Catching Up With Chico

IMG_0191Kenan Christiansen Antonio Garcia, the street artist known as Chico, recently received commissions for 10 new neighborhood murals, including this in-progress work outside Whiskers pet supply store on Ninth Street. Below (from left), Phil Klein, a co-owner of Whiskers, Mr. Garcia and artist Joel Salas.

It’s hard to walk around the East Village and not run into a mural by Antonio Garcia, who’s known to almost everyone by his nom de spraypaint, Chico. The locally born graffiti artist has spent most of his 34-year-career dedicated to painting the public walls of the neighborhood with lush murals often directly inspired by contemporary events.  When he was laid off from his job at NYC Housing in 2008 he left the city to live in Florida with his family.

“I always said I’d come back,” said Mr. Garcia, standing before his latest work at Whiskers Holistic Pet Care on Ninth Street.  “If they pay for my ticket, I’ll come.”

And even though he’s only been in the city a few weeks his murals have already began to proliferate.

On his most recent trip, sponsored by Branson B. Champagne, Mr. Garcia painted a mural celebrating the royal wedding on a wall in East Houston and Avenue B. The job only took 12 hours and he soon had more projects lined up. Before he leaves on June 24, Mr. Garcia agreed to 10 new mural projects in the neighborhood.

Phil Klein, the co-owner of Whiskers, is happy to be one of them. Mr. Klein asked Mr. Garcia to paint a small mural of the pet shop’s logo in 2008. In the years since, a crack has developed on the wall’s face, forcing the city to remove it.

Mr. Klein can recall when he first saw Mr. Garcia’s work in 1991. “I used to pass by it every day,” he said. “It started to feel familiar. Now you can’t walk three blocks and not see a Chico.”

Three years ago, Mr. Klein asked Mr. Garcia to paint a mural based on the company logo, which depicts two of Mr. Klein’s favorite former pets.

IMG_0213Kenan Christiansen A detail of a pet-inspired mural by Mr. Garcia.

For the latest project he wants three animals depicted. “I said, ‘Hey Chico, I need my dogs and cats in there, but for everything else, just do what you want,'” Mr. Klein recalled. “You don’t want to tell a master too much of what to do.”

Earlier this week, Mr. Garcia was hard at work on the mural. Nearby, balanced on a saw horse, rest paint-dappled photos of three of the pets Mr. Klein wants featured in the mural. Two have passed on, but the third, a cat named Rachel, is still alive.

Despite being given free rein for the piece, Mr. Garcia seems intent on realizing Mr. Klein’s vision for the wall. The other day, Mr. Garcia flipped through the pictures and studied the pets, smiling. “I just like to paint,” he said. “I’ll do helmets, bikes, walls, motorcycles, so long as I get to keep doing it.”

On his business card his motto reads: Anything Goes.

He joked that he had been inhaling paint fumes for so many years that there is also a mural on the inside of his lungs. “It says, ‘Chico, by Krylon,’ he said, referring to a brand of spray paint he stuck with for years.

He thinks fondly of the East Village and still considers himself very much a New Yorker. Looking back he feels a deep connection with the city. “It’s been a blessing for me, because there was always a lot of abandoned walls,” he said, adding that he never had to go too far to practice his art — potential canvases were all around him.

Whenever he sees that one of his murals has been covered up or taken down, he tries to tell himself that it’s part of a natural cycle.

“I’ve lost a lot of my walls,” he said. “It really hurts because I no longer get to share that.  People can’t take pictures and take it home with them, but you know you gotta go with change.”

He agreed that whenever someone was willing to pay for his plane ticket, he’d be back to paint more.

Congratulations Will & KateClint McMahon A recently completed mural by Mr. Garcia commemorating the royal wedding.