For the second time since its completion, a mural honoring the late Albert “Prodigy” Johnson was once again defaced. The artwork, created by Jeff Henriquez and Eli Lazare (curator of the Prodigy mural project), was left stained with red paint, but that hasn’t done much to break the duo’s spirits.
Under the summer haze on Saturday (July 8), Henriquez and Lazare returned to the corner of 13th Street and 40th Avenue across the street from Queensbridge Houses to preserve the mural and Prodigy’s legacy. “As soon as I received [the call], I got out of bed, got dressed and my wife and I drove down there,” Lazare told VIBE VIVA. “On my way there, I called Jeff and told him the bad news. It didn’t hit me right away, as I was trying to plan out what was the next move, since we already had put in six days of work to get this up. When Jeff arrived at the location, I saw he got additional paint to repair the mural. From that point on, adrenaline kicked in and we jumped right into restoration mode.”
The two weren’t alone as members of the community came with food, water, and their bodies to protect the mural, all in the name of respect. “I can’t even get over it. I’m still numb and high over it,” Henriquez shared with VIBE VIVA on Sunday (July 9). “Everybody is asking me, ‘Do you want food? Can I bring you water? Can I roll a spliff for you?’ People were coming out hood style; just hood love, thanking me. Taking pictures, the whole nine yards.”
Henriquez’s reaction to the mural defacing was similar to Cormega’s and the tribe of Prodigy fans. However, he refused to take the act personally. Instead, he and Lazare decided to show the world what they’re made of.
“Despite feeling under pressure to get this done, not worrying who, what or why it was done, our goal was to turn a negative into a positive,” Lazare said.” [We had to] heal the open wounds the community, fans and family already had.”
“For me, it was more like a test to see what I was going to do,” he said. “It was like, ‘They ragged your piece, what are you gonna do homie? How are you going to move? [It’s time to] show and prove.”
Show and prove they did. After reaching the mural at 11 a.m. EST, Henriquez & Lazare set up shop and remained there until its second completion at 3 a.m. EST. Little did they know the second act of pusillanimity was right around the corner and since the second defacing, the mural has been buffed black.
“We had one of the most talked about murals in NY but the greatest gift I can receive from all of this, was receiving a personal message from Prodigy’s daughter, which was of heartfelt and deep appreciation for what we had done,” Lazare said. “She encouraged us by saying ‘Don’t let what they’ve done effect how you view your artwork….I appreciate you guys for putting this together and I can’t thank you enough.'”
In the midst of the incident, Henriquez & Lazare spoke with VIBE VIVA about the 15-hour session, the importance of Dominican artists and how Prodigy’s story was a powerful single to the soundtrack of their lives.
VIBE VIVA: How are you guys feeling?
We feel triumphant. We finished at around 3 a.m. EST. As soon as I got the phone call, I scratched my head for a while, got my head together and said, ‘We gotta go repaint this today.’ I was on site at 11 a.m. EST and didn’t leave until 3 a.m EST. It was me and Eli. We just went over there and rocked it. He helped with a lot of the peeling of the black paint, the house paint that they threw on there and the cutting of the black, going over the edge of the form and the arms and everything. He did a lot of the repair work.
I can’t even get over it. I’m still numb and high over it. Everybody was asking me, ‘Do you want food?’ Can I bring you water? Can I roll a spliff for you? People were coming out hood style, just hood love, thanking me. Taking pictures, the whole nine yards. I want folks to rock this new one and let it be known that we people of color will get right back up and handle business. This is for everybody. I don’t think they realized they did me a favor. It just gave me the opportunity to show the cloth I was cut from.
“If you go over one of my joints and I have to come back and redo it, I’m gonna come back and do it in one day.”
DJ Hot Day pulled up and turned on his truck light until I was finished. Another guy pulled up in his Mercedes and turned the light to the wall so I can keep working.
There’s a respect for murals. They’re like monuments in the hood.
You have to leave it alone.
Eli Lazare: This is the first time I’ve experienced this amount of attention and controversy over a memorial mural. Even though the mural isn’t there anymore, in curating this project I was grateful to share my vision in paying tribute to a hip hop icon.
It’s a silent understanding between folks.
It’s really there for the people. It’s the fact that they messed this up yesterday, 24 hours after I was done. And less than 24 hours after they did that, the piece was right back up like it never happened. I think the resiliency of the community to come and support me showed that. It was definitely an underdog, “rooting for the little guy” sort of feel. Nobody knew who I was. Even if you’ll see me on the street, you won’t recognize me or know my face. But the love I felt yesterday [Saturday] made me full. This is how we like to roll. It’s a beautiful thing, man. I couldn’t even begin to tell you. I was emotional too, not that anyone can see, my girl knew but it was great. It was a great experience.
For me, it was more like a test to see what I was going to do. It was like, ‘They ragged your piece, what are you gonna do homie? How are you going to move? [It’s time to] show and prove.’ I don’t care if they buff it a second time. Okay, but now people know, if you go over one of my joints and I have to come back and redo it, I’m gonna come back and do it in one day.
Lazare: “Coming from the graffiti world, if someone wrote over your work, you come right back and fix it.”
That’s good measure.
We came back and won. I had someone crying over my shoulder last night. A grown ass man crying on my shoulder in front of the piece. It was a beautiful experience.
Lazare: The day was long but people traveled from all over to show their support. We had DJ Frankie Cutlass, Capone and Noreaga, Godfather Pt3 from Mobb Deep, D-Stroys, Queens finest Mikki and DJ Hotday. We felt the love.
Where does Prodigy fit into that? How did he as an artist make you feel?
I grew up listening to Mobb Depp. [Hip-hop] was my musical backbone. When I heard Criminal Minded, it was over for me. I was like, ‘This is a done deal.’ I grew up in Massachusetts but had family in New York. There was a magic to the city, we had a lot of fun out here. Boston raised me, but New York made me.
[Prodigy] had a way of getting people riled up. Especially young. He was 18-19 when he wrote that first album. I was about the same age. When you’re young and full of this angst, you relate to that. [It was] the early ’90s, the hip-hop golden age, the crack era, the height of black on black violence. Then NWA, come out, I went nuts. “Jackin’ for Beats” [Ice Cube] is one of my favorite songs.
I think for me personally, this was all a test. It didn’t matter if it was a Prodigy mural in that sense, but it matters that the world was watching to see what I was going to do. It was no way at this stage in my career that I would’ve just left it and walked away from that. No way. Even if you fail, you gotta get back up and see and put your two hands and feet in unison and get to work.
Lazare: A mural may be gone, but his music and his influence to the culture will live on through family and fans around the world. Through our arts, we try to create healing and bring the community, fans and culture together on a positive note, so in the midst of when people threw “lemons” at us, we kept it positive by “making lemonade.”
What are your inspirations?
They’ve changed during different courses of my life, but I have a need to always create and get better at what I’m doing. It’s almost like this competition you have going on with yourself. Being Dominican, this is a big deal for us. We’re all known for baseball, drugs or music and food. I make a living as an artist–and I’m not white. I feel very fortunate to be here. When I found out I [could] make a living doing art, that was it, man.
How many artists from the Dominican Republic are well known?
Oscar De La Renta was Domincan. He was from Santo Domingo. But this [entire thing] is also for Dominicans. If this jumps off, looks good and has a positive effect, I’d be happy to see that.
You can tell there’s an educational element in the mural.
I wasn’t even that good when I was doing it. I was 14, 15-years old when I started. I got caught and my mother was like, ‘This ends now. Don’t you dare. I’ll kick you out the house.’ So I stopped doing it and started doing canvas. I began spray painting walls two years ago, but when certain people gave me advice and pointers, it stuck like glue.
I moved to New York a few years ago when the market crashed (2009). I failed at everything, didn’t see any art work, I ended up losing my apartment. I was staying at my friend’s art studio, Victor “MARKA27” Quinonez. He was one of the few dudes who put his neck out for me at the hardest level. While I was homeless, he prevented me from being outside on the streets.
He kept you busy.
Right, and at that point began with this whole thread of artwork you see now. From the streets signs to the mailboxes, all of that stuff started from that experience. It got difficult, I had to go back to Boston, get established and continue doing my work, and then I came back in NY to pursue it again. Even the day I got back was a good moment. When I came returned to my aunt’s house, there was a block party going on. Not a block party in the setup sense, but dudes were pulled up with jeeps blasting music. They were drinking beer. I thought, ‘Okay, this is a good moment to me.’ A few days later, I had my first exhibit on Wall Street. I sold a painting there. I’m not a signs guy, but if that was supposed to mean anything it meant, ‘Let’s ride it till the wheels fall off.’
I like watching people be quiet, just get lost in the work. When people look at my oil paintings, I tell them, ‘Tell the voice in your head to be quiet, look at the piece and let your eyes do the work. Use your eyes to listen.’
UPDATE: 7/10/2017 5:05 P.M. EST
Despite conflicting reports, Henriquez tells VIBE VIVA he will not create another Prodigy mural.
UPDATE: 7/11/17 9:00 P.M. EST
This article has been updated to include commentary from Eli Lazare, the curator of the Prodigy mural.