Packing Away His Spray Paint

Angel "LA II" OrtizStephen Rex Brown Angel Ortiz, the street artist known as LA II, has decided to stop producing street graffiti after a recent stint on Rikers Island on vandalism charges. Below: Mr. Ortiz with a recent piece.
Angel "LA II" Ortiz

LA II is taking his art off of the streets.

Angel Ortiz, the iconic graffiti artist known as LA II, told The Local that he’ll now only spray his paint cans in legal settings after spending more than a month at Rikers Island for a frenzy of tagging all over the East Village.

Mr. Ortiz said that his time in jail had essentially scared him straight — though the old-school graffiti artist who collaborated extensively with Keith Haring confessed that putting down his markers and cans would be tough.

“I’m hanging up the gloves,” said Mr. Ortiz, who’s 44. “No more spray painting in the streets. I don’t know how I’m going to do it.”

His decision to abide by the law marks a major transition for the street artist from the Baruch Houses, who is credited with showing Haring around the streets of New York. While Mr. Ortiz said that he will continue to paint, his work will be restricted to galleries instead of the streets, where he has frequently had run-ins with the police.

The latest round of trouble began for Mr. Ortiz in March, when he started tagging his “LA ROC” signature in numerous locations around the neighborhood. Mr. Ortiz said that the burst of creativity came as a response to his wife’s death in January after a liver transplant.

“I used the street as a canvas to express myself,” he said. “It’s an emotional thing that I’m still going through.”

His tag showed up at well-known sites around the neighborhood like the Joe Strummer mural on Seventh Street and the Kenny Scharf mural on Houston Street.

Around that time Mr. Ortiz was arrested three times by the police for tagging (his name was in a police database, tying him to the crime). Because of the multiple offenses in such a short period of time, he was given a stiff sentence of 45 days, and even missed his own gallery opening because he was in jail.

graf2 020 Frank Gerard Godlewski Mr. Ortiz’s work at Gallery 69 in TriBeCa.

Mr. Ortiz said that the time behind bars was a hellacious experience.

“I went there for graffiti and got transformed into a gladiator,” he said. “They got all the gangs in there: the Bloods, the Latin Kings.”

During his stint in jail Mr. Ortiz said he “had a lot of time to reflect,” and emerged with new artistic inspiration.

“A lot of people I knew have died, but for some reason I’m still here. Keith, Andy, Basquiat, I was running with them when I was 16 — it was a privilege,” Mr. Ortiz said, referring to Keith Haring and Andy Warhol.

After his release from Rikers late last month, Mr. Ortiz got back to writing graffiti — legally.

He even tried convincing a judge to let his work on a mural at the East Side Community High School skate park count towards community service.

Not surprisingly, the judge rejected the notion of a recently arrested graffiti artist doing more graffiti as part of his punishment. Instead, Mr. Ortiz had to clean up Tompkins Square and Sara Roosevelt Park.

Frank Gerard Godlewski, the curator at Gallery 69 in TriBeCa, which is preparing an exhibition of Mr. Ortiz’s work, said that the mural at the school was a great community service that is loved by the students.

“He was insulted, penalized, and then he’s revered,” Mr. Godlewski said. “It’s crazy.”

Mr. Ortiz said that he has been going through a particularly prolific period as of late, and said he is focused on producing more material. But he admitted that call of the streets might be too strong for him to resist.

“For me, it’s easy to destroy the streets — I want to paint them,” he said, adding with a smile, “Maybe I’ll switch my name.”

Angel "LA II" OrtizStephen Rex Brown Mr. Ortiz said that he plans to devote more time to producing gallery pieces like this one.