. A feeling I get as I wade through pools of people as I try to exit the train or walk down the street [anger, frustration]. The feeling I get when I walk through Washington Square Park, fountain straight ahead, jazz band to my left [love, happiness]. And it’s the feeling I get when I speak to someone (friend or stranger) who is working just as hard as I am, if not more, to find stability and success [satisfaction].

When I lay in bed at night in my semi-cozy Brooklyn apartment, as my shifting thoughts reverberate in my head relaying the events of the day, I remember where I am — and I smile.

Communal Vibing

The Middle East Corner houses both a restaurant and a bar, sometimes showcasing live rock, jazz, funk, and Latin music. With only a small corner stage and a capacity of 70 people, space is limited. Every inch of the floor requires careful consideration. Hiding behind the kitchen are double doors that guard the downstairs club, which holds 550 people. Once you pass the ladies who check IDs and hand out wristbands, the entrance is all yours: push open the door and step down a flight of stairs. Stop in front of security and let him check your bag. Another pair of doors. Open them and find yourself standing at the very edge of a defining moment—one in which your audial and visual senses converge to form a collective engagement.

On a rather random Sunday night, music fans ventured and came together for a down-tempo electronic concert. Relaxed beats with a dependable flow seemed appropriate for such a night. Natasha Kmeto, Little People and Emancipator came to the Middle East in Cambridge as part of Emancipator’s Winter tour. The Brain Trust, a local multi-faceted music company, hosted the event.

During the sound check, the dance floor is just empty space. The crew are setting up sound and lights for the show. Bartenders are ripping open cases of beer, storing the bottles in the fridge behind the bar. Peter Clark, the tour manager, is standing in the middle of the floor, supervising the whole ensemble. He’s decked out in a striped beanie, a blue and red plaid flannel shirt, and dark jeans. His parents are standing behind him; his mother dances to samples of music that emanate from the speakers. She is the first dancer of the night.

“Is that cool?” asks a technician.

“Sounds good to me,” replies Natasha Kmeto, who’s standing at her station playing with sounds.

Laurent Clerc, aka Little People, is also keeping track of his equipment. He looks silly wearing a puffy blue jacket and a dark green scarf wrapped tightly around his neck.

Once Laurent and Natasha are finished, Doug Appling, or Emancipator, appears wearing a large black jacket and a camo cap. He walks back and forth on the empty dance floor, bobbing his head to the beat of his own music. Ilya Goldberg, Doug’s accompanying violinist, stares at his computer while plucking strings from his electric violin. Doug walks back to the stage.

“Check, check, 1, 2, — Emancipator…in Boston…Check.”

Once off the microphone his voice becomes quiet again. While talking he keeps shuffling his fingers inside his coat pocket, then he scratches his beard, all the while moving back and forth on the balls of his feet. Once he sits down for an interview, he keeps his hands together, fingers crossed—his feet are swinging from side to side over the edge of the stage. Sage, Ilya’s all-access dog, is at his heels.

Finally, it’s 8 p.m.: doors open.

The club fills up slowly. 10 minutes before Natasha takes the stage, there is a relaxed, light dialogue among the 30-40 people here. People surround the center of the dance floor on all sides but no one is really dancing. Instead, they sip their drinks; make comments to their friends.

Then a young man wearing a white T-shirt and a beige backpack bounces towards the front of the stage, slicing his way through the tense center floor. Others begin to follow as Natasha blends her soulful voice with a slow and steady bass line. She records herself crooning into the microphone and then loops it along with a softer melody. As her set progresses she gradually responds to her percussive beats. Shadowed by a blue tint, her hips swing from side to side as her hands travel over her computer, then to her equipment, where a rosy light shines onto her crooked fingers.

About an hour later more people have filled the empty space. A young girl is vibing by the bar on the upper level. She’s wearing a plush wolf hat with her hands dipped into attached paws. She waves her hands to the beat, eyes focused on Natasha. Other people’s faces are painted with bright colors and decorated with fake jewels.

Laurent begins his set at 9:30 p.m. He plays a silky piano melody over a steady percussive beat. He works the six machines laid out in front of him while rocking his whole body with the tempo. More and more people crowd the dance floor over time. Now, with each new song, fans cheer.

At this point the audience has embraced the tonal vibrations rippling through the downstairs club. The artist line-up delivered a wave of calmness alien to the Middle East. A glimpse over your shoulder reveals a mass of bobbing heads. Only three hours before, the club was completely empty—waiting to be filled in more ways than one. Now, between every creak in the floor, every space found within each body, there exists a collective awareness.

Laurent finishes his set to the sound of cheers and clapping hands. Once again chatter replaces down-tempo music. One girl plays with an LED hula-hoop in the back. As the toy spins, bright neon colors swirl together, forming a dotted pattern. She loops the hula-hoop over her head then lets it gracefully swivel back down to her waist.

The rest await emancipation. A glowing red light illuminates eager bodies facing the stage. Chatter buzzes from mouths creating a slight hum. It’s almost time.

Once Doug and Ilya step onto the stage, the crowd erupts. Wolf-hat has danced her way closer to the VIP section, as eager as the rest of the audience. Doug is still wearing his camo cap and plaid shirt with his sleeves rolled up. The lights above the stage shift from red to blue to purple. Images of his album artwork are projected on the screens behind him, among other shapes and patterns. Both Doug and Ilya’s shadows are cast onto the screens, their movements in tune.

“Moog: Another Dimension,” Ilya’s shirt reads—their presence certainly exerts a distant being.

Although Doug has a table full of equipment in front of him, his hands are focused on his Livid instrument. The MIDI controller glows as he twists and turns knobs to his liking. Soft voices sing over guitar notes and piano tunes. Ilya plays sweet melodies with his electric violin, barely audible over Doug’sheavy bass lines.

As far as the eye can see, luminous hands are waving in the air—but the bodies they belong to are shrouded in darkness. Jackets and backpacks are thrown all over the edge of the stage, including that of the young man who encouraged people to dance. He’s still dancing in the front, sweaty but satisfied. Wolf-hat is even closer to the stage, dancing harder than ever; her paws are moving this way and that. A glimmer of LED lights shines from the back of the club.

Across the room, another girl plays with an LED light stick. She grooves as she wraps her arms around her body. The stick floats next to her as if she is performing magic using her hands and dance moves, all immersed in the music.

With every break in the set, people scream and holler, rejoicing. A motley of images flashes behind Doug and Ilya. At one point Doug looks like he’s on fire. Then, with a creepy man in a biochemical suit dancing on the screens behind them, Doug twists his final knobs, Ilya plays a few last strings, and the show is over.

Within five minutes the crowd rushes to the coat check at the back of the club. Wolf-hat disappears. The LED girls are giving their rave moves one last go. With one fell swoop the dance floor is empty, and half the people are gone.

The artists and their crew are regrouping backstage. Some of them are slightly drunk, but jolly nonetheless. “Congratulations!” and hugs are exchanged. Members of the Brain Trust remain, taking care of business after the show.

A successful concert is one in which people walk out the front door with smiles planted on their faces and sweat dripping from their bodies. No one is hurt; no one is angry. After 12:30 a.m., early Monday morning, fans at the Middle East willingly, or grudgingly, returned to their former selves with a distinct memory of a shared experience.

A Moroccan Man

Viewed from the Moroccan shore, Spain’s mountainous shadows loomed in the distance. The early morning sky melded with the sea in a clash of clear blue. Fishermen reeled in their silver catch from the Mediterranean, as people huddled around them. At 7:30 a.m., only a handful of people were casually strolling along the shore. The others were busy bargaining for the best of the haul, then carrying their bounty with them as they hurried away to meet their day.

The moment captivated me and I began taking snapshots with my camera. It was September 2011 and our trip around the world was just beginning. The Semester At Sea vessel had docked in Casablanca, our first port of call. My friend Sam and I decided to travel to Tangier by train, where we now stood on a beach with our toes digging into the softest sand my toes had ever felt.

As I photographed the scene, I noticed a man standing by the fishermen watching Sam and me.  I knew we stood out as young American students; I’d soon gotten used to the stares. But then, this man walked over and approached us.

“If you keep taking pictures, these men will break your camera,” he said to us in Spanish. He was a muscular man with dark hair and tan skin made even darker by the sun’s intense rays. He wore a silver band around his left pinky finger and a large silver watch on his wrist. His brilliant blue jersey contrasted sharply against his dark skin.

Sam and I tried our best to reply in broken Spanish. We learned his name was Najib, a 28-year-old Moroccan man. He continued to speak with us, confessing his struggle to return to Spain, where he’d spent most of his recent years. He’d been deported a month before due to lack of proper documents.

“In Spain, I had everything. A job, a house, friends, money. In Tangier, I have nothing,” he lamented.

I was skeptical at first. But I could not ignore the sincerity etched onto his face; the crease of his brow was a testament to the pressure he seemed to be under.

“If I could only scrounge up 25 Euro, I could make my way back, but so far I’ve had no luck.”

With our limited knowledge of Spanish, it was difficult to communicate with him. But Najib made us laugh by quoting lines from popular hip-hop songs. “How do you say thank you in English?” he asked. “How do you say car?”

Every now and then he would hit on Sam for money, hoping he might squeeze a bill out of him. All Sam gave him was a Canadian dollar coin. Najib turned it over and over in his hands, looking at it in wonder.

We left the fishermen behind and walked along the beach, enjoying the warmth of the golden sun bursting through the crisp morning air. A man riding a camel trotted from the boardwalk down stone steps onto the beach leading two other camels that were tied to ropes. I felt sure that we seemed as strange to Najib as our surroundings did to us.

“Yesterday, we tried to order paella in a nearby restaurant and they served us a dish that cost four times as much,” we told him. “And they refused to change our order.”

Najib cursed at them. “Take me to this restaurant and I will get you what you ordered.”

Though Sam and I were hesitant, we did as he asked. At the restaurant, Najib ordered for us and made sure our water bottle was filled. When I offered him some of our food, he tried it but then refused and said their paella wasn’t to his liking. At that point I began to wonder how we were going to separate from this man.

Our concern deepened when we neared the old medina, Tangier’s ancient maze of a market. Najib led us away from the main entrance and up a steep staircase. We passed questionable men as we entered a narrow pathway between the buildings. Suddenly, an old man called out to us.

“Stop! I’m an official tour guide,” he said in English, striding over to us and flashing his credentials. He pointed at Najib. “You need to stay away from this man. He is leading you into a dangerous part of town where untrustworthy people lurk. You can get robbed.”

I was stunned. I didn’t know what to believe. As we argued in the center of the entrance to the old medina, people walked around us going about their day, barely glancing in our direction. We stood by a gate to a massive market where narrow pathways bordered by high walls would (later in the day) lead us to a cliff overlooking the sea.

“I will take you around the old medina and show you the sights,” he continued, “for a small sum of money.”

Sam and I balked; we would not pay and told him no over and over. When we attempted to walk away, he intercepted us at every turn. He tried to pull us away from Najib, who was by now thoroughly confused.  “Que pasó? No entiendo, qué está diciendo?” he kept asking me. What happened? I don’t understand, what is he saying?

I couldn’t explain to him what was happening without the old man interrupting me. He then tried to intimidate Najib by barking at him in Spanish, leaving Najib even more confused. No matter what direction we took, the old man followed.

I felt frustrated and confused. “What do we do?” I looked at Sam.

“I don’t want to be part of this situation anymore. We should leave both of them and continue on our own.” He looked equally frustrated and uncomfortable.

We toughened our tone and flat out refused the old man. Eventually, he left us alone. Though I knew not to trust strangers, this experience made Najib seem benign. Had he turned down our offer of food out of pride? I found myself reluctant to leave him but, I knew Sam was right.

Our efforts to evade the old man had taken us to a high patio inlaid with peach tiles overlooking the sea. It was here where we parted with Najib. He still wasn’t sure what had happened, but wished me luck in my travels, nonetheless. I could only do the same for him. I wrote down my email address and handed it to him; in exchange he gave me his empty plastic wallet.

To this day I wish I could have formed the words, Mándame un mensaje, send me a message, before I walked away. I have yet to hear from him and I hope he has made it back to Spain. I can only imagine what it is like for him to sit on that beach, to wade in water he knows nestles against Spain, as he gazes toward the mountainous gray silhouette he calls home.