Artist Interview: Michael Vasquez
Michael Vasquez is a Miami based artist, best known for his portraits of gangsta looking men. We had the chance to speak to Mike about his work, his life and his subject matter, which although very present in his life through his work and overall style, belongs to a time when influences and emotions ran deep. One of the things that caught my attention the most, is the similarities between Vasquez work and his personality, in the sense that just as in his paintings, beyond the rough looking exterior, you find an unexpected familiar warmth and friendliness that makes him and his work feel alive and approachable.
Miami Art Map: Mike, Where were you born and how did you come to live in Miami?
Michael Vasquez: I was born in St. Petersburg, Florida. After graduating from high school in 2001, I moved to Miami for college. I knew I wanted to go to art school, but really had a desire to stay in Florida. That being said, my options were pretty much limited to Ringling School of Art and Design or New World School of the Arts. Comparing location and potential possibility of a life changing experience, I made the very clear decision in choosing Miami over Sarasota. It was a no brainer for me, I didn’t even apply to Ringling.
MAM: What do you love about Miami and what do you wish was different?
MV: I love the location. It is Miami’s location that gives the city some of its greatest qualities, the weather, water, and culture. Miami is an international hub and a city that garners worldwide attention. I like being where I can potentially be a part of something like that. I like that scale, that grand playing field. And also for me personally, Miami’s proximity to my family in St. Petersburg is a plus. I can just get in the car and go if I need or want to.
In a really weird sort of way, those very same things that I love, are where I can also find my biggest complaints, or differences. Miami is hot. We don’t have seasons here. We’re practically water locked at the very bottom of a peninsula. And we need to grow culturally as a city. We have hundreds and hundreds of countries represented here by people that now call this place home. We are ethnically wealthy. But what I mean is fine tune local, Miami culture. I want us to develop a personal and sophisticated identity. I think we are on the right road though. These kinds of things take centuries. We are still very young as a city...
MAM: Tell us a little bit about your upbringing and how has it influence your work?
MV: I am the only child of a single parent mother. I didn’t really have a father figure in my life. When I started getting old enough to venture out into the neighborhood after school, I formed friendships with kids that were in or associated with a neighborhood street gang. I really latched onto these relationships and always held my friends in high regard. I was attracted to that type of group and structure. The gang idealistically embodied the concept of an extended family, all while projecting a certain level of toughness and masculinity. Especially through the eyes of a naive teenager. These seemed to be the things I was missing, or maybe even unknowingly looking for in my early years. That basically serves as the foundation of my works content. All of these things, and every single facet and detail of them is open playing field for me; I want my art to explore the interconnectedness of it all. Some of it is inspired by direct real experience that’s translated through my work, and other times I create fictional, often mythical scenarios that better allow the core of my ideas to play out.
MAM: When did you decide to start a career in the arts and what drove you to that choice?
MV: I’ve always wanted to be some sort of artist. When I was in the second grade, I was in a combination class with both second and third graders. There was a kid in the third grade who could draw well. The hot thing to draw at the time was Ninja Turtles. This kid would draw them from memory as the other kids looked on in awe. I kind of wanted that. So I started to practice. I would check out the “How to Draw 50 (whatever)” books from the public library, where I would also rent the “How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way” VHS tape and let Stan and John mentor me. From there, naturally, I wanted to become a comic book artist, then an animator, then a video game graphics guy, – all the things kids like. Then at some point in my teenage years, I decided that I wanted to pursue graphic design, especially within the context of fashion. After I graduated from high school, I came to Miami to major in graphic design at New World School of the Arts in Miami. Once here I discovered a world where people were being ‘real’ artists. Making whatever work they wanted and being successful at it. This was very foreign to me. I always had this idea of ‘the starving’ artist implanted in my head, and really didn’t even understand that the 'art world’ even existed. Once I found about this secret society, I decided that I wanted to be a part of it and haven’t looked back since.
MAM: How would you describe your work to someone who has never seen it?MV: #tough #masculine #agressive #painterly #portrait #gangster #gangsta #real #fake #territory #neighborhood #property #home #family #pride #shame #respect #disrespect #affiliation #exclusion #gesture #markmaking #perspective #color #friendly #fatherly #singleparent #onlychild #identity #portraiture
MAM: Your subject matter is very specific, could you tell us some stories of the people in your paintings and how they ended up on your canvas.
MV: Most of the people in my work are my friends. I guess the work that I am most known for are my large scale portraits. Senior year in college we had this ongoing assignment of doing a self portrait every week. One week I had this idea about the company you keep and the identity that it projects. I presented 5 to 10 photographs of my friends as my self portrait. I think I also had this painting class or something at the time and I had no idea what I wanted to paint, other than I knew i wanted to make these tough and aggressive, figurative paintings. Some of my photographs of my friends fit the bill, so I went with it, using my photos as reference. Later down the line I made all these realizations about the work I made and why I made it. These realizations allowed me to fine tune these portraits and make new ones with the approach of highlighting and underscoring the specific things I was trying to address. Things like scale. By painting these people at such a glorified scale, I position the viewer below the subject, forcing them to look up to the person in the painting the same way that I did in my younger years.
MAM:In the past you have done some installation work, should we expect to see more of that in the future?
MV:Yes! I definitely want to do more of that kind of work. And I will! My paintings are time consuming. As are those kinds of installations. It’s been very difficult to work on both of these things simultaneously in terms of space and time. I’m still trying to figure it out, but I’m making progress. Currently, I am working on my next large painting show, and also a separate installation. I feel good about that. Having these multiple and different things going in the studio at the same time.
MAM: What have you been listening to lately?
MV: Most of what I listen to is underground, emerging rap. I follow a lot of stuff that I have some sort of local connection to. Stuff like Raider Klan and past and present affiliates, MetroZu, Denzel Curry, Nell, Rell, Yung Simmie, etc... Back home in Tampa Bay, I have BARtenders Music Group and all affiliates; Foul Mowf, Hagen Lee, Silent, Mo, Bravo etc... Outside of Florida, right now I like Main Attrakionz, Xavier Wulf, and Bones. I also like some electronic / ambient / downtempo type of stuff. Stuff like Friendzone. I might of butchered that genre name, so forgive me; it’s so hard to put some of this kind of stuff into a ‘box.’ I like finding new music and artists. Then I like digging into their body of work and exploring other artists and producers that are connected to them. It’s a kind of a cool, fun, never ending exploration. Like Main Attrakionz turned me onto Friendzone, who have turned me onto all kinds of other music. Some of which I like, some of which I don’t, and others that I don’t even know how I feel about, but I think it’s interesting even if it’s just sonically. Sicko Mobb from Chicago is a prime example of this...
MAM: Whats your favorite food spot in Miami?
MV: We have many many great places to eat here in Miami; expensive and fancy, cheap and relaxed - we have it all. We have the elegant spots with the internationally recognized chefs, and we also have the whole in the wall ethnic places where grandmas cook generationally tried and true dishes. I love great food, but am by no means a foodie. I have a simple palate. I like classic 'bad for you' food, things like pizza and burgers. Meat and cheese. Don’t judge me. Matter of fact, I’ll roll with this whim right now and say my favorite thing to eat in Miami is a real Philly Cheesesteak from Lost Weekend on the beach. Yes that is a bar, ...don’t judge me.