With the world mourning Muhammad Ali, celebrated Lower East Side street artist Antonio “Chico” Garcia returned to his roots and honored the legendary boxer with a mural on a roll-down gate on E. Houston and Avenue B. “To pay respect, I feel like I should bring people back, in some way, to honor them,” he told The Lo-Down. “Back in the day, when a person passed away in this community, I used to use the corner wall to paint them. They call me the R.I.P. muralist.”
For the Puerto Rican artist, this piece – which illustrates Ali beside a butterfly, with the New York City skyline in the background – has extra meaning. The same day he painted the mural, he learned of a close friend’s death. So he used the tribute piece as a way to process his grief. He started in the middle of the night Sunday, equipped with just spray paint cans and a photo of the boxer, and completed it in an hour and a half. Chico moved to Tampa a few years ago, but because his work still brings him to Loisaida, he happened to be in town when the news broke.
Seven years ago, Chico also chose the walls of Houston and Avenue B to say goodbye to his beloved neighborhood. After more than 30 years of uplifting and representing his community, he relocated to Florida to spread more of his positivity. That is, after all, how he became interested in graffiti art in the beginning. Chico traces his desire to beautify Loisaida to a girl. As a teen, he met a young woman at Washington Square, and the two hit it off. When she came over to hang out with him at his home, she found the streets unappealing and left, according to the New York Times. Art didn’t become a full-blown obsession until the early 80s – when he financed his art through his job at the New York Housing Authority. By 1988, he had to choose between a steady paycheck and what made him feel passionate, so he quit his job. He eventually found himself back at the government agency in a role that better suited his talents.
“For a while I was out there every day, making a new piece.”
He built a name for himself through his memorial murals, which depicted young people lost through violence. But he was also incredibly prolific. “Let’s see, I lose count, but all over the city I’ve probably done about 7,000 pieces,” Chico told The Villager in 2007. “Well, for a while I was out there every day, making a new piece. I didn’t have this job for a long time, so that was how I lived. People would see me out there doing one guy’s wall and then, it’s, ‘Yo, Chico, can I get that too?’”
Each mural came with a story, but eventually he felt his message of hope got cloudy. A police officer once criticized him for glorifying a drug dealer through his work. Chico agreed with him and gave up the tribute pieces for a while. And these words stuck with him, because even about a decade later, he’d also try to discourage others from going that route. “If I see a negative message or mural, I go up to that person and say we need to change something,” he said. “You never see me draw guns. I want to make the neighborhood something nice to look at. Listen, man, you always wanna be in the dark?”
“You never see me draw guns. I want to make the neighborhood something nice to look at.”
Loisaida underwent a huge transformation – going from a place that scared a girl he wanted to impress to one that young affluent professionals actively sought out. Due to gentrification, which displaced many of the Latinos who called it home, much of the neighborhood’s culture has been lost. That’s why in 2006, the Housing Authority hired Chico to bring back some life. “The place looks dead, you know, so they’ve got me over here trying to lighten it up,” he said a year into the job. “Look, you can see the difference already. I made it look colorful, look nice.”
Though it’s been years since he left Manhattan, Chico is still dedicated to the place that helped foster his talent. He’s now working with Vision Urbana director Eric Díaz on a workshop program that teaches kids about art and the neighborhood’s history. After learning about a local hero and sketching a drawing based on their story, they’ll work with Chico to create a canvas mural. “My goal as an artist is to see more artwork in the community,” he said. “You need colors to brighten up your life. We need artists.”