Restaurant Wall is Street Artists’ Canvas
Orlando Sentinel (Florida)
September 23, 2008 Tuesday
IT’S NOT VANDALISM — IT’S ART
Daphne Sashin, Sentinel Staff Writer
SECTION: LOCAL NEWS; FINAL; Pg. B1
Until this year, an Orlando street artist — street name “Dolla”– made his art between 3 and 6 a.m., to avoid the cops. He’d plaster buildings with giant posters depicting animated characters and messages of peace until he ran out of wheat paste or the sun came up. A 3-foot-tall poster took less than a minute to post; a 10-footer, less than five.
But last year, one of his “poster bombs” landed him in jail. It was a wake-up call for the 34-year-old artist, whose day job is designing displays for Disney stores.
Today, Dolla is a star in the world of “legal” graffiti, making his art on one of Orlando’s most prestigious — and unlikely — stages: the back of a Vietnamese restaurant.
One of the city’s few so-called “permission” walls, the south wall of Pho 88, on Mills Road near Colonial Drive, is an ever-changing tableau of pieces by some of the region’s best spray-can artists. Recently, pieces ranged from Dolla’s signature Martian-like creatures, in green and purple; to a bald, goateed man with a scowl by artist Jose “Ric” Sosa; to an imposing face of Jesus created in black and white by Willie “Wie” Soto.
“It took a while to warm up and have the courage to paint here. This is kind of the major wall in town,” said Dolla, who gives only his first real name, Bill, to avoid repercussions from past illegal activity.
As a teenager in New Jersey, he and his friends were consumed with spray-painting their names in bubble letters on as many public surfaces as they could. Now, he uses spray paint to create art.
Permission walls trigger mixed reactions. Some officials argue they can ease vandalism by giving the painters a place for their creativity. Others say the spray-paint murals lead to one-upmanship and nuisance graffiti elsewhere.
Orlando tolerates the walls as long as the artists have the property owners’ permission. City spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh, who often drives by Pho 88, said the art is clearly different from the tags illegally painted by kids or gang members — and which the city works to prevent or eliminate.
Sosa, 35, a fiber-optics technician with a baby on the way, said he respects the graffiti outlaws who popularized the stylized aerosol art in 1970s New York. But, he said, the detailed portraits he and others specialize in would be nearly impossible to complete without the building owners’ permission.
“You have to work at night, and you have to do something quick,” Sosa said of the illegal walls. “If Willie tried to do his Jesus illegally, he could never finish it.”
Pho 88 owner Hue Phan remembers hesitating a few years ago when guys armed with spray cans asked if they could cover an existing mural on her wall. But being an art appreciator, she said yes.
The wall quickly became popular. People stopped to take pictures, and customers talked about the art, Phan said.
“I cannot ask them to stop,” said Phan, who provides ladders for the artists and says she may commission Sosa and Soto to spray-paint a mural in her house. “Everybody likes it.”
Sosa got hooked on aerosol art as a teenager in Puerto Rico after watching the 1984 hip-hop feature Beat Street and Style Wars, the documentary on which the movie was based.
Nearly 20 years later, he says it’s in his blood.
With dreams of someday making a living from his art, he totes his sketchbook and duffels full of aerosol cans to the restaurant’s parking lot. The wall is his canvas for portraiture, from a bespectacled little boy to an elderly woman with crooked teeth to a pistol-toting gangster.
Often, his portraits remain for just a week or two before he covers them with new art.
“For me, it’s very important to do it legally because . . . I have to think about my family first,” Sosa said.
“I just want to change what people think about graffiti. When you talk about graffiti, people in this society think gangs and drugs and vandalism. We’re not like this. We just want to be recognized like artists that work with brushes.”