You’re the Heart and Soul : Oliver Rios Creates Tribute to “Native New Yorker 2020” / Dispatch From Isolation # 57

While New York has always been a melting pot of cultures and languages and people from all over the world, it’s also a fundamental responsibility to also keep our eyes and ears on the folks who are “born and bred” here as they say.

They hold a deeper sense of the DNA of an ever-evolving city and its history, its true nature; the lowdown of what it means to be from this place.

We’ve been hit hard. Some much more than others.

Oliver Rios “Native New Yorker 2020” Detail. (photo © Oliver Rios)

The economics and their implications of this Covid-19 disaster are devastating to many of us, but the mourning and human loss compounds our sense of sadness, even while we are resolute to overcome. If we are all metal in that melting pot of New York that explains how we create a powerfully strong alloy of humanity. We know how to triumph together in times of need and we are unbeatable and loyal allies, despite our sometimes aggressive side.

Artist Oliver Rios was raised in El Barrio of New York from Puerto Rican parents and grew up as an artist drinking in the color, sounds, smells, and style of late 70s Hip Hop culture. Shaped and formed by the beauty and the devastation that life can bring to us, he has channeled his spirit into memorial wall painting, illustration, photography, advertising, digital design.

Profoundly moved by the events that Covid-19 has spun into existence here, Rios is sharing with us a dense and meaningful piece of art that speaks to his history, his heroes, his fears, and his passion for this city and the people in it. Using a subway map for canvas, he depicts first responders – in this case people he knows personally or admires sincerely.

“The image of the nurse is my wife Carol Rios,” he tells us. “She is a Nurse Practitioner at the John Therur Cancer Center in Hackensack, NJ. The police officer is PO Ramon Suarez who perished in 9/11 and who was also my first daughters’ grandfather. The image of the fireman is inspired by a retired fireman and childhood friend from East Harlem who helped at Ground Zero in the days after 9/11. His name is Dennis Mendez. The subway train is an homage to the Late Great Dondi White.”


We asked him more about the creation of and motivations behind “Native New Yorker 2020”:

Brooklyn Street Art: As a Native New Yorker you’ve probably seen and experienced this city being hit hard by different crises while living here: Financial crisis, economic downturns, 9/11 etc…This pandemic is possible New York’s biggest crisis during our lifetimes. What do you think makes New Yorkers get up and fight every day?
Oliver Rios: In order to survive you have to be “NY Tough”, to quote Governor Andrew Cuomo! It’s a different kind of toughness that not many people understand. To live in NYC you have to understand and go through the city’s everyday grind! Understanding the everyday hustle, the history, the diverse cultures, the crime, the rats, the pigeons, the parades, the clubs, the bars, the historical sites, the crowded subways, the cabs… everything. Once you live in NYC and understand that lifestyle – to overcome anything is possible.

Oliver Rios “Native New Yorker 2020” Detail. (photo © Oliver Rios)

Going out to party in the greatest city in the world also helps ease the daily stress. We as New Yorkers protect and love the city and that’s why we get up every day and fight!!  

BSA: Your work on the poster sends a message of unity and perseverance while at the same time it honors those who are at the forefront of the pandemic. Can you tell us what was your inspiration to create this artwork?
OR: This project was really about painting a piece on a subway map. As I tuned into Instagram and join DJ DNice’s “Club Quarantine”, I heard him play “Native New Yorker” by Odyssey , a favorite song of mine. I immediately started with the “Native New Yorker” theme and decided to give it a 2020 version. I wanted to really honor my wife Carol Rios who’s a Nurse Practitioner at the John Theur Cancer Center in Hackensack NJ, my Brother-in-Law who’s a Fireman/Veteran in Belleville, NJ, all the first responders and essential workers dedicating their lives to help fight this pandemic.

I started with my wife who is on the top of the poster and it evolved from there.

BSA: You mentioned that your wife is a nurse. How has it been for the family to see her every day going to work knowing the risks and dangers she will confront at the hospital?
OR: It’s an uncomfortable feeling every day, knowing that your loved ones are heading out the door to face danger every day. I try to keep the kids busy with school work and video games as we wait for her to get home to have dinner, watch our favorite TV shows, or play board games. We appreciate all she does and her patients do as well. 

BSA: By including some members of your family and friends in your artwork you are honoring them and their work, preserving and commemorating their memory, and at the same time you are persisting with your creativity. How does an artist find the motivation to create works like these in such challenging times?
OR: For me, it’s never easy… the inspiration is around me every day in my studio; I have a framed photo taken by Martha Cooper of a memorial mural dedicated to my good friend Juan Anthony “TEE” Castro that I painted during 1993 in El Barrio (East Harlem). On the frame, I have prayer cards of family and friends who have passed away during the years. Next to it I have a photo of my brother who was murdered by gun violence in 1981. My oldest daughter’s grandfather PO Ramon Suarez is there too; He perished saving lives during the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. The UPS worker is the guy I see driving up and down the street delivering packages. Fireman Dennis Mendez is a childhood friend from East Harlem who helped dig out debris at ground zero days after 9/11. The Subway train is an homage to the Late Great Dondi White.

I find that as artists we have to remind ourselves how we are all connected. This is my way to thank and connect to my Native New Yorkers. God Bless!

Oliver Rios “Native New Yorker 2020” (photo © Oliver Rios)


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