Anyone who’s spent the slightest amount of time in Casco Viejo is familiar with the scene: A man or woman, clearly intoxicated on some drug or another, stumbles out into the street. Some staggering takes place before he or she works up the courage, rather the equilibrium, to approach a visitor and ask for some change. “It’s OK,” they say when the visitor respectfully declines. “Perhaps you’d like a piece of custom artwork?”
Flacco lives in Casco Viejo and has been living there for most of his life, having seen first-hand the neighborhood through its days of glory and browbeatery. He himself is a symbol of the neighborhood’s recent yet not-so-savory past: one of gang gunfights and transients: a community where shoes in public are optional and food served not out of the trash bin is considered gold. Flacco’s loose clothes fall over his boney body like sails protecting a tattered ship. His days involve wandering around, consuming drugs, and assisting people park their cars.
I was first introduced to Flacco by Jesse Levin who’d pay him to do small errands: a quarter here, a dollar there. I wouldn’t go as far as to say there was a concrete work ethic about Flacco as much as the urge to acquire more drugs and while Jesse wasn’t particularly encouraging of Flacco’s vices, it was not his place to intervene.
Whether accurate or not, I remember the art business beginning as something of a chance. Flacco appeared with a piece of cardboard roughly the size of a wall calendar, one side of which was painted to depict a building in Casco Viejo. The drawing was rough and charcoaly which is, in turn, what made it actually kind of cool. Jesse paid a few coins for it and asked for another. Flacco obliged and delivered the next day.
Fast forward to today when a stirringly large percentage of young foreigners in Casco Viejo own Flacco art. Ask to see Blayne’s private collection at Super Gourmet on Avenida A or Eric’s small vault at Mojito’s on Plaza Herrera. I myself have about five Flacco pieces – this is discernibly different from Flacco pieces of shit – my favorite of which is called “Un Pato con su chancleta” or “A duck with his sandal.”
As with all great artists, Flacco’s signature adorns some portion or another of all his paintings. The only difference is that Flacco doesn’t sign his name. He signs someone else’s. Someone named Chingy. On one rendition of the building I live in, Flacco dated it in the lower corner. “Saturday,” it says.
Flacco’s paintings have evolved over the years: having started as simple black and white renditions of the neighborhood’s buildings and blossomed into colorful sceneries that actually resemble artwork – albeit something you might find pinned to a refrigerator with a golden star that says Great Job! Those familiar with these pieces know his frequent use of Mickey Mouse and bumble bees and rain clouds as ways of interpreting his mood.
So it was just the other day that I saw Flacco approach a group of three Spanish tourists and ask them for some change. They shrugged him off they way you do with a pesky fly. But then he offered a painting. Fifty cents he was asking for a painting of an oversized devil head. The Spanish man reached into his pocket and gave Flacco some change. He carried the painting back over to his friends as if to say he was proud of his acquisition. As if to say that his one-of-a-kind Chingy piece was not all that bad.