Nickel City Gritty: Vinny Alejandro
Long gone are the days when graffiti had a bad reputation. Now, graffiti is a beautiful form of artwork, and Vinny Alejandro is a master of the game. Vinny creates absolutely beautiful pieces of artwork with his medium of choice, spray paint. You probably have seen a few of his pieces around the city: the Old First Ward history mural on Republic Street in the Old First Ward, the Community Canvases murals on Main and Northrop Alleys by UB, Freddy J's at 195 Grant Street, Taste of 252 on Niagara and Carolina Street, and the list goes on and on.
I recently sat down with Vinny in his home studio. He has a giant wall which he is constantly painting over to create new (temporary) creations. He'll leave them up for a few days and then paint over and start something new. On the day that we were there, to our surprise and delight, we got to witness him paint an insane portrait of Rick James. You'll see the finished product at the end of the post!
Please enjoy Vinny's playlist while you read through his interview.
This is Nickel City Gritty, and this is Vinny Alejandro.
Tell me all about what you do.
I am a street artist. I paint using aerosols, and everything I do is in a graffiti-minded way. I'm always trying to see how something can be twisted and changed. My goal is to figure out how I can translate something that's real into something that can be painted with a can or how I can accomplish painting it with a can. I do it full-time. Summer time is, of course, my busiest but winter time consists of more events. I try to do a little bit more with canvasses in the winter time. A little bit more canvas painting to try to sell, but I still try to do some more indoor work for kid's rooms, man caves, and things like that. I do a lot of commissions for businesses and homes. I've done work for Catalyst Fitness, Hyatt Regency, New Era, and a lot of smaller businesses like barbershops and restaurants.
Do you have a favorite painting that you've done?
My favorite would have to be the one that I did for New Era. I painted an actual cap on the wall and then there's a can at the other end and the can is spraying paint in the shape of a thread attached to the hat. It was because one of the former president's wives said that working with New Era was like painting with thread. That's where I took the inspiration for the image from.
How would you describe your personal style?
I'm an old school hip hop head. I used to be a break dancer when I was a kid. I still have the baggy jeans, had backwards, and I'm also a Ward rat, so I kind of got that style from growing up there. I'm a city kid, there's no doubt about that. Growing up in the Ward, you got a certain way about you. People can usually tell when you're from the Ward. I like to be comfortable. I wear a lot of tee shirts that are from other artists because I like supporting other artists. I buy a lot of shirts from friends that do what I do. A lot of guys like me sell shirts just to try to make extra money. A lot of graffiti artists come from the 'hood. Graffiti art was created out of a need to create with no money. Growing up in the Ward, it was pretty poor, and it was really bad back in the 80's and the 70's. There was trains everywhere and I wanted to paint, and I had it in me to paint, and nobody cared back then about paint on a train. It was kind of easy. Everything came from there.
Tell me what you were like in high school.
I was the skateboarder. Me and my friends spent a lot of time downtown, especially living in the Ward, because we could skateboard to downtown. That's how my tagging career began, I used to go around with a marker all the time downtown. In high school I was the nice guy. I had bright red curly hair, and being half Puerto Rican with bright red hair you tend to stand out a little bit. I was a little bit of a clown, but I also took advantage of being in the performing arts. I wanted to excel and do something with it, but it was kind of college that kind of ruined it for me. I was an art major in high school. It was like the movie Fame, there was people playing instruments in the hallway and it was an unbelievable school to go to.
If there was a movie about your life, what actor would play you?
Michael Rapaport. He grew up in Detroit in the inner city and he's kind of like me. He was into the hip hop scene. He's done a lot of hip hop documentaries. And he also had red hair too, so that would probably help.
"All of my decisions after that were about growing up."
At what age do you think you became an adult?
I'd say 35. I knew where I wanted to be, I knew what I wanted to do, I knew who I was and I started building from there. My first marriage was a bad decision and it was almost to where, when I finally got out of that, I was not making bad decisions any more. All of my decisions after that were about growing up. Also, being a mechanic at the time, that was when I figured out that it was exactly what I didn't want to be doing. I didn't want to be a mechanic, I never wanted to be a mechanic. I did it because I went to the military and that's what was offered to me so I took it. That was the age when I smartened up and figured out what I wanted to do.
What is your favorite concert that you've been to?
I've been to a lot of concerts...probably Wu Tang in Germany. I saw Wu Tang in Germany when Old Dirty Bastard was still with them. He actually passed out on stage the second song and didn't wake up until the end of the show. That was an awesome show. Second was probably Beastie Boys at Buff State way back in the 80's. There was a group that was handing out demo tapes at the show, and it was Cypress Hill. That was the best time to me in hip hop music, the golden era. Now it's kind of weird. Everything is kind of crazy right now. I like to listen to my old school stuff.
What is your spirit animal?
The Pun Husky. It's that Husky dog that's in memes online. I actually painted him in Rochester a couple weeks ago. My friends were dying laughing. He's awesome, it's like that dad humor. I'm all about the dad jokes. He's definitely my spirit animal.
What's the best gift you've ever received?
Okay, this is where it gets weird. It's a waffle iron. A Cuisinart waffle iron that my mother in law gave me. So I'm always disappointed with my gifts at Christmas, and it was the first time where I was like, "Oh my god, somebody actually got what I really wanted!" Something that I could really use and take advantage of. The kids love it, I love to make waffles as our Sunday thing.
If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
Chester Bennington from Linkin Park. I was a big fan of Linkin Park and I was really sad when he died. Second to him would be DJ Kool Herc who was considered The Godfather of hip hop. He pretty much founded hip hop music.
Do you have any bad habits?
I underbid myself. I'm just discovering what I can do, so I still tend to say, "I don't know if I can do that." My wife tells me to just try it. I need to stop undervaluing myself.
What tv channel doesn't exist but should?
I think a street art show that travels around the country and highlights different artists and their work. They just did a street art challenge show that was on for a while and it was really corny. There's street art all around the world, but I don't think people get to see it enough. I mean, you could do a whole show just on Philly. Living in Germany got me addicted to the street art scene. They were really accepting of graffiti artists. Over there it got really technical, I mean, they were doing Mona Lisa style paintings with spray paint. And this was back in the 90's.
What topic could you spend hours talking about?
Hip hop. Hip hop and graffiti. I do lectures about graffiti art at schools. The history of graffiti art and artists and inspiration. It's all really cool to me.
Would you rather be a hobbit or an elf for 24 hours?
I'd say a hobbit, because I'm already a jack of all trades kind of, and I'd rather not have to be depended on. I'd rather just not have somebody looking for me to do something. Hobbits don't do as much as the elves do, I guess! I call myself a jackass of all trades, and that's because I let people know that I can do stuff, then I gotta do it all the time. I'd rather just not tell people that I can do stuff. *laughs*
What's on your playlist?
Mainly old school hip hop, especially golden era early to mid 90's. A Tribe Called Quest, a lot of Gang Starr, Lost Boyz, a lot of old mixes by old DJ's, a lot of house music, I'm actually a big fan of house music. When I got away from breakdancing, I got into hip hop dancing and me and a friend of mine used to dance for rap groups around Buffalo back in the early 90's. He passed away a couple years ago. When I went overseas I got into house music and house dancing battles. It's funny, I look 100% Irish, I got that from my mom, my brothers are three shades darker than me and have black hair, but I got the rhythm. I'm real big into the Spanish music, too. My brother likes country music, he's like the opposite. I was always really big into Spanish music and Spanish food and culture.
What are a few of your favorite bars and restaurants in Buffalo?
I'm a foodie, and I'm a local food junkie. Freddie J's, West Side Bazar...actually, my favorite meal in the entire city is at the West Side Bazar. It's stir fry vegetables with chicken, pork or shrimp stir fry next to rice with a fried egg on top of it. It's unbelievable. And the soup, my wife and I call it "crack soup," is unbelievable. I bring my wife the soup when she's sick. As far as bars...Gene McCarthy's will always have a place in my heart. Me and my wife go there on her days off. Wiechec's over on Clinton Street, the fish fry is, in my opinion, the best fish fry in the city, and I'm big on fish fries. It's ridiculous. I get the fish fry sandwich, it's huge. I go to Chester's a lot. I like Mooney's. Mooney's is like, if I don't know what I want, but I know that I want something good to eat, I'll go there. For pizza, I was big on Carbone's for a long time.
What is something that people fear but doesn't scare you at all?
Snow. I love snow. I love driving in it, love getting my snowblower out, I love the snow. I get excited in the winter time. I wish I could put out Christmas decorations all year! I'm not afraid of it at all, especially with driving. I actually taught winter weather driving in the military, which was funny because all they did was go down the line and they said, "Where are you from?" and I said, "Buffalo, New York." and he said, "Go stand over there." They sent us to a class for winter weather driving. I love driving in the winter, it doesn't bother me. If anyone needs to get anywhere and it's snowing out I'll volunteer to take them. One of my favorite things to do is take my kids sledding.
My last question, is what do you want to be when you grow up?
It's such a weird question now. I feel like I'm doing it. I would say, old. I'm not the type of person who is afraid of getting old, I'm actually embracing it. I think of where I came from and the neighborhood I came from and what I survived, and honestly I shouldn't be here. So I'm like, I'm doing it. As long as I'm alive, I'm doing it. That also leads to why I do so much for other people, like community projects and that, because I feel like I owe people. Now, as of this year, I have a regular income so I don't have to do this if I don't want to, but now I am able to paint what I want to and I have the ability to say no and not to take certain jobs just because I need the money, I can be more picky. I can just paint just to have fun. There's going to be a lot more trips this year. I want to be a part of it all.