Summer 2020 in New York was one for the record books. Not only did 3.5 million people flee the city due to the pandemic, we rallied together for the Black Lives Matter movement and helped our communities survive. After the killing of George Floyd, New Yorkers began to congregate for peaceful protests and marches all through the five boroughs. While most people remained nonviolent, some took the opportunity to cause destruction. In SoHo, an upscale neighborhood with high-end chain stores, fear of looting and damage cultivated. Many of the building and shop owners boarded up their windows for weeks. For many, this appeared dismal and haunting. For artists, it set off an opportunity to shine.
Street artists gathered day and night to paint impromptu new canvases. Raw plywood became a perfect backdrop to the movement. Walking through SoHo in June fascinated me; I loved seeing this living art gallery come to fruition. Artists remarked that the police allowed them to paint undisturbed. A familiar style among the plywood belongs to Calicho Arevalo. I was curious about his story and his experience painting SoHo. A few months later, we sat on our separate couches via FaceTime and I asked him some questions about his background and art career in NYC.
Calicho was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia. He studied architecture for five years, spending half of his time in Colombia and half in Mexico. During his tenure as an architect, he mainly designed buildings in Mexico and India. He explained that he was trying to find a job in Colombia to support his country, but local companies weren’t paying a competitive salary. Then, he received an offer to move to the United States in late 2017. He started an internship at an architecture firm, and ultimately moved up within the company to project manager with In House Group. Calicho described his daily routine as a double life: during the day he works at the firm, but after hours with a quick change of clothes, he’s ready to paint street art.
When Calicho first moved to NYC, he lived near Coney Island in Brooklyn. This might conjure up some images of roller coasters and hot dogs, but, for Calicho, it was a long commute into Manhattan. “Even if I take the Q line, it is gonna be like an hour and 15 minutes journey,” he told me in accented English. “I started to do some sketches and I found nice watercolor markers, so literally I was painting on the subway. In one of these situations, one guy came to me and told me, ‘I have a relative and would you like to show something?’” Ultimately, he met the gallery owner who sold him wall space for $100. Calicho tried to sell his work for $20 a pop, but the gallery owner encouraged him to increase his prices. Once the art was up, he was surprised to sell three pieces right away, even the higher priced works at $200.
“I think that’s how I started to think about New York. [It can] open doors for a person who doesn’t think, ‘I am an artist,’ and maybe everyone can be an artist. Even if you feel your art doesn’t deserve much, you end up with an understanding that art is everything.” Calicho had a newfound appreciation for the art world and felt inspired to continue creating, so, when he stumbled upon a free, large black canvas, he decided to take it home and start a live video. For the livestream, he asked viewers what animals he should paint, but they had to have a reason for their choice. This project became an incredible source of emotion for him. While some had simple reasons, many of the stories touched him: “I cry when I listen these stories because one guy told me, ‘My sister passed away and she’s the blue butterfly, can you paint her?’” Calicho often uses animal imagery in his work; he sees this as a way to create unique portraiture. When I inquired why he started with animals instead of people, he mentioned it reminded him of a typical interview question, ‘What animal represents you and why?’
“I think that’s how I started to think about New York. [It can] open doors for a person who doesn’t think, ‘I am an artist,’ and maybe everyone can be an artist. Even if you feel your art doesn’t deserve much, you end up with an understanding that art is everything.”
His first animal series was connected to his family. “Everyone feels themselves with animals, so my first collection of paintings was the portrait of my family. I painted the elephant; that was my mother because elephants are very maternal and love family. I have my dad, he is like a parrot because he likes to party, so I put many colors. My brother loves horses, and my sister loves unicorns, so I drew this horse with a hole that used to have the horn. For me, my siblings were referred to as only one animal.” When I asked him which animal represented him, he mentioned a rooster. “I remember the first animal that I felt identified with was the rooster because the people were wondering, ‘What was at the beginning: the chicken or the egg?’ I thought the rooster is the beginning of something.” The rooster was also Calicho’s first foray into the world of street art. Once, his friend Majo invited him to paint a gate on Delancey Street at 2:00AM. “It was crazy cold. My hands were shaking. I was so nervous, but it was fun. At the end, it was the opportunity that I said to myself, ‘I think I can do bigger scale.’”
“I remember the first animal that I felt identified with was the rooster because the people were wondering, ‘What was at the beginning: the chicken or the egg?’ I thought the rooster is the beginning of something.”
Along with animals, Calicho’s signature style incorporates bold, graphic colors. “For me, more is more. More is better. More detailed. More work. I feel as a human I’m given an opportunity to enjoy so many colors, so why not use them? The way that I feel is that I can express more emotion or catch more attention of other people as well.” I speculated that Calicho’s Latin influence comes through with his color choices too. The expressive nature of his lines and brush strokes show a wild, eccentric influence. He remarked that Colombian people are happy and vibrant, demonstrated by his palette.
“It was crazy cold. My hands were shaking. I was so nervous, but it was fun. At the end, it was the opportunity that I said to myself, ‘I think I can do bigger scale.’”
While Calicho created artworks at home, the pandemic continued to impact the city. Following Floyd’s death on May 25th, protests began to spread nationwide. The New York Times described one day’s events as “largely peaceful demonstrations [which] turned into jarring scenes of flaming debris, stampedes, and looted storefronts.” By the first week of June, artists were turning SoHo into a walkable art protest. Portraits of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, and many others lost to police brutality were painted on the fresh plywood. Artists were wheatpasting their signs and printed posters.
Calicho joined the movement by painting large fists in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He was invited to paint a couple boards on Broadway as SoHo became a street artist haven. “I didn’t have a ladder. It was hard to climb, but I found one person who gave me one really quick. When I focus and I know what I’m doing, I paint super fast so I painted my fist. This was an opportunity, because a lot of journalists came and I was feeling like part of the movement. I was not feeling that I was doing this for Calicho Art; I was doing this for a historic moment to reflect what everyone is thinking and always supported. For me, Black Lives Matter was never about my paints, or if it was I would have painted animals. It was more of how I can represent the movement.”
I was not feeling that I was doing this for Calicho Art; I was doing this for a historic moment to reflect what everyone is thinking and always supported. For me, Black Lives Matter was never about my paints, or if it was I would have painted animals. It was more of how I can represent the movement.”
During this time, Calicho linked up with another artist, Jeff Rose King, who greatly impacted his efforts. “Honestly, I think some things are part of destiny. We really had to meet that day and we painted one board showing a fist with a rose. It was already early, like 3:00 PM, so then he said, ‘Why don’t we go to another?’ I said, ‘Yeah, OK, let’s go to it.’ We ended up painting eight boards, including a rhino that was huge. I arrived home that day crying like I cannot believe I did all of this in one day. [This was] the happiest day of my life because I had a chance to paint so many things to transmit a message. It was really memorable. I think it is like the first time you feel like you can do great things.” Jeff Rose and Calicho created many memorable works along SoHo along Broadway. Many of their early collaborations feature fists and animals by Calicho next to Jeff Rose’s signature eyes and roses.
We ended up painting eight boards, including a rhino that was huge. I arrived home that day crying like I cannot believe I did all of this in one day. [This was] the happiest day of my life because I had a chance to paint so many things to transmit a message. It was really memorable. I think it is like the first time you feel like you can do great things.
One collaboration on Mercer Street ended up in the New York Times. Their work, titled “Sad Contrast,” depicts half of a face of an indigenous woman by Calicho and half of a face of the Statue of Liberty by Jeff Rose. The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Arevalo’s side suggests an Indigenous woman in a headdress, composed to mirror the crowned Roman goddess. Both figures look steadily at the viewer, essentially asking: How will you see us, and what will we mean to you?” Calicho was blown away by his feature in the prominent magazine. His inspiration for the piece was his outrage of the rape at a 13-year-old indigenous girl in Bogota by seven Colombian soldiers in June 2020. He reminisced that they had painted for three hours already that day, but Jeff offered to do one more piece. Calicho expressed to Jeff Rose that he was torn up over the news story from his hometown and wanted to do something to honor the girl. “I think the people of New York really embrace us, being a street art capital and you know people do love to see different imagery, things that speak to them. I think that’s probably why that piece was captured, because it did really speak to the momentum of everything going on.” Calicho seemed very humbled at the idea of his artwork being featured around the world.
When it comes to collaborations, Calicho has been open to working with a variety of artists. With his experience in the architecture realm, he is used to working with his colleague’s views and opinions. “I think I’m trying to explore this and trying to explore how you can integrate art as a way to mix up styles. I think it’s fun. Of course, I don’t say this to every artist. I feel when I see art and an artist that would be a really good combination with mine, I’m always open to do it and I always admire other artists.” At the end of 2020, he collaborated with Vanessa Kreytak on two denim jacket designs. One features the Statue of Liberty and indigenous girl design, the other shows a roaring lion. He continues to paint with Jeff Rose on mural collaborations.
Calicho hopes to build his art career and expand his portfolio. Last year, he created three murals for UnderHill Walls, curated by Jeff Beler. He felt that 2020 was a great year for him through growth as an artist. He is focusing now on creating some works that are based on his dreams. “The way I see right now, the world is full of rules, especially for architecture. Every project involves more than 50 people and there are so many comments. So many blocks and boundaries and limits that you cannot decide. Art is my freedom. I think everything from these last three years has been a revolution and see they are the opportunity to express myself and be more free.”