Interview: M. Tony Peralta

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Uptown artist M. Tony Peralta has been a major figure in the artistic transformation of the Washington Heights/Inwood area for some time now. He was showcased in his first group show back in 2004, was a founding member of Uptown Collective, and his t-shirts function as mobile canvases, exhibiting his work all over the city. His new exhibit, Complejo, at the NoMAA Gallery, tackles how the issue of race affects Dominicans living in New York. I visited Peralta in Inwood to talk about his work, his new exhibit, and the Uptown artistic revolution.

What’s your first memory of creating art?

My first memory – it’s a story I always share with people – is in kindergarten. First day of class, I got in trouble ’cause I was drawing the teacher, and the reason that I got in trouble was that I was getting a lot of attention from the other students. So that’s, like, my first – my very first! – memory of, like, drawing and creating. I was shy, so I always knew how to draw attention to myself in some way. There’s thirty kids in every class, but in the first week, the teacher would know my name.

The Peralta Project’s slogan is “Witness art in progress.” What does that mean to you?

The evolution – my evolution – that’s the Peralta Project. The ongoing project of my self. What you’re seeing is, like, my progression as an artist in real time. I don’t do “seasons” because I don’t consider myself a clothing designer or anything. I’m just an artist and graphic designer that likes to see his stuff on t-shirts. I call them “series” – every Spring and Summer there’s a new series and you see my progression.

How is your work for The Peralta Project different from your gallery work? Or is there a difference at all?

The way the Peralta Project was born was straight from the first piece I ever created, the Freedom piece which was an actual painting, and, you know, that was what springboarded The Peralta Project. You know, I started putting that on t-shirts. So, the Peralta Project basically is a reflection of my artwork and graphic design, so there might be pieces that reflect an art piece – which I’ve done plenty of, the Biggie one, the Freedom piece, the Pussy Power – and then I also do graphic design. If you can’t afford, you know, a piece that I have that’s, like, $2000, you can afford a $35 t-shirt.

Do some ideas just want to be t-shirts?

A lot of times, yeah. I love t-shirts. I have a lot of t-shirts. T-shirt culture is big in the urban market. I mean, you know, I’m thirty-seven years old so I grew up with that. The different clothing brands, like, Triple 5 Soul, to Ecko…that’s another way for graphic designers to show their work. This summer I incorporated the whole Hecho a Mano thing, that I screenprint myself. I’ll get an idea today, get on the computer, then tomorrow or the next day go to the print show and burn the screen and make the t-shirt.

Are there any mediums you haven’t worked in that you’d like to try?

I think sculpture? And I’d like to see my work in other mediums that I haven’t tried yet, like houseware and jewelry. Definitely jewelry – actual jewelry, not wooden stuff. Actual metal, making the mold…stuff like that.

Who are your influences?

I don’t like to say I’m influenced by Shepard Fairey, because, you know, when I was in college my professor told me about Rochenko, and once I looked him up and saw it and I was fascinated by that whole Russian Reconstructivism. It just so happens that a couple of years later, Shepard Fairey is doing the same thing, so of course I’m going to gravitate to his work. I loved it. I did some work in that sort of Russian Reconstructivist style but I stopped because I didn’t want people to say, “Oh, that looks like Shepard Fairey, that’s dope.”

My favorite artist of all time is Frida Kahlo, and second is Dali. I like Frida Kahlo because of how honest she was, the fact that her autobiography is her painting, it’s a visual thing. Dali is because his shit is so futuristic. I just…I can’t…I’m like trying to understand his mind! In the time that he’s in! ‘Cause now, if you see somebody create that shit, you understand it. But when it’s 1930-something…how the fuck do you think of that?

But as a teenager, growing up, my favorite artist was Keith Harring. That was my favorite. My brother used to be into house music, he used to go down to Paradise Garage and all that, and we had this inflatable radiant baby, this inflatable radiant baby in my room. And I had no idea what the fuck that was, but I just knew that I gravitated towards it. Me and my friends used to call it the House Baby. Once I knew about Keith Harring and how to get to Pop Shop, I used to go every weekend and buy something.

If you could collaborate with any artist?

It would probably be…can it be more than one?

I would just want to talk to Frida Kahlo, just, like be in her presence. I would definitely want to collaborate with Keith Harring and Warhol, but I would just like to have a cup of coffee and sit down with Frida.

What led to you tackling the issues that you’re tackling in Complejo?

Sammy Sosa, almost three years ago, came out looking like a whole different individual, and my boy said, “Yo, you should do something about that,” because a lot of my work tends to be on some political shit. But I didn’t really see the necessity for it, I just thought he [Sammy] was a moron. And then I was on the subway someday, and sometimes people slip things into where the posters are, and somebody had put some 8×10 thing that they had created of Sammy Sosa, of some ficticious product or whatever…and it was so amateur, the way it looked. It must have been some kid who was learning how to do graphic design. And I thought, “Oh, that’s really cool,” and I took a picture of it. And then I thought, “You know what? I’m gonna create something.”

I came up with the idea that I wanted to do this show called Complejo, to deal with the whole…good hair/bad hair thing. It’s complejo dominicano. Everybody has their own complejo, but I just wanted to talk about it from a Dominican perspective. Me? I grew up with low self esteem as a kid because of the way people talk. Not being seen as the good looking one from my family just because I’m dark skinned. Just, like, little things like that. Language shit. Dominicans will people will call people with dark skin – jokingly – “Mono.” I just wanted to tackle this elephant in the room, this thing with race. It’s an educational thing. If you’re educated, you’re not gonna be saying those things to your kids, but there are still Dominicans my age, your age, that are still using that language, and it’s just letting people know that you have to be very careful with your kids. You’re giving your kids a complex, and that shit fucks with you as an adult. If you don’t go to therapy or whatever, you’re gonna be fucked up, and I know a lot of people like that.

White people don’t have that problem. If you’re white your problem is…weight? Your mom’s not telling you, like, you have bad hair. They don’t understand the concept of good or bad hair. And it’s their fault! That’s the whole shit! For the world the standard of beauty is the White Man and Woman. When you’ve got Japanese people getting surgery for their eyes, or people using skin lightening cream…if you from Africa and everyone’s black up in that bitch, why are you lightening your skin? Or in Thailand? That shit is worldwide.

Maluca Mala refers to herself as a “hood hipster.” What do you think of the revolution going on Uptown with the art and youth culture?

I think it’s fantastic. It’s what I’ve always wanted. It’s amazing seeing it play out because for such a long time Washington Heights and Inwood have always been such a one-sided thing, but me and my friends we grew up with both cultures. Everything is not some hick shit. We’re into other things! Like for instance: I’m not into Spanish music. Geko Jones is such a dope DJ because he spins Spanish music but it’s in a different way. You come to a Geko Jones party, you don’t have to come with hard-bottomed shoes! You just come dressed the way you do. Latin culture is so much about flossing…this clean and flossy fucking image, that bling-bling shit, it’s like how hip-hop culture is now. What’s going on in Washington Heights is that…gentrification is happening everywhere, but in Washington Heights and Inwood, we’re the ones creating the new business. Apt 78 is owned by Jose Morales who’s 32 years old. Young Dominican dude that thinks the way that I do. It feels great to see what’s happening. It’s a whole different vibe.

Downtown, that whole Downtown Culture, it’s all about who you know. Everybody’s friends but it’s not welcoming. I’ve worked in fashion and stuff like that and I go to these parties and I always felt a certain way about it, like, “Oh, this is cool and everything, but y’all are full of shit because you’re only fucking with each other.” But in Washington Heights, we fuck with each other, but we’re open to people coming Uptown. We embrace people coming up here. That’s what I love about what’s going on Uptown. You build your network, not only where you work but where you live. Washington Heights is a community, and all the young people who work where you work don’t hang out up here because there’s nothing for us to do. What’s going on is that little by little there’s things for us to do, and we’re meeting each other and other people. It’s hard to make new friends as an adult! My best friend, I’ve known him since kindergarten. So to be able to meet other young like-minded individuals is fantastic and we’re changing the way we deal with each other because Washington Heights, when it comes to politics and people, can be so corrupt. So here’s this new generation of people that are not corrupt. Like yeah, I wanna make money but I’m not gonna fuck you over.

Washington Heights is changing. We have to change with the times or we’re gonna get left behind. New York is not the way it used to be. The way New York is now? Hip-hop can’t be born. Salsa? All that shit that came out of what was going on? There’s nothing that can be born the way things are now.

You know what Washington Heights is like right now? You seen X-Men: First Class? That’s what Washington Heights is like right now. They’re seeking out. That’s what’s going on now. We’re being sought out by some, like, Professor X individual and home-base is Apt 78. We’re still growing.

Who – besides yourself – should we be paying attention to, now?

My boy Ed [Ubierra] (he fucking moved, his dumb ass, he shoulda never moved, he moved to Williamsburg). The funny thing about Ed and myself is that we were born the same day in the same year and we’re both Dominican, so we’re basically the same person. He’s just, like, bizarro me. Lucia [Hierro], this young artist who just got accepted to Yale – like, they choose fifty people to be interviewed, and she got a full scholarship to go to Yale’s arts program. Uptown has a lot of photographers. There’s this young kid, my boy Ruben [Henriquez], he’s like twenty-two years old. I wish I was like him when I was twenty-two, because he has this hunger, and he has such a great eye. That’s definitely somebody to look out for. I love that kid, and I just met him in the past six months.

He’s part of…there’s like this crew of us. There’s myself, there’s Leo Vasquez from Sound of Art…there’s two things going on with art right now. There’s NOMAA which is more traditional, and there’s Sound of Art, which is nontraditional, and he was the one who first started doing shows in nontradtional places, in salons around here, in boutiques and stuff like that. As far as writers you’ve got Claudio Cabrera, Jay Franco who’s a photographer. There’s just this group of people that know each other. There’s a lot of talented kids.

You don’t understand how happy I am to see this happening. It’s what we always wanted. It’s just highlighting our culture, but doing it right, you know? ‘Cause there’s some people who do this buffoonery shit, you know and stuff like that. That’s my whole thing: I just want to be a great artist and a great designer, I just happen to be Dominican. The problem with a lot of Latin people, and a lot of Dominicans, is that they’ll just support shit because it’s some Dominican shit. I don’t support whack shit. I don’t want to see it if it’s not done well.

This kid knocked off one of my pieces, the Freedom piece, and put it on a t-shirt, but added a Dominican flag, and I knew him, and I told him, “Hey, that shit is whack,” and he said, “I just feel like you don’t represent Dominicans.” And I was like, “What the fuck? I’m Dominican! What else I gotta do? Been there, done that.” Why does everything I do have to be on some Dominican shit? I just want to perfect my craft and become great at it. The Dominican shit will come later when people ask me where I’m from and I say I’m from the Heights.

Complejo opens August 4th at NoMAA and runs through August 25th.

Photo credit for portrait of Tony Peralta: Briana E. Heard.