It’s an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon for October and I am making my way to Manhattan’s Lower East Side to chat with artist M. Tony Peralta. His newest exhibition, Rolos & Icons had opened the night prior to a packed house of family, friends, and supporters. This was the first time he had ever held an opening downtown, and the incredible turnout was a feat in itself.
I had been following the works of the Dominican-American artist by way of Washington Heights for a few years now as we have many mutual friends who’ve invited me to his events in the past. I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of his Latin roots, hip-hop and pop culture elements that were consistent through his works.
I sat down with Tony to talk to him further about his career thus far, Rolos & Icons, and the inspirations behind his work.
I have been following your career for a number of years and I have noticed that there has been a strong female presence throughout. Why is it important for you to showcase women of color in your artwork?
The first exhibit I did, Complejo, had to do with identity issues. Mainly being Black and Latino, and the identity issues we have growing up and the effects of it. I started to think about some of the things that women go through as well; the whole good hair/bad hair thing, which I went through myself, as a man. I had curly hair and would shave it off. For women, it’s a little more extreme because they have to go to the hair salon, and get their hair straightened, and relaxers, etc. I grew up with a single mom and an older sister, and a younger sister, and our bathroom was filled with their products.
Growing up with a single mom that was a very strong figure, along with my sisters and brother, I had a good balance. My mom was very influential. I don’t think it’s something that I do consciously. I grew up with low self-esteem, so I touched upon things that affected me [with the Complejo exhibit] but then I started to think about how it affects women as well because they deal with it more, whether it be a hair [texture] thing or skin lightening, if it’s body issues. There was a piece in the exhibit of a woman in hair rollers, and that woman almost became a Latin Mona Lisa. She had a certain gaze that people thought was beautiful, and I feel that it influenced other artists to start creating works with women in hair rollers as well.
With that said, what was the inspiration behind Rolos & Icons?
Throughout the years, I started to think of ways that I could update Complejo. I thought, ‘You know what? I’m gonna own this shit. I’m gonna own [the visual of] women in hair rollers.’ The first idea that came to mind was Dora con Rolos, which was funny because it was kind of the same wording. I wrote it on a sticky note and put it on my monitor, and it was there for months. I thought that I wanted to work on it [further], but it was just one idea.
Sometime last year, I don’t know what happened, but it hit me. Iconic Latin women in hair rollers. I’m gonna make these [canvases] really big, the biggest pieces that I’ve done so far. I did Frida first. I worked on it on the computer to lay it out and sent it to a couple of people to check it out, and everybody was like, “Oh shit! This is dope as fuck!”, and then it went from there. Another thing about having women in hair rollers, it’s choosing strong women, and making them a little bit more relatable. If you’re a Latin woman or a woman of color, you’re very familiar with hair rollers at some point, so it’s kind of like seeing yourself in them.
Tell us a little bit more about your collaboration with Fadia Kader of Saint Frida.
Fadia, I met her about two years ago when she was working at Complex. She came to my studio and saw my Frida Coño piece, and loved it; that’s how we connected. She didn’t even have the Saint Frida Twitter account yet, but she called her Saint Frida. She told me how she visited Casa Azul on a pilgrimage; she was telling me all that. From there, we were following each other on Instagram, we knew some of the same people, and she hit me up and asked me if I wanted to collaborate and do a pin. We linked up a few months ago and spoke more about it, and that’s how everything came about. She definitely helped and played a huge part in helping me do this show also, so it was all kind of great timing.
How important is the relationship between art and commerce for modern artists?
For me, it’s important because commerce is what supports my art career. I’ve been doing the Peralta Project for ten years; that’s my t-shirt line. It all started with one art piece that I made. I kind of took a page from Shepard Fairey’s book, Shepard Fairey does OBEY and OBEY Giant, obviously some of his art pieces are expensive, so if you can’t buy un cuadro, a frame or whatever, then you can buy a t-shirt [instead]. The same thing happened with me with the first piece I did entitled Freedom in 2005. I used to work as a designer and had a 9 to 5. I had a solid income and was making a good living so I thought, ‘let me start my own t-shirt line’. It started to get more and more recognition, doing exhibits and stuff like that, through my relationships, and I started to get press.
I was put in a certain position and I quit my job and I was able to have more time to do art. I was freelancing and then the freelancing stopped. And then I thought, ‘I don’t want to go back to work for anybody’ . I decided to buy a four-color press and make my own shirts in my basement. My following started getting bigger and bigger and I started selling stuff online, and that kind of became my job. There are little design gigs that I will get from time to time, or teaching opportunities, but this has been my main source of income. It has allowed me to be flexible with time where a couple of days a week I will work on my orders, and once or twice a week I will go to the studio at SVA to work on art or prints. So basically, the commerce supports my art career. I’m not a person that is connected in the art or gallery scene, which I would like to, but what’s amazing, is that the people are fucking with me. The most expensive piece I have here is $6,000. The majority of people that were here [for the opening] probably can’t afford $6,000, but they can buy a shirt, or buy prints. So people really need to understand that; they’re really supporting me. Being able to support me to create art. Would I like to sell a couple of these pieces? Hell fucking yea! But I am making culturally relevant artwork that the majority of people that buy art probably won’t buy. Where are the young people of color that collect art? That’s the very hard part. Because somebody will go to a club and spend $3,000 – $5,000 every weekend, but they will not buy your art piece because that is something that is foreign to them, until Jay Z or someone tells them ‘this is what we are doing now’. If you want to collect the art, you have to be really rich. That’s why commerce to me is very important.
What advice would you give to young Latino artists in the inner-cities that aspire to follow in your footsteps?
If you’re really about that life, and you really want to do it, then do it. But do it when it’s not working. What happens is, there’s a bunch of young people that see what I’m doing or what somebody else is doing, and want to do the same thing. They’re not making any money, so they stop doing it, because it’s a fucking fad. This shit is not a fad to me, this shit is real life. It literally took six years for me to make kind of consistent sales online, and it’s still growing. The only reason why the Peralta Project has existed for ten years is because I had a job, and was still willing to make it happen. I got press…I’ve done a lot of stuff, and that’s all good, but not all of those things brought in money. It’s one of those things where eventually, hopefully, people catch on, you know? And now, people are kind of catching on and it’s fucking great. But if this is what you wanna do, then do it. Don’t do it if you want some immediate gratification. That’s not how it works. I find it insulting when people just want to jump on a wave. This is not a wave for me, this is my life and I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I had a really well-paying job, and I have six years of not working for somebody, so I don’t even know how to go back to go work [for someone]. That’s my advice. If you’re really about it, then stick to it. Some people get lucky, some do get instant gratification, and some people don’t. But at the end of the day, everyone that is really passionate about what they do, will do it for free.
Rolos & Icons is on view now until November 4th at 103 Allen Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Visit PeraltaProject.com for all updates!
All photos by Andrea K. Castillo