By RJ Johnson
The journey from New York to Alaska has been more than an adventure for Nelson Guardo. Growing up the streets became part of his identity. After a threat from his mother he joined the United States Army and served for 20 years, retiring a couple years back. In the time that he was serving he went to war, become a father to three girls, and learned lessons the hard way. Now, like many veterans, he struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and was inspired to create art as a way of expressing the challenges he faces every day.
He did not set out to become an artist. It has always been a skill, but it was not his passion in the beginning.
“I started drawing when I was in third grade. It just came to me, I started drawing Garfield.” he said. Growing up in New York, Yonkers and the Bronx, specifically, his environment led him to find a use for that skill while creating graffiti in his neighborhood.
“Back in those days, tagging — especially in Yonkers and the Bronx — was a territorial thing. You see my tag here, and his tag there, and the next thing you know it erupts into a big old block war,” he said. The tagging was more than territorial; it was about business. Guardo did not take school seriously apart from one class. His fine arts teacher had taken an interest in him.
“The closest thing that I can equate to formal training, is that, before I was heavy in spray paint, I was a significant drug dealer back in school. I cut all my classes for two years, there was one teacher named Mr. Nolan. He was an artist’s artist. He would teach in the inner city. He would say to me, ‘Just come paint. I don’t care. Sell drugs, cut class, I don’t give a shit, just come paint.’ He would guide me. He wouldn’t really teach me. He would just show me. He was a good dude.”
When it became apparent to his mother that her son needed a change, she gave him an ultimatum.
“My mom gave me the option, ‘join the Army, or get out of my house.’ I had the money, but it wasn’t clean money. I really didn’t think I was going to join the army, but I was really high and drunk when the recruiter got me, and I woke up in Oklahoma,” Guardo recalls.
He thought he would end up serving four years and then go right back to what he was doing in New York. But something changed along the way, and after two decades, he found himself in Alaska at the time he got out and decided the Last Frontier was now home.
“I have decided to stay in Alaska,” he says. “I didn’t want to go back to New York. I didn’t want to go back where I started. I believe in progression, especially after 20 years.”
His first step back into the world of art was digital, just to express himself. He knew that he had some demons to deal with it, and creation seemed like a viable option. One day something in him clicked and he realized he needed to take a more tactile approach. He went to pick up a canvas and started combining the two styles he was most familiar with.
“Back in those days, tagging, especially in Yonkers and the Bronx was a territorial thing. You see my tag here, and his tag there, and the next thing you know it erupts into a big old block war. So, for me, I would start spray painting, and my fine arts teach Mr. Nolan put me on paint brushes, and I have been combining mediums since then. Except in the graphics stuff, there I use whatever.”
The first works that he created were not images that he was comfortable with.
“I used to not like what I painted and the way I would draw, because it was all dark. A lot of times we run away from things that are dark, but we need to have an honest flashback to our lives. A lot of times people live their own lives, and do their bullshit, and not realize there are repercussions. Everyone wants to relish violence, but nobody understands that there is an aftermath to it. So, I don’t really plan a piece out; I just feel a type of way. I just go, and I let the flashbacks take me where they want to go with it. It is a process for me, and it really helps me out a lot.”
The catharsis he experienced fueled him to continue creating. Eventually he began to post his art on his Instagram page. The scenes are places and moments he knows well. At times they are memories of times that he is lucky to have survived.
“I have a lot of moments in my life where I can say, ‘Yo, there I was…’ and there was something that transpired in front of me.,” he explained. “It’s kind of capturing myself where I am reflecting. After the storm you are just chilling. Like when you are on the block and you see your friends get shot up, or when you are in the Army and you do missions; it’s always when I am relaxing and reflecting.” Scenes of street wars between rival gangs match the mood of pieces that recall his times overseas at war.
Guardo is also inspired by the everyday life he sees and experiences here in Alaska. A particularly gripping piece was inspired by the sexual assault statistics that are prevalent here in the 49th state. Others are whimsical and witty, with the Super Mario Bros. selling items from the games on street corners like a drug dealer would. Each piece is a combination of creativity and recollection.
“All the faces you see, all of those expressions, are faces that are burnt into my head,” he said “I saw someone get shot, I saw someone get killed, I saw someone get brutalized in many ways. Things that I have seen happen in front of me, the way that I felt about it. I just take the expressions that I see. I don’t have references, I just freehand it and go. Whatever I saw is what I saw.”
Guardo has turned his home into a studio that he now shares with his three daughters who are all exploring art in their own way. “My oldest, she is studying art and working her gift. My middle child is going into hairdressing and makeup, and my youngest is into fashion, for now. So, they have their own studio spaces in my living room. It’s half studio, half domesticated.” Recently he was offered a couple of showings for First Friday in town, with the first at The Avenue Bar. For that show decided to take what he knew about life on the streets and combine it with stories he had been hearing from friends about Alaskan history.
“There was a lot of grimy ass things that went out, that no one ever heard about,” he said. “I was talking to a couple of my homeboys that grew up here and they told me stories about their families. I took those stories and used my experiences as a foundation and went with it.”
As the artist processes the demons from his past he is looking to Alaska and its residents as inspiration for what will come next. “Alaska is wild as heck. You know like, I’m a New Yorker, right? Born and raised, high school, I was there. There are people that I consider Alaskans, real Alaskans; not the ones who came here, fell in love with a mountain, and wanna go hug it for the rest of their lives. The ones who went and saw the mud of this place, the struggles. Every real Alaskan has a nice side, and a grimy side, and I am not downing anyone, it just is what it is. I meet the President of a company and I find out five years ago he was a hustling drug dealer, or he was into some gangsta stuff.”
He puts no judgement on anyone for where they have come from, as he is fully aware of the places he began. No matter where he started, his art is now part of who he is becoming.
“Sometimes you got baggage. Sometimes you fall down, and you gotta do stuff. We all fall down,” Guardo said before addressing his PTSD. “When I got out of the military, I was pilled out for a minute from the treatment the Army was giving me. Had me on all of these crazy pills, and I would get out of bed, but you know what? We gotta pick ourselves up.”
For now, the father of three will continue to create with his daughters, cope with his mind where it is at, and look to the future.
“I look at my life and every day I am grateful. I am not trying to throw my beliefs out there or whatever. I believe what I believe in,” he said. “I have been fortunate to go through what I went through, and to be in a position where I can provide for my family, provide for my daughters, and still be a functioning adult. Art has really helped me manage a lot of things and get that outlet so that I can function as a father, and still be a human being to these people.”