LA II (Angel Ortiz) – Graffiti’s King of the Streets

LA II (Angel Ortiz)  might just be the most famous Latin graffiti artist you don’t know.

As a young Puerto Rican teenager in the early 80’s, Angel Ortiz, also known by his graffiti tags, LA II, LAROC and /or LA2 (LA stands for Little Angel) grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City. He was tagging the local streets as a young teenager using them as a canvas to express himself. Ortiz says that graffiti kept him out of serious trouble and helped him to escape any negativity going on in his home. It was also a revolutionary time for street art, music and breakdancing. Ortiz was part of a tight knit group of kids in the community called TNS. Ortiz says that it was a peaceful crew; it was the like “The Little Rascals “. It was his graffiti street crew as he recalls feeling like he was “The King of the Streets”.

Ortiz tells us how the TNS crew came to be due to a friend, EL 3 (Everlast) who was about 16 or 17 years old at that time. He had taken an abandoned local building, began living there as a squatter and started to fix it up for the local kids to hang out at. The kids all brought whatever furniture and called themselves TNS (The Non Stoppers).

When LA II was in jr. high, he had a chance encounter with Keith Haring when he was about 14. At his school, the Jr. High School 22, his principle had grown tired of seeing the kids’ graffiti throughout the school so he invited any students who wanted to continue with their graffiti, to sign up on a list and they would be allowed to go paint the schoolyard. At this time, Keith Haring had seen the unique tag of “LA II” everywhere and began asking around as to who this LA II was. A neighborhood kid came up to Ortiz saying “there’s a funny looking white guy with glasses and tight shorts asking for you.” Ortiz was a bit concerned that maybe this person had an issue with him because in those days graffiti artists might start trouble by painting over someone else’s graffiti work. LA II found Haring nearby on a ladder drawing what we all know now as his own signature markings of dogs and babies and the two finally had a chance to introduce themselves. Keith not quite believing that this very young kid was the person tagging the streets with his unique signature, gave him a marker and asked him to write his name. When LA did, that was it. Haring knew this was the right guy.

Angel Ortiz gives us a tour of his NYC art studio

At this time, Keith lived on Broome St. and was very interested in working with Ortiz and getting involved in the LES street culture scene. Keith, as Ortiz laughingly refers to him as, a blanquito artist who preferred to draw with chalk or a marker rather than a spray can.  Ortiz introduced Keith to his LES street crew and the rest was magic.  Ortiz says this chance meeting turned into a blessing for both artists. Haring first invited Ortiz to visit his place, and asked him to write his tag on a big yellow taxi hood. They then exchanged numbers and in a couple of weeks, Keith wanted to show him how he had added his own unique characters to LA II’s  art on the hood, LA then added more detailed line work to it and they finished it off. Three weeks after that, Keith again reached out to Ortiz, to let him know he had sold this piece of art for $1400 and wanted to split the profits evenly with him, paying him $700. This began a long friendship and professional partnership.

Together the two worked on many collaborations in the ’80’s, some now housed in the most prestigious museums like the Guggenheim, The Louvre Abu Dhabi, the MOMA, and The Whitney Museum, but unfortunately with the passing of Haring in 1990, much of the story of their collaboration has been lost and Angel has not received proper credit as a visionary artist. The body of work that they created together in the 80’s is so popular and iconic in the contemporary art world. Ortiz’ hand in these works is evident with his signature tag and fills. Ortiz only has positive things to say about his time working with Keith. He says that together they went from the streets to the galleries, the galleries to the museums, and the museums to the auction houses.

Angel Ortiz prepping new pieces for his upcoming show

Ortiz in the ’80’s collaborated with Richard Hambleton, Keith Haring and Mark Kostabi.  Andy Warhol photographed LA2 for his 15 Minutes of Fame Campaign & Jean Michel Basquiat painted Ortiz’s Portrait.  He also designed iconic pieces of fashion for Madonna to wear, which one of the outfits she famously wore for Keith Haring’s Birthday, that outfit is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  He is truly one of the last major artists of that pivotal moment in ’80s culture who is still alive and continues to hone his craft, but he has not received his proper recognition in the art world.  Angel says that he sees the persistence of discrimination in the art community. He feels that as a Latino, he has had to work twice as hard to be recognized for his art compared to other respected artists of that time.

No matter what people say about Ortiz’s & Haring’s collaborations or critic’s comments marginalizing his collaborative contributions, Ortiz knows that Haring is the one who sought him out, not the other way around. Ortiz was an integral part of Keith’s ability to safely navigate the streets artistically, despite their substantial age difference.  There was an importance in what Ortiz was creating on the streets in the early ’80’s that led to this particular style of art becoming so influential. There was a reason why Keith pursued a young creative artist with street cred to help him explore this legendary time in art history.  The art they did together was visual, relatable, and made people happy. It was actually supposed to do the opposite of what has happened to Ortiz and his story – be open and inclusive.

Angel is truly a ray of sunshine in his studio, diligently painting new pieces for his upcoming exhibit as we talk. He says he is still so inspired to paint in his studio every day. It’s his gift. He says that his work is meant to bring happiness to others with its bright colors and fun, playful objects. He uses a combination of traditional paint, spray can paint and of course his trademark markers to achieve his recognizable tight squiggle fills.

The wonderful news is that Angel Ortiz is having a renaissance moment. He’s had impressive art exhibits in London. He has collaborated with renowned British graffiti artist STIK on several original works of art and a public mural in NYC, since they began an everlasting friendship over 10 years ago.  He’s just released his first limited edition print in over a decade called “Lemon Drop”.

Angel Ortiz’ limited edition print “Lemon Drop”

He loves being involved with kids, especially autistic children, charities, and really just doing positive things all the time. He hopes that he is an inspiration to other Latino artists. Ortiz says that people should keep doing what they love to do. His love is giving art to the world so they can enjoy it because it truly makes life more beautiful.

Opening day of LA II’s art show is May 18, 2023 at the Chase Contemporary at 413 – 415 W. Broadway in Soho NY.

The exhibit titled LA II: ODE 2 NYC will run from May 18th through June 18th.

You can visit the Chase Contemporary website for more information.

* Photography courtesy of Ivy Dash Photography 

 

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