It’s neighborhood month for Jersey City artist “Distort.”
With cans of black and purple spray paint and a paint roller scattered randomly around him, he analyzes the wall where he’ll paint a mural telling the stories told by residents of the Bergen-Lafayette section of Jersey City.
The mural is a tribute to Santos Perez, the well-known owner of the bodega on which he’ll paint it, as well as to neighborhood notables like the rhythm and blues band Kool & the Gang and landmarks like the nearby Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, now a railroad museum.
The work catches the attention of almost everyone who sees it.
“For me to feel good about it, it’s got to be in the eyes of everybody that walks by, that they feel good,” he said. “That’s how I look at it now, it’s like I have a responsibility.”
Distort – who is 32 and he doesn’t reveal his real name or show his face to the public, and who is also known for his murals in Wynwood — has loved art for as long as he can remember.
Growing up in Jersey City, he became passionate about drawing when he was 10 years old. By 15, he was drawing graffiti on random buildings and bridges.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania and a certificate in painting from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Most of his art is in Jersey City but he also has worked in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, New Orleans and even Istanbul.
His art is about historical events like the Crusades, social problems like gentrification and personal ones like the death of his dog Radar.
His work shows viewers every wrinkle, hair and sparkle in the eyes of its subjects. The details in the scenes he paints reveal the locations that inspired them.
He’s mostly known for his murals, but he also works on a smaller scale.
He paints on metal scrolls made from aerosol cans and fire extinguishers he cuts open, and paints “shields” on car hoods.
His subjects include burning cars, cities and war scenes engraved and painted with glossy enamel.
Although he loves making scrolls and shields, Distort said it’s become a “winter thing.” With summertime approaching, he dedicates more time to his walls.
“The mural thing is going good and I can’t afford to slow it down,” he said.
In 2015, he had a solo exhibit of his murals at the Works on Paper gallery in Philadelphia; In 2016, he showed his scrolls and shields.
Gallery owner Evan Slepian praised the artist’s distinctive work.
“What he understands more than most people is how to have a definitive style, so that you can be recognized instantly,” Slepian said. “So, when you see a mural on the street, you know it’s his.”
Distort’s work was featured at Art Basel for three years and in 2014 he painted a mural in Wynwood that featured portraits of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, both young black men whose shooting deaths fueled the Black Lives Matter movement.
The mural portrayed the Statue of Liberty holding the scales of justice. Just a few hours after it was complete, vandals drew male genitals over the statue.
“Upon finding out, he asked someone to fill the Statue of Liberty in with black paint to make it look like a silhouette.
“It’s like there’s no justice, just leave it straight black,” he said.
His biggest accomplishment is a mural he painted next to the Holland Tunnel in New Jersey.
Funded by the Jersey City Mural Arts Program and organized by local art gallery Green Villain, the mural is 80 feet tall and 200 feet wide, and is said to be the largest mural done by a solo artist in the state. It took seven weeks to complete
The work shows Jersey City as the center of the mythological labyrinth maze, and includes iconic city locations like the Pulaski Skyway bridge, and the Bergen Arches abandoned railroad right-of-way. On the mural is the Minotaur, a mythological creature with a bull’s head and human body, representing the strength of the stock market.
“There’s not like a direct story to it, but it also is trying to channel with the energy of what the city is about,” he said.
Distort said although he paints about stories and experiences people can relate to, he leaves it up to the audience to determine the art’s meaning.
“It’s just supposed to make them feel some type of way,” he said.
Devan O’Shaughnessy manages Jersey City Screen Printing, which shares a studio with Distort.
“Everything he does he tries to have a purpose with,” said O’Shaughnessy. “He’s not just like, throwing stuff out into the world.”
One of the most meaningful projects for Distort is a tribute mural to Lesandro “Junior” Guzman-Feliz, a 15-year-old who was hacked and stabbed to death with machetes by members of the Trinitarios gang outside of a Bronx bodega last year.
Just four days after Guzman-Feliz’s death, Distort worked on the wall next to the corner store where the teenager was murdered. He remembers Guzman-Feliz’s parents’ calm demeanor.
“I remember feeling, like, ‘I want to be that strong,’ ” he said.
The mural is a portrait of Guzman-Feliz wearing a Yankees shirt and a halo with the name “Junior” on it. Surrounding the portrait is his name in blue graffiti letters, his birth and death dates, hearts and doves. On the bottom of the mural are paintings of burning candles.
Distort let young girls who knew Guzman-Feliz help with the mural by filling in the hearts with paint.
“That’s the best moment I’ve had in my life,” he said. “Junior humbled me.”
Guzman-Feliz’ mural inspired Distort’s work in Bergen-Lafayette; he wants to contribute to the neighborhood.
Sariel Perez, Santos Perez’s son, asked Distort to paint a mural as tribute to his father on the side of Santa Ana Grocery on Pacific Avenue, the corner store he owned before he died.
Unlike a lot of his work, Distort doesn’t have a finished outline to plan out what he’ll paint.
“I don’t have a complete sketch for it,” Distort said. “I’m trying to interact and gain knowledge that I can then represent into the mural.”
On the left side of the mural is a portrait of Perez’ father.
“He captured everything I wanted, like the eyes are perfect,” Perez said. “There were people that drove by and just stopped like ‘Oh my God, it looks just like him.’” Kool & the Gang are next to the elder Perez’s portrait.
Distort spent hours on a ladder working on the mural, as hip-hop music played and people walked out of the store with snacks, As he used his paint roller to outline the Central Railroad terminal, people gathered to admire his work.
While he worked, a young girl told him that art is her favorite subject in school, and elders who have lived in the neighborhood for years stopped to give suggestions. Many passersby commented and thanked him for his contribution.
Distort said he doesn’t intend his work to change the neighborhood, but to enhance it. The community’s feedback motivates him.
“It’s actually a really great experience for me because I get to talk to lots of cool people that I didn’t get to know before and hear stories and learn about history, history of New Jersey, history of the United States, history of that block,” Distort said. “So, I get to appreciate all that. I do appreciate all that.”
Karla Florez is a reporter in the South Florida Media Network’s New York City Bureau.