The Trenton Downtown Association’s “Murals on Front Street” project at Front and South Broad streets has been bringing color and life to the downtown Trenton region over the past few months.
The community-based arts project supported by a $25,000 New Jersey State Council on the Arts grant is coordinated by Trenton street artist Leon Rainbow, who enlisted several other noted artists in the region to participate.
One is Dean Innocenzi, an active street artist who uses the tag name “Ras.”
“I wanted to come up with a three-letter name,” says Innocenzi during a recent interview. “With influence from reggae and Rasta music/culture, I tried the word RAS and liked how the letters flowed together and stuck with it.”
Innocenzi, who works for the Trenton based recycled-product company TerraCycle, credits Rainbow for being a force in the Trenton arts community and introducing him to street art.
That occurred when Rainbow coordinated the 2007 installment of the annual Jersey Fresh Jam hip-hop festival at TerraCycle.
Innocenzi has just been hired as a graphic artist and videographer. “I was there as the video guy. I designed the flyer for work and met Leon,” Innocenzi says.
He says he saw dozens of street artists descend on the complex and begin painting and “was blown away. I didn’t know there was an art scene this close and wanted to be part of it. I was always into art and art classes. When I saw this, I got into graffiti right away.”
That included “painting illegally for a while to get my skills up so I could paint (at the Jam) at TerraCycle.
But after he and a fellow painter “got in trouble” with the law and despite the adrenaline rush he got from painting illegally, he chose to get serious and approached street the more accomplished artists Mek, Leon Rainbow, and Will Kasso Condry.
“I got better,” he says.
Innocenzi is a graduate of Hopewell Valley Regional High School, where he took art before studying with Mel Leipzig at Mercer County Community College and getting a degree in graphic design from The College of New Jersey. “I already had an art background, so I was able to progress quickly. I really painted nonstop and put in that 10,000 hours they say you need to put into something before you can master it,” Innocenzi says.
“Then the next year I painted at the jam. And by 2009 I was in the Vicious Stylez Crew,” the group of artists that provides the artistic soul for the Jersey Jam.
“It was kind of crazy,” Innocenzi says. “I surpassed where I thought I was going to be” at that time. “I met these guys by getting a job and got psyched on it. I was also lucky they took me under their wing. I was lucky.”
He says another connection was skateboarding, where he began making skateboard videos and met Mek.
“I knew someone who worked at TerraCycle, and they wanted someone who could do graphics and who could make videos.
“I was always into art,” he says. “But when I picked up a spray can, it was like an activity, a sport —where I had to move around. It was the physical activity that made painting more fun. I started progressing fast.”
Innocenzi says that unlike painting on a canvas, “You can do a lot on the wall, especially with spray paint. On a wall you can paint anything.”
Now noted for his photographic-like aerosol images — ranging from celebrities like Marilyn Monroe to local figures such artist Leipzig — Innocenzi says, “When I got into the realistic kind of portraits I felt like I had my own thing going. It is not that common in graffiti. It is like what I did when I was a kid. I tried to draw skateboarders and Rocky Balboa — realistic.”
He recently finished two black-and-white photo-like murals for the Trenton Downtown Association’s New Jersey State Council on the Arts-funded public art project. “Every time I finish something, I feel like I want to improve,” Innocenzi says.
That includes his arts expression. “I stepped away from stuff that looks cool for some personal things to give back to the community or be a memorial. Lately I have been painting a lot of people who have passed away.”
He then names his mother and the two TDA murals honoring New Jersey skateboarder Brendan Wilkie and the internationally known Trenton jazz saxophonist Richie Cole.
“It gets emotional,” he says. “But I’m trying to use my skills to create an emotion. I’m painting things that have meaning and evoke emotional responses in people — move them or have them relate to something. ”
He is also working to create something that exists on its own. “The moment I’m done, the art and I are no longer connected. The art takes on a life of its own. I step away, and people come and see it.”
Although he grew up in Hopewell, Innocenzi says he was born in 1983 at Helene Fuld Hospital in Trenton, a few blocks from TerraCycle and near where he lives in Lawrenceville.
He says his father was a teacher turned lawyer, and his mother was a teacher’s aide at a Montessori school.
Both had attended Ewing High School, where his father played trumpet in the school band and got to know fellow band member Richie Cole. Innocenzi says his dad would take him to hear Cole perform and even visited him at his home. “(Project coordinator Leon Rainbow) specifically asked for me to do Richie Cole. It felt good to get to honor him,” Innocenzi says.
Innocenzi says while his father “did write some songs, he wasn’t so much of a musician. He’s not an artist. But he randomly did some art that was cool. He had an ability I got from him. My mother was kind of similar — artistic. Both my parents had some art abilities.”
He says the difference was that he committed to it. “It is all practice,” says Innocenzi. “I have some ability. If I had not put in so much time practicing I wouldn’t be as good as I am.”
About his process, Innocenzi says, “It depends on what it is. For murals you’re going to have a method to get the proportions right. You can use the bricks on the wall to create a grid. Like on a canvas, grid things out. We all have methods. Leon uses a projector.”
“I simply glance at an image on a cellphone or on a piece of paper for reference,” he says about creating the image. “I look for details. I am trying to pay attention to everything I can. I may use some artistic freedom. But if you’re trying to paint something realistically, it’s looking at the reference and not missing any tones.
“You have to think about not only layering the color but the structure of the face and have to understand what you’re doing — feel and create an image like a 3-D rendering. It is all paying attention to detail and not being lazy.”
He says he likes doing black and white photos images because “I just like how it looks. I wish I had a deeper answer. The gray looks more real to me. I have done some stuff in color. But with the gray you have the perfect range of values — you can get the blend so perfect.”
But that depends on the weather or time of day.
“Humidity can make paint come out funny,” he says. “When it is hot, the paint comes out faster and it is hard to blend. The winter starts to get weird when it gets cold. When it’s under 40 degrees, the paint runs out differently. Spring and fall are the best. When I was painting the Wilkie wall downtown, by four o’clock the sun was making weird shadows where I couldn’t see what I was doing.”
Combine those problems with unusual wall textures, Innocenzi says the various or combined conditions “can be fun. When you’re painting out in the wild you have to be a problem solver.”
He then touches on the impermanence of an art work that will be covered over or removed, “Sometimes it is hard to see certain pieces that I liked get gone over. But I think graffiti is unique, because of how it mimics nature in the way everything is always changing and nothing lasts forever.”