Our featured group this month is Xmental. Here we interview founder Ralph Perez, who talks about his life as a street artist, his passion for working with young people, and an exciting new project on the horizon – Xmental University.

Why and when was your arts group founded?
I founded a graffiti crew when I was 12…and I loved X-Men, so that was our name, and it’s one of the biggest graffiti crews now, it’s international. Once I started to get back into the scene about 5 or 6 years ago, I went to an art show [Urban Legends]. They were honoring me for some reason and I didn’t know why, and when I got there, there were tons of kids there who were into graffiti. They all had their blackbooks and they were all asking me for my tag in their books. And I saw a bunch of kids that were just like me when I was a kid. My life wasn’t too great as a kid and it all started with graffiti – that was my gateway crime so to speak. And I decided there and then – it kind just hit me like a lightning bolt – I’m supposed to be helping these kids so they don’t go through the madness that I went through, ‘cause it started with graffiti and it ended up with all kinds of craziness. So I knew I couldn’t use X-Men because Marvel would sue the pants off of me, so I put “t-a-l” at the end of it and called it Xmental. We say now that we used to be mental but now we’re Xmental…like we used to be crazy but now we’re not crazy. What we do is work with the kids using the elements of hip-hop, graffiti, break-dancing, MCing, DJing, and knowledge – and tough love – and we try to steer them in the right path. So that’s how it started, that’s the short version.

Where in Brooklyn are you located?
Well I do programming in every borough. We’re based out of Brooklyn because it all started in Brooklyn and I live in Brooklyn. We do programming everywhere… [in] Washington Heights I do a program in George Washington High School…in Jamaica, Queens we do a program. Wednesdays we do a program in downtown Brooklyn, Thursdays I do a program in the Bronx by Yankee Stadium, and Fridays I go to the Lower East Side and I do a program in Henry Street High School. And we’re starting a three-month program with NeON [Neighborhood Opportunity Network], it’s a part of the Department of Probation, they set up sites all over the city. Through Carnegie Hall we’re going to be doing a program with the NeON Project in Bed-Stuy that’s gonna start next week, and tomorrow I have a meeting in East New York about possibly getting the funding do to the same program in East New York. We do work in Brownsville… you can go to Betsy Head Park [to see our murals], we have two murals right on the side of the post office, and if you go to the NeON building, we a have a mural indoors.

Who is your primary audience?
My primary audience is the urban youth…kids from the ‘hood. A lot of my work is done with kids who are on probation from the law, and the judges send them to Xmental. I would say it’s the urban youth, from the ages of like 10 to 17. We work with everybody, but the primary kids who come to us are usually them. These kids just need a place to let go and be themselves and have fun without being judged and probably learn something on the way. We mentor them as much as possible. That’s our slogan, “Mentoring using the power of art.”

What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of running an arts organization in Brooklyn?
The most challenging is…funding and getting community support. Getting the kids is the easy part. Kids just want a place to go and be free and learn and they just want some love. These kids I work with, they’re great kids, and a lot of them have police records but they’re great kids and sadly to say a lot of them come from dysfunctional homes and nowadays they don’t have anywhere to go…like a community center…there’s not too many places. We’re actually trying to build a place, we’re just trying to acquire funding. I have the location already, I just have to build it out. It’s at Classon and Pacific in Brooklyn. I have a 2,000 square foot loft, it’s just a wide-open space, it’s raw. That was donated to us, and we just need about $40,000 to build it out, and make it functional, and I can worry about making it sexy later on. I know once we build it, the kids will come, and that will be place where we’ll explore all the aspects of art, and self-knowledge, and getting these kids on the right track. So that’s one of our goals.
Like I said, funding is the hard part. I know times are hard for everybody, but I see people raise billions of dollars. We have 16,000 homeless kids in New York City. We do a lot of stuff for the homeless also, we do clothing drives, back to school supply drives, and Christmas toy drives for the homeless kids in the shelters. It’s all in the name of helping out.

What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of running an arts organization in Brooklyn?
We do a program called Paint Straight, and 90% of the kids in the Paint Straight program are kids that are in trouble with the law, and they’re on probation. The end of the program is called the Paint Straight Finale. The kids have their own art show, and they sell their paintings also, and they get their certificates of completion and gifts and they get a lot of accolades and love from the community and family and friends, the media, politicians. And the best aspect is when you see the light go off in [a kid’s] face and it’s like “I get it, I get it! If I do the right thing, I can still express myself, I don’t have to ruin anyone else’s house or anybody’s buildings, and I can paint my stuff on canvases and people actually like it and they’re paying me for it.” 80% of the paintings that the kids make, when they go on sale via Silent Auction at the Paint Straight Finale, they’re sold, and these kids go home with a pocket full of money. And it’s not just about the money, I’ve seen kids cry, with everybody clapping for their work and that’s a really great feeling. And a great feeling that I get is when a kid calls me a couple months after and he’s like “Yo, I miss you, can I come back?” With the Paint Straight program we leave it open for the kids, even though they’re off probation and they stayed out of trouble, they can keep coming back. I’ve had kids come back for four years now straight – stayed out of trouble, they’re doing good in school, and they just keep coming back. They know it’s a safe place for them to come and be themselves and have fun and learn more about art and learn more about themselves actually. So that’s the great feeling I get, when I see these kids. In 2013, we worked with 111 kids on probation, and out of the 111 kids in a 6-month period, only 4 were arrested for graffiti again.

What do you see as the biggest issues facing the arts community today?
Well the arts community I deal with is the urban street artists, graffiti writers. The biggest issue is finding places to paint for them, so people can accept their work. A lot of the stuff you see in the street, people just go do it without permission and maybe a week later it’s painted over or they get arrested while doing it. We have so many places all over Brooklyn that could be beautified, if you would just open yourselves up to some beautification, instead of being straight up generic. Brooklyn is a beautiful place as it is already – it’s gorgeous, I’ve been born and raised in Brooklyn – but we can actually make this place even much prettier. I’ve noticed you find a place that’s bombed out with graffiti and tags and all kinds of stuff, and you put something – a nice mural, a nice piece – up there, it’s not gonna get touched again. That’s the street law. It’s respect.
That’s the biggest issue I think, like I said, getting acceptance from the community, and funding. A lot of street artists go out there and they use their own money to paint these beautiful murals and everybody goes “Oh it’s so beautiful, it’s so lovely,” but at the end of the day they used their money and they still have to eat. Me, I’m not a culture vulture. I’m not out here trying to use what we’re doing to try to get paid. I’m out to help the kids. I mean, I’m not ‘Rockefella,’ I’m the other ‘fella.’ I get minimal pay out of my non-profit organization, real minimal, but I also have another business that I run, my own printing and graphics company. I use that to sustain myself but my heart is in Xmental.
There’s a lot of starving artists, and a lot of them come out and help me, and they do it for the love, for the love of community, for the love of art, for the love of children, and at the end of the day, they go home and they’re still hungry. So I try my best, anytime I do a project, anybody that comes to help, we give them a stipend or an honorarium. We give them something so they can take home to put in their pocket because we know you love to do this and we know you love the community but at the same time you should go home with something in your pocket so you can have something to eat the next day.

How can young people get involved?

Once we have that space [at Classon and Pacific] built out, it’s gonna be like non-stop…open to everybody, adults too. Right now, the programming that we do have is all funded by certain organizations to pinpoint their certain needs. Like I do with the Department of Probation funds us to do a program, but only kids on probation can go. I get funding for specific programs, but anybody that wants to help out, they can just hit up the website, and contact us. I hit people up, “I need 2 people to help us with the kids,” “We’re gonna do a mural here, come and help us if you wanna paint.” I have a lot of people that hit us up and say “Hey, I wanna help, I don’t want money, I wanna be a part of something good,” and a lot of people are just looking for that, to be a part of something bigger than themselves. We’re always open to people volunteering or helping out, or if they have ideas on places that need painting, we’ll figure out how to go and paint it, even if we have to put up the money ourselves. I get a lot of donations for paint and stuff like that.

Do you have any major events, projects or expansions on the horizon?

The dream is to open up, I call it “XU.” It stands for Xmental University, and once we open that up, I know it’s gonna be crazy. It’s gonna be a beautiful thing.

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