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Rebel Propaganda and Deep Doodles by a Wild Pessimist: A Streets Dept Oral History with Marisa Velázquez-Rivas, Philadelphia Street Artist On the Rise

July 15, 2018

Post by Streets Dept Contributor, Phillip Reid, photos by Conrad Benner

Welcome to the Streets Dept Oral History Projecta new 20-week series created by Streets Dept’s first-ever intern, Phillip Reid. Over the course of this series we will be collecting and sharing the stories of a mix of 20 street artists, graffiti writers, muralists, and public arts leaders all working to shape and create the art in Philadelphia’s public spaces. Read more about this new temporary series in our announcement post here.

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Since she began wheatpasting a few months ago, Marisa Velázquez-Rivas has been turning heads on the streets and social media with her bold, uplifting artwork. Her pastes bring an array of important voices to the public space, shining a light on immigrants, queer communities, and women who stand in resistance of hate during the Trump era. Marisa’s narrative focuses on her multinational upbringing, her strong family, and the role that those influences have played in shaping her as a person and creator. She also delves into the more intimate side of her creative practice, how she doodles as a way to capture memories and cope with the stresses of her day-to-day.

It’s kind of cool what happens when talented people stay after graduating and work their asses off in local agencies before running off. We’re doing this city a disservice by leaving immediately after graduating. So I stuck around.

I was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Venezuela. Spent 8 years or so in each country. Caracas felt like New York to me, y’know? Huge, colorful, stocked full of art in every block—Puerto Rico doesn’t fall behind either. Street art down there is insane. Both Venezuela and Puerto Rico were very huge influences for me. So many great artists—Jesus Soto, Gerardo Fernandez, Alexis Diaz. Art was unavoidable throughout my upbringing.

I lived through a coup in Venezuela that changed my life—our daily activities revolved around protests, uncertainty, violence. Going to school was a gamble sometimes. A lot of anti-govt street propaganda during that time became a huge influence for me. Learned the importance of voting back then. A lot of people I know have fled Venezuela—I’d say “moved”, but it doesn’t seem like it was a choice for many. It’s a dictatorship down there. Food became scarce, violence increased, you can feel the anger and desperation in the atmosphere. I was raised in a beautiful, thriving place that became a nightmare for many in just a few years after Chavez came to power.

I first lived in Blue Ridge, Georgia when I moved to the US. It’s a few hours away from Atlanta, a bit in the boonies, where people say “Git R Done”, call toilets “commodes” and use other terms I had to look up at first but learned very quickly by how frequently they’re used. I was not allowed to speak Spanish at my boarding school and was asked multiple times if we lived in teepees down in Venezuela. I came out (quietly) as queer and had my first real relationship with a woman down there—so despite all its ignorant fucked up shit, it’s an important place for me. I haven’t lived outside a major city since.

I met up with my parents in Philadelphia the year after—they moved from Venezuela once things started getting really murky. I originally wanted to move to Cali but my mother wanted me near and as a mamás girl I stayed. I got a BS in design from the Art Institute of Philadelphia, which actually just stopped taking in new students. Our main building, where I had my senior presentation, is now a Uniqlo. It’s sad, I had some great teachers: Karp, Demoy, Zatz, Shanks—and was surrounded by a lot of talented students. For profit schools are poison.

Since then I’ve worked for multiple agencies. I’m currently a senior designer in a marketing agency called Fame House, located in Old City. We work with clients like Eminem, Ice Cube, Blink 182, and some other cool cats. I talk about FH, its clients, the kind of work I do, etc and people can’t believe we’re located in Philly. A lot of people upon graduating encourage you to move to the meccas—NYC, London, LA, etc but it’s kind of cool what happens when talented people stay after graduating and work their asses off in local agencies before running off. We’re doing this city a disservice by leaving immediately after graduating. So I stuck around.

Politics was a touchy subject for those around me—I don’t think I ever explained to them how much that affected me in the long run. Now it’s just pouring out of me.

Thank to my parents I received an amazing education in Venezuela. My love for design intensified in history class—learning about the world wars, USSR, the Cold War, the Korean and Vietnam Wars—a lot of wars—and, specifically, how propaganda was used. Nazi propaganda, communist propaganda, Polish propaganda and USA’s “American Dream” era propaganda. It fucked my brain up, in a good way. I became fascinated by good design’s power and reach—I wanted to be a part of it. You can lie or be truthful in propaganda and people will gobble it up if you do it right.

For a bit I thought I was doing myself a disservice when I started pushing queer posts, I thought people weren’t diggin’ my content because it’s so queer-centric, too latinx or feminist. I wanted everyone to relate to my pieces, but I realize there is nothing wrong with finding my own demographic. Maybe this is maturing, but I know now I don’t have to relate with everyone and not everyone has to relate to my content. But we do have to respect each other.

Bizarrely enough in art school, where people are normally known to be outspoken in politics and social affairs, I felt like I couldn’t discuss shit. I don’t know how many times people told me they were uncomfortable because I “wouldn’t drop it”. I’d vent about the blatant racism I lived thru in Georgia and people wouldn’t wanna hear it. I think people in cities live in a bubble sometimes. Politics was a touchy subject for those around me—I don’t think I ever explained to them how much that affected me in the long run. Now it’s just pouring out of me.

She taught me to be a citizen not of a specific nation but of the world… She taught us to love different cultures and that only the weak fear difference. She’s always been so wise to me. She truly is my favorite human being.

My mom is Venezuelan but she’s a nomad. She came here with her father when she was a teenager. My grandfather came to earn his degree in engineering. He garnered a lot of respect from his peers and went back to Venezuela to become an important figure in Venezuela’s oil community. My mother finished her education in Puerto Rico, graduated with high honors, and became a superb English teacher. That Latina treats English better than a lot of Americans I know. She loves language in general. She’s the epitome of a great teacher. She would encourage the kids that other teachers wouldn’t. I constantly get messages from her students asking me to thank her for everything she did for them. She’s also quite the art nerd, she studied graphic design, like me, for a bit—we spend hours nerding out about our favorite artists—Keith Haring, Frida, Lichtenstein—and what could’ve inspired them to create such kickass work. She’s so fucking cool. And beautiful. She taught me to be a citizen not of a specific nation but of the world. She’s lived in Puerto Rico, multiple places in Venezuela, a wonderful little island off South Africa named Mauritius, and at least four different states in this nation and she claims all of them to be her home. She taught us to love different cultures and that only the weak fear difference. She’s so wise. She truly is my favorite human being. I strive to be half the woman she is. All of my tattoos are based off her actually. I’m obsessed with her. She had a real tough childhood, lost both her parents and brother quite suddenly, she’s been watching her nation turn to dust from the empire it used to be but she’s remained so strong. She always says “Un día a la vez” and that’s how she lives it. I may get that tattooed one day.

My dad is a hard working man from Puerto Rico—he’s moved mountains for us. He holds us together. A great dude full of knowledge. He ended up in marketing though he’s worn many, many hats. From political science, to theology, to teaching—he’s done it all. He became a managing executive wizard for a pharma company (Wyeth, now Pfizer) while in Latin America and had a team of hundreds in many locations throughout Venezuela—all of whom loved him very much and shed many tears when he had to part ways. Very creative guy. Stern and strong but so incredibly full of love. He’s done some amazing altruistic shit—from giving baby formula to mothers he knew needed it in Venezuela—where baby formula costs and arm and a leg—to organizing large benefit concerts in Puerto Rico. I actually met a lot of famous Puerto Rican singers because of this. Really rad guy. I took his charm and cuddliness while my sister took his ambition and zeal. I know I’m more like my mom though—my sister is more like him.

Fun fact, my parents got married after ten days of knowing each other the year Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back came out. My dad was a TA and my mom was a student in St. Louis, Missouri. Still going strong too. They still act like teens in love. It’s fucking adorable.

I think the amount of “no’s” I’ve received just kinda made me feel like, y’know, why not make Philly my bitch and her streets my gallery?

I hand draw my pieces on paper, super—rough sketches, and then I scan the fuckers, and go over em in Illustrator. I used to use photoshop and then realized illustrator was the way to go. This is not like a digital painting with crazy details, it’s very rough—y’know very blunt colors and bold lines. So I started using Illustrator because you can make these pieces ginormous and not lose any quality. I vector them in illustrator and color them. Now I’ve started to wheatpaste, but I have no fucking idea what I’m doing. I’m sure other street artists look at my pastes and are like, Oh that’s so dirtyyy. I need to find a person to give me tips.

I kept looking for opportunities to show my work in spaces like galleries and submitted to a ton of contests but got denied constantly. I think the amount of “no’s” I’ve received just kinda made me feel like, y’know, why not make Philly my bitch and her streets my gallery?

People that catch me in the act, they’re actually encouraging most of the time. I thought it was gonna be difficult. Since the elections, POC, latinxs, queer people, etc often come out in public in fear—thinkin, Who can I talk to? Did you vote for this monster? Like, Am I safe here? When I started wheatpasting I thought If I don’t feel safe holding hands with my partner on the streets, I’m bound to have issues wheatpasting these messages. Alas I find I’m safer wheatpasting than I am holding hands with my girl. Shit, I even get catcalled while wheatpasting.

I feel like now is the time to push as much queer, latinx, immigrant, feminist-related content as I can. Like these minority communities—we’re not minorities, we’re not these tiny communities. *Laughs* Y’know like even calling us minorities—that feels like, Euuhhhhh. Doing street art has been a really positive experience in that sense. I’m very brash with some of my messaging. I can’t help but be aggressive with some shit. I’m trying to be all up in people’s faces—queers, latinx, we’re here and we will not be ignored.

My big sister is an immigration lawyer in Miami—another hero of mine…None of us can remain silent comfortably while all of this shit is happening. Everyone should be doing their part. I’d like to think I’m joining her voice in fighting the good fight.

We have a ton of family in Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria we tried to at least get my dad’s parents out of there. They’re older, y’know, they need more assistance so we did what we could. But they love their nation, they didn’t want to leave their home. Even though they didn’t have electricity and running water for months they went back after only a few short weeks with us here. Couldn’t be without their island. Puerto Rican’s are resilient as fuck.

It’s insane, because both of my nations are swimming in shit. Y’know, Puerto Rico’s in shit after Maria, Venezuela’s in shit under Maduro’s regime… But these current events also help open up an important discussion with USA folks about why people leave their nations and come here. Some people leave their homes because they are literally unlivable. And how can you turn your back on somebody that literally can’t live in their home?

Since Chavez came to power Venezuela has been on a steady decline that took a turn for the worse in 2015. It has the largest oil reserve in the world and it was, not that long ago, one of the richest countries in South America. So its collapse was shocking. Inflation breached 25,000%, there’s record numbers of children with severe malnourishment, people are helplessly digging thru trash and eating roadkill to stay alive. A friend of my parents got murdered because someone wanted to rob him of his scooter. A friend’s uncle, a public figure, got kidnapped (and later released, thankfully). Another friend of mine and his family also got kidnapped while driving to school (and later released as well)–these are the kinds of stories coming out of Venezuela. It’s a nation that many of us who were raised there don’t recognize anymore. This is why you vote, people!

My big sister is an immigration lawyer in Miami—another hero of mine. She’s in this news show where she discusses immigration—it’s moving parts and what to be aware of—among other topics mainly related to the Latino community. She’s inspired a lot of my recent work. She texted us a photo of herself and the rest of the cast of the show saying “Trump is keeping us very busy.” And it made me think, like, You’re doing your part and we’re so outraged, I need to help too. To see so many immigrants who work their asses off, pay their taxes (a common misconception is that they don’t and they fucking do—billions each year actually), and contribute to their communities, to see them be fearful of deportation, to witness these families be separated at the border, to see DACA, a crucial lifeline for some, be so threatened—none of us can remain silent comfortably while all of this shit is happening. Everyone should be doing their part. I’d like to think I’m joining her voice in fighting the good fight.

I don’t want to say, y’know, I lean towards the political. I lean more towards just drawing. One of my favorite hashtags to use is #doodle. Like, I’m just a fucking doodler. Whatever I’m feeling, I’m drawing.

I can’t label myself a political artist. I don’t think I want my purpose to be all political, y’know, Nina Simone-esque—I’m a justice warrior. I’m not as courageous as her anyways. My drawings are more like diary entries, y’know, a day-to-day recording of my feelings and the events in my life. What’s happening, what’s influencing me at the moment, I try to give myself the freedom to just create whatever the fuck I wanna make.

I was talking to a buddy of mine recently, and he asked, “Well, what is the message that you want to convey with your art?” I don’t think I have one specific message, though. I just wanna draw and I wanna communicate, in my own way. I don’t want to say, y’know, I lean towards the political. I lean more towards just drawing. One of my favorite hashtags to use is #doodle. Like, I’m just a fucking doodler. Whatever I’m feeling, I’m drawing.

I work really hard and for a long time I was just dumping all of my time into my career, so I added the drawing routine back into my life. I noticed that I was kinda cracking. Drawing became a venting mechanism. It’s my safe space. Y’know, nobody can touch it, it’s completely mine, versus what I do at work, that’s not mine. Y’know, that’s not my content, that’s a client telling me what to create, it’s my job. This became my thing that only I can control.

I definitely don’t want to be seen as gentrification tool. Never really thought of street art as a gentrification tool till I started hearing it about Brooklyn and how that’s what happened there. I’d like to think no artist intends on becoming a catapult of gentrification. I live on 6th and Snyder in South Philly near Mifflin Square Park. I paste around there and the neighbors love it. I’ve never gotten any complaints—one time a group of kids gathered to watch one time I was putting up an Immigration piece a block away from my house. If anything I’m predominantly doing it on buildings that are under construction in South Philly. Like, Fuck You. Here’s a positive message while you’re adding this shitty-ass container-looking-motherfucker into our streets.

I’ve obviously seen posts getting ripped up but there is one I put on Passyunk—the “We All The People One” piece (lady liberty’s hand holding the torch with a message from MLK)—that looks like someone just clawed at it. Looks like it hurt, honestly. The way it’s ripped up, it just like *shivers* it weirds me out. It’s upsetting that a unifying message can cause anger to some, but that’s the reality of it. Some people are going to love what I do, some people will hate it.

Some Philly street artists are some of the coolest cats I’ve ever fucking met. They’re just so raw with their shit. Up in your face. Philly street art is where it’s at. Philly is a mecca in the graffiti world and the city’s art is a growing love of mine, for sure. I hope I end up meeting a lot of these artists that I have been quietly admiring for a bit. I also aim to surround myself with people that have the same morals and values like myself and unabashedly show it in their art. I’m truly excited for the next chapter of my life and hope to become a louder voice within our community, but as long as my mother’s proud I’m set.

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