Heroin is a hell of a drug. Not that I would know, but I’ve meet people who know all too well. According to the NCHS, nearly 20,000 people felt heroin was worth dying for in 2019. In fact, no one really knows how many people currently use heroin in the US today. Government agencies can only guess by monitoring the number of overdose related deaths.
Heroin is known for being a highly potent, addictive, and all-consuming opioid – something artist Tarbox knows firsthand. Before the age of 25, he quickly graduated up the ladder from ecstasy to meth to finally heroin. For Tarbox, the drug was an escape from reality and form of self-medication. Like 80% of all heroin users, Tarbox originally began using perception drugs before migrating to illegal alternatives. Initially Tarbox was unconsciously seeking to manage his OCD, a condition that’s affected him since childhood.
As a child, Tarbox experienced severe anxiety and panic attacks. Most of his preoccupation revolved around death and his family. “I was raised Catholic,” he told me, “It was very emphasized; you do these things and then you get to be with your family and everybody you love forever.” Religion was a sort of comfort blanket that allowed him to avoid the pain of reality. “There was no necessity to accept or understand or wrangle with the idea of things being finite or ending. It was just kind of like this goal of making it last forever.”
Tarbox’s condition wasn’t initially triggered by a traumatic event of losing someone in his family, rather it was an extreme fear of what potentially could happen. The fear of losing a loved one coupled with the eternal consequences of Catholicism manifested itself into a foreboding mountain of apprehension. “Worrying and having anxiety is like living that consequence in real time over and over and over,” he said. In a certain way, a religious upbringing left Tarbox without the coping skills necessary to deal with loss. It wasn’t until he experienced loss firsthand that he realized it wasn’t as terrible as he imagined. “Once it’s happened there’s nothing left to do but move on and that’s where growth and healing comes from.”
The fear of losing a loved one coupled with the eternal consequences of Catholicism manifested itself into a foreboding mountain of apprehension. “Worrying and having anxiety is like living that consequence in real time over and over and over,”
When Tarbox lost his faith in religion as a teenager, he also lost his ability to manage his obsessive thoughts. He turned to prescription medication until he eventually discovered street drugs. “I think there’s some comfort in having self-sabotage,” he said. “Because if you make your problem this thing that’s really recognizable, you kind of don’t have to think about all the other shit. Like if you’re going to be a good parent, or if you were a shitty son, or whatever. Your problem is just heroin.” When you’re in this space the only problem you have is how to get more heroin. Tarbox’s addiction pushed him to a state of extreme apathy where he literally didn’t care about anything. He didn’t care if he lived or died.
When you’re in this space the only problem you have is how to get more heroin. Tarbox’s addiction pushed him to a state of extreme apathy where he literally didn’t care about anything. He didn’t care if he lived or died.
Tarbox was lucky to have a family willing to support him when he finally entered rehab. However, getting off heroin was really just removing a symptom of the actual root issue. “I thought that I was over my OCD because I got clean,” he told me. “I think that’s a little bit of the mountain of climbing out of it; is that you get clean and then you still have to deal with the human condition and everybody else does too, and there’s not an easy way out of that.” It wasn’t until the concentrated isolation of quarantine that Tarbox realized his OCD had been continuing to manifest itself in his life.
“I think that’s a little bit of the mountain of climbing out of it; is that you get clean and then you still have to deal with the human condition and everybody else does too, and there’s not an easy way out of that.”
“I tried medication again in August/September and didn’t like it. It made my intrusive thoughts go away, but it also made me really not want to do anything,” he said. “I was like, oh, my anxiety fuels a lot of my productivity.” Tarbox found what actually works for him is journaling, breathing techniques, and moderating substances, even alcohol. “The only time alcohol helps me with art is if I’m doing a live competition battle” he told me. “I’ve gotten shit-faced almost every battle and it seems to help me focus.” Other than the occasional battle, Tarbox tries to lead a mostly clean lifestyle.
Tarbox has overcome a lot of obstacles to get where he is today. When considering his past, he reflected, “I don’t think I would have become an artist.” His trajectory before addiction was to get a trade job out of high school. When he made the move to get clean, he needed to fill the void left by hard drugs; a serious undertaking considering the incredibly low recovery rate for heroin. He resorted to finding activities that genuinely gave him pleasure and made a tangible impact on the world around him. Soon after getting clean, Tarbox realized he was taking pleasure in simple things like listening to music again. Creating art in that space became really important. “Heroin really hijacks your ability to produce dopamine,” he informed me. “A lot of times like people will quickly substitute for sex addiction or whatever because you need something else spiking that up, just enough to not feel so fucking dull.” He practiced aerosol in his garage for about a year before he was confident enough to hit the streets. About a year after that he found he was actually making money from his art. He saved up enough money to take a trip with his best friend to Colombia. While there he ended up making friends with fellow street artist Crisp and getting up on some spots. He came back from the experience artistically invigorated and made the commitment to create full time.
“Heroin really hijacks your ability to produce dopamine,” he informed me. “A lot of times like people will quickly substitute for sex addiction or whatever because you need something else spiking that up, just enough to not feel so fucking dull.”
Substituting aerosol for opioids gave Tarbox a positive outlet for his problems. His murals and street art adorn businesses across the Houston area. One of his most recent works sits atop of local watering hole and arcade EightyTwo, which features an epic melee mural of vintage video game characters from yesteryear. The act of creating street art gifted Tarbox with a fresh perspective, drive, and purpose.
Tarbox never credits drugs with giving him creativity, in his personal experience they did the exact opposite, but there are some substances which may have more medicinal aspects. Tarbox explained an experience with DMT several years back that made him appreciate alternative forms of medication. “It entirely annihilated my ego,” he told me. “I walked away and for two weeks I was just like, oh my problems aren’t that big.” In fact, serious studies for therapeutic uses for psychedelic drugs have only recently begun. In 2019, John Hopkins opened a new medical center dedicated entirely to studying how psychoactive substances can be used to treat diseases such as opioid addiction.
These new studies could potentially generate new treatments to combat addiction and give many heroin addicts the same fresh start Tarbox received. Even though Tarbox is grateful for the opportunities he’s had since recovery he doesn’t have any delusions about it. “I don’t fool myself into thinking that I did this on my own. It’s a combination of working hard, luck, and meeting the right people.” Leaving high school on felony probation, Tarbox’s prospects did not look bright. His experiences left him with a definite impression about class injustice in this country. “It preys on vulnerable people and makes life worse for them. The recidivism rate in this country is fucking awful and people don’t leave prison generally better,” he said. “It’s a really weird and unproductive motivator for fixing people’s lives.” A self-described anti-capitalist, Tarbox sympathizes with people from lower socioeconomic factors. “I had these horrible experiences as a middle-class white male,” he said. “If you think about what other people have to deal with, with less starting positions, it’s just super stacked against the working class.”
His experiences left him with a definite impression about class injustice in this country. “It preys on vulnerable people and makes life worse for them. The recidivism rate in this country is fucking awful and people don’t leave prison generally better,”
There are no safety nets in street art. Street artists don’t typically have 401k’s and corporate golden parachutes to fall back on. Tarbox has been successful by being able to adapt to the unpredictable nature of the game. He experiments with his art, creating layered 3D work cut out of MDF board. He often uses modern tools like the iPad and Procreate to work out his ideas digitally before committing paint to a wall. When COVID-19 hit and suddenly public wall commissions dwindled, he was able to make ends meet through his enamel pin line and other merchandise. “I was wondering if I would need to apply for unemployment or how this would work but luckily my sales were enough to keep me afloat.”
The pandemic broadened Tarbox’s relation of art and location. “It showed me that I didn’t really matter where I live. I could make something happen.” Tarbox continues to deal with his OCD and anxiety on a daily basis, but now he approaches them in a more head on manner, unfiltered by drugs or medication. The apathy of heroin addiction is a shadow to his now optimistic future. Currently he’s in the process of planning a mini street art tour for when quarantine is over, hitting Portland, North Carolina, Chicago, Denver, LA, and more. Who knows? Maybe even a wall near you.