I recently painted the third version of “Felipe’s Story,” the mural that has been on the side of the Washington, DC arts and performance center BloomBars since 2009. That year, I spent time living and working in the slum community (favela) City of God (Cidade de Deus) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which was made infamous from a film of the same name. My host family included an 11 year old boy named Felipe, who I quickly became close with, in part because he was in desperate need of father figures in his life after his dad was killed and he was being raised by his grandmother in an all-female household. I was struck by the extreme situation that this good-natured, playful child was in; his grandmother expressed her worry to me and explained how many kids in the neighborhood, including several of her own children, got sucked into the crime and drug underworld which so often led to death, prison, or addiction. She prayed that Felipe would follow the path of education and a positive life. I realized that this was the story of thousands of kids in Brazil and millions across the world, and when I returned to DC, where I was living at the time, I approached the founder of BloomBars, John Chambers, about turning this concept into a mural with Felipe as the main character.
In the five years since then, my artistic style has changed dramatically and I have had the opportunity to organize arts-based social projects with youth in marginalized communities around the world in collaboration with local organizations. My work has taken me to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, an indigenous village in Mexico, a shantytown in Nairobi, Kenya, and many more. All of this has influenced me as a person and an artist, and I am grateful to be able to continuously update the mural at BloomBars with new experiments and ideas. I have also repeatedly returned to my work in Brazil, where I have watched Felipe grow into a young man. Unfortunately, many of his grandmother’s fears have begun to come true. He was locked up last year for robbery and his cousin reported seeing him at a party with a gun. One evening I ran into him as he was on the corner with red-eyed drug traffickers with whom he now associates, an awkward encounter for both of us. Still, all is not lost. Felipe’s family and his girlfriend are positive forces in his life and are attempting to influence him to take a more positive and healthy path. This is a choice only he can make.
This new version of “Felipe’s Story” features a 17-year-old Felipe in the same pose as the past murals. There are two creatures struggling over him; one a demon and the other a winged bird-man who wants to guide Felipe in the right direction. As they battle to influence him, Felipe stands still, trying to figure out which way to go and what to do with his life. The artwork includes aerosol art, mosaic, a circular pattern that I saw on a sidewalk in Jordan,and creatures that I invented but which are influenced by many ancient mythological traditions. Thanks to BloomBars for giving me the opportunity to share my art and the ongoing saga of Felipe as it unfolds.