Man About Town

There’s a man drawing pictures

On the sidewalk with chalk.

Just as fast as he draws ’em

Rain come down and wash ’em off.

— Joni Mitchell

Well, you heard it here first: Even I get a bad case of the blues once in a while. The first business week of 2001 was a lot less festive than I imagined while uncorking champagne on New Year’s Eve. Anyone notice it was like diving headfirst into a coal mine without a flashlight or a pick ax? Sheesh.

By the first Friday morning, I was marching down 14th Street at the crack of dawn (well, 8:30) mulling about retiring to Miami to tend bar at the Delano. My unnatural bad mood, however, did not last. An angel spoke and lifted my spirits immediately: “You are your own best investment!” “The world is conspiring in your favor!” “Become your dream!”

No trumpets. No halos. No wings. But an angel nonetheless: De La Vega. Cryptic messages caught my eye from different points along 14th Street. All written in simple white chalk. All signed the same: De La Vega.

I’d spotted his work in my neighborhood before; but this time, it leapt out. “All of life is a grand performance. Which costume are you forced to wear?”

Who was this De La Vega? And when did he write these things?

I began to scout the pavement for new messages and found another: “Many of us will spend the rest of our lives proving ourselves worthy and acceptable to others.” Ouch.

Finally, I spotted one that brought me up short. “Why does the feeling of emptiness occupy so much space?” I looked around and wondered how many people walking past felt this very way. I glanced up, and the first thing I saw was the haunting film poster for Before Night Falls. Who was De La Vega? Was he anything like the subject of Julian Schnabel’s new movie?

A few weeks later, I found out. The similarities are there. Latin blood, gigantic hearts and a fierce commitment to justice. That’s what Reinaldo Arenas and James De La Vega have in common. But there are differences, too.

Let me tell you a little more about this young man. De La Vega. He began by painting a mural in memory of a young man killed many years ago, but that work has now become ongoing performance art. “It’s not about me,” says the artist, “or about what I think. It’s about how people interact with it. How they are involved. This is a way for me to deliver my message. And people become my poems.”

Despite untold millions of dollars spent on outdoor advertising last year, De La Vega’s simple chalk campaign is my favorite. And I think I’ll enter it for an Effie Award.

He described his approach: “It’s all about building a relationship.” Whether uptown or downtown—near Columbia or NYU—De La Vega strives to keep his messages consistent. “That’s how I build a relationship with the neighborhood.” And what, ultimately, is his aim? “To give people a sense of hope.” Hand him that Gold Effie, dammit.

De La Vega is already a fixture in Spanish Harlem. He grew up in a relatively poor family, but drew the attention of a special teacher who (God love her) took him to York prep school for tests. The next thing he knew, he had a full scholarship. Graduating as valedictorian, he completed his education at Cornell.

As if that isn’t enough to get Disney’s attention, De La Vega returned to York to teach for a few years after graduation.

“It was part of the deal, right?” queried this cynical columnist. “No,” he replied quietly. “They had just been incredibly good to me so I thought I should.” (Forget Disney! Get me DreamWorks on the phone right now!)

He’s no longer teaching—except in the streets. Or in his storefront studio/gallery, where he sells both art and photographs of his street work taken by his girlfriend. Art & Com merce salutes him because he’s got books, postcards, T-shirts and great black baseball caps for sale—all of which continue his messages. It’s a fully integrated campaign.

You can find De La Vega’s gallery at 1651 Lexington Avenue, near 104th Street in Manhattan. It’s open most days from 11:00 a.m. until 5:00 or so. You’ll often find him there. But you won’t see him on the streets unless you get up mighty early. Maybe his messages will appear in your neighborhood one day. If not, I hope you find De La Vega.

Most of all, I hope his messages find you.