Artist struggles to survive amid life on the street

Anthony Rodriguez with some of his artwork in his current exhibition at the Clayton Gallery & Outlaw Art Museum.

Anthony Rodriguez with some of his artwork in his current exhibition at the Clayton Gallery & Outlaw Art Museum.

BY CLAYTON PATTERSON | One of the greatest blessings I have received in life is connected to my archive. How fortunate and blessed I have been to have been able to document such a wide cross-section of the people, places and events, the life and heart beat of the Lower East Side, before so much of the community was lost and destroyed by gentrification.

Celebrity photography is where the glamour, fame and money are. Much of my work is closer to the street and of those people and events that tend to be off the monetary radar. In my archive, I have photos of individuals that are among the only existing images of them.

One of the artists I have documented over the years is Anthony Dominguez, and currently, he has an art show at my place on Essex St.

I first met Anthony in the late 1980s. This was a period of great political turmoil. The short version is that much of the political struggle was centered around real estate. Property values were going up, and our politicians worked hard to undo many of the rights and laws that protected the average tenant from being gouged by landlords.

People were being forced out of their homes, mom-and-pop businesses could not keep up with the escalating cost of doing business. The courts and the police became the muscle, the driving force behind the evictions and the displacement of people.

New York City had a homeless crisis on its hands. Tompkins Square Park was fully occupied with a Tent City. New York City had not had this kind of homeless takeover of public land since the Great Depression, when Hooverville was constructed in Central Park.

Anthony Dominguez was one of the homeless artists who had found a place to fit in and be accepted, a place to show his art and be a part of the Lower East Side culture scene. It’s now 19 years later, and he is still one of the city’s homeless. To clarify: Anthony does not consider himself homeless, he considers himself free. He does not receive or seek any kind of social support or handouts. He is not addicted or dependent on drugs or alcohol, and works hard at living a moral and spiritual life.

Over the years, Anthony has stopped by a number of times to visit me. Usually his visit is connected to some sort of police or community harassment. Anthony has delicate features, is soft-spoken and appears somewhat meek and humble. He explains that the police and other community enforcement types label him a male prostitute or accuse him of being some sort of “homosexual pervert,” which he feels puts his life in danger. He sees this harassment as a subtle — not physically violent, but psychologically threatening — tool the authorities use to make his life too uncomfortable to be in the area where he is living.

One of the ways Anthony deals with these threats is by keeping a few trusted friends informed of his situation. He sees this as a form of protection. His way of communicating his problem is to write notes or longer letters detailing this harassment. I have several of these communications.

Mild-mannered or not, Anthony lives a hard life. No question, at times, his is a very dangerous lifestyle. The city has all the appearances of a civilized society. But make no mistake, especially for the homeless or the free, there are still sections with no rules, or few rules, or rule by force, or muscle, or gun, or crew, or posse, or gang, or psychotics, or by crackheads, or whatever.

Often in the places on the street where the homeless find shelter, there can be more than one exceptionally crazy, out-of-the-box, off-the-radar character lurking in the foreground. And as the city becomes more gentrified, the police are pressured to move out the homeless.

But no matter what hardships or adversity Anthony is faced with, he has never stopped making art.

In the earlier days, he produced wonderful patch-like bleach prints. His method and tools were simple: Find some black, heavy fabric, like black denim; get a piece of thin, sturdy cardboard, or possibly a piece of thin rubber; draw the image on the material; using an X-Acto knife, cut out the image; and now you have a stencil that can be used to make multiples.

Just place the stencil on top of the black fabric. Using a bunched-up, dampened cloth or a sponge dipped in bleach, press it onto the stencil, and the end result are these beautiful images.

Because he has no steady place to call home and must travel light, Anthony carries everything in a small backpack. By making a few design changes to his backpack, he has figured out an ingenious way to carry his art, his art supplies and the necessities he needs to keep himself clean and alive.

His art, like his backpack, tends to be neat and organized. In the winter he goes to the public library and uses one of the reading cubicles to paint in. Again, he is very neat and tidy.

In the last few years, he has been painting on the white, heavy canvas used to make store awnings and the industrial, outdoor photo billboards stuck on the sides of buildings. He cuts the canvas into strips about 8 inches wide, with the height up to around 15 inches long. These pieces roll up and fit into the backpack. His palette tends to be limited to black, white and red acrylic paint. His tools are a ruling pen and a small selection of brushes, charcoal and pencils.

His work is somewhat graphic in appearance, tightly painted, with figures that can include cops, hobos and workers. Some are abstract designs with titles like “Puzzle,” “Empty Full” and “The Ungrateful Hour Glass Man.” Some of his pieces include his original music scores and the lyrics he writes.

He made a flute out of a half-inch piece of PVB pipe that sounds much like a wooden recorder. He can play the tunes he writes.

For those who desire a taste of the old Lower East Side, I would suggest making an appointment and discovering this amazing artist’s work.

Clayton Gallery & Outlaw Art Museum, 161 Essex St. (between Houston and Stanton Sts.), 212-477-1363.

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