With One More Mural Planned, Chico Leaves Loisaida for Florida

chicoCarly Okyle

In an Alphabet City apartment, Antonio Garcia, better known as Chico, showed off his latest works, gesturing with fingers stained black from spray paint and Sharpie markers. The four canvases – each three square feet – depict the corner of Eighth Street and Avenue C from the 1970s to today, with bright hues and cartoon-style figures.

“I like doing buildings, cars, city scenes – not too much of people,” explained Mr. Garcia.

The series was delivered to Speakeasy, a bar on Avenue C, last night. Along with illustrations for Bulldog Gin and a forthcoming mural at the New Amici Pizza restaurant, they are among the artist’s latest (and for now, his last) New York-based creations.

Mr. Garcia has spent nearly 50 years living in the East Village, and more than 30 beautifying buildings, awnings, and walls with his colorful murals. His most recent creation, adorning Ray’s Candy Store, nods to the loss of blogger Bob Arihood. Now Mr. Garcia, 48, plans to leave the neighborhood himself. He said he would depart for Tampa, Florida on Oct. 28. Though he has left town for stretches of time before, this time the absence is indefinite.

“I don’t think I’m going to come back,” he said, “but you can never say never.”

Mr. Garcia is heading south to spend time with his girlfriend, their two daughters (ages 20 and 16), and their two dogs. (He also has a 24-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son in New York.) There, he hopes to take his art in a different direction. “I just want to start fresh on canvas, instead of pleasing everybody with murals,” he said. “I’ve done that for three decades and I’m done.”

Long before he was being paid $200 to $500 for his artworks, Mr. Garcia was making his mark wherever he could. At six years old, the fourth of five children, he drew on the walls of his mother’s apartment with pencils and crayons. Later, sketches filled his school notebooks and eventually, he began spraying his name onto buses. Then his aspirations grew. “I figured I could make a little money instead of just writing my name. I practiced on the subway cars – the 2, the L, the 5, whatever – and I got chased by this guy named Psycho on the M lines in the 70s.”

chico1Carly Okyle Artwork at the apartment of Chico’s cousin.

By the time he was in his late teens, Mr. Garcia had parlayed his talents into legitimate jobs such as painting handball courts for the Parks Department. His first public painting, he recalled, was of an army tank, on a blank wall at the corner of East Fourth Street and Avenue C. When a mural he had done for John’s Pet Store in Aldrich, N.Y. was pictured in Artforum Magazine in 1983, Mr. Garcia knew he had started making a name for himself. These days, a framed certificate from The Children’s Workshop School declares him “Chico the Legend.”

Despite press coverage over the years, Mr. Garcia keeps most of the details of his life private – at least for now. “I ain’t giving nobody the real story,” he said. “The real story is going to come in a book, because there’s detail.”

He did, however, recount a near-death experience in 1998. “There was a robbery at a store I was painting, and I tried to be a hero, and I got shot,” he said, lifting up his shirt to reveal a scar on the left side of his torso. “I saw myself leave my body and flew to New Jersey like Superman. Something picked me up and put me in a tunnel. People were screaming. I woke up and I saw a girl trying to zip the body bag. They put me in the freezer. I was gone – I died for 25 minutes.”

Mr. Garcia has been splitting his time between the East Village and Tampa – he refers to both locations as “home” – since losing his job at the New York City Housing Authority three years ago. For the past four months, he has been living with his cousin, restoring his old paintings.

He said he had decided to live in Florida partly for financial reasons. “They gave me a pink slip, so that’s when I decided to leave. I gave New York City Housing a chance but they didn’t believe in me and now they want me to stay, but it’s too late.”

sprayCarly Okyle Chico’s spray paint cans.

With his open-ended departure looming, some wonder who, if anyone, can carry the torch – or the spray-paint can. “A lot of people think if I leave, there won’t be another one like me, but I don’t understand that,” he said. “A lot of people have talent – the thing is you need someone to train them and the problem is, the city doesn’t have funding like that for artists. There’s no art in the school because they’re cutting back.”

Mr. Garcia hopes he’ll find work in Tampa. “I want to teach the kids. If I can’t get a job with the kids, I want to go to senior centers.” He pointed out that his painting name is both a nickname and an acronym: “Chico stands for ‘Chico Has Incredible Community Outreach.’”

Mr. Garcia’s cousin, Joel Salas, 35, said, “His work matters because we try to teach kids to not do graffiti but to get involved in art,” he said. “It’s not crime when you do beauty.”