Rafael Melendez lives in New York City and creates some of the most interesting art that I’ve seen http://www.todayistomorrownyc.com/.  His work is full of social references and commentary.  We had a great chat about it and what inspires him.

MICHAEL: Hello Rafael, Your work is very cool. It seems to be bad ass and graphic, but not shocking. How do you see it? What's your inspiration?

RAFAEL: Hey Michael, I'm shocked that you don't find my work shocking! LOL. Thanks for the compliment anyway. Let’s see, “badass and graphic, but not shocking”? Well, I basically "mockument,” fictionalize and invent by exploring observations in my everyday life as a way to keep track of what I have experienced and lived. I'm very interested in a certain art style and line quality aesthetic that disguises adult subject matter with a certain type of innocence or simplicity, in my artwork at least. I'm mostly inspired by my relationship to art history, fashion and art world celebrity-hood. Life's highs and lows, nightlife, friendships, intimate relationships and shattered dreams.

MICHAEL: People who are "shocked" are the ones who are trying to convince others of their "innocence." I get your work because it's clearly the product of someone who is awake and listening. How important is awareness for you?

RAFAEL: I feel both awareness and ignorance play equal and important roles when I create my artwork. It's important that clashing ideas co-mingle to create pieces that are fun and interesting to look at while they resonate and represent my voice and style.

MICHAEL: Wait. Did I hear you correctly? Did you say "fun"? An artist who is secure enough to call art "fun." Wow.

RAFAEL: HAHA! You sound shocked? Most of the art I consider important is first fun to look at. Then when I look deeper, it also has an underlying subversive quality. There is where the magic happens for me - when an artist can pull off the difficult task of making work look easy (fun) to make and at the same time make relevant commentary about the world he/she inhabits. I would be very disappointed in myself if my work came across as didactic or boring to look at.

MICHAEL: Clearly, many themes run through your work. Do people have to see your work the way you see it?

RAFAEL: No not at all. A lot of my work is about lived experience, so I really don't have any expectations about how it's perceived. I like it when people are drawn to works I consider subpar. For example, there is this oversized flag piece that comes to mind. It got damaged while in storage and I did repairs on it and after I was finished repairing it, I thought, “Ah, ok, it still looked too tattered for anyone to like.” Later, I was surprised when two collectors came to my studio and bought it. I was interested to hear one of them associate it with the work of the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres. He told me how it reminded him of the ever regenerating body and disintegration.

MICHAEL: Very cool. What do you think about the art world/art market today and how it functions? I mean, blue chip art is doing gangbusters as the super-wealthy continue to buy, but emerging artists, like the ones I interview, are struggling beneath this still lackluster economy. Living artists struggle even when the economy is doing well.

RAFAEL: There's resentment and awe that co-exist within me I feel. My dream is to become a major player in the art world one day soon. I think of myself as a brand and my art as a product. It means a lot to me that I build my profile wherever and however I can. I'm very passionate about what I do, as they say "Fake it til you make it!" and sometimes I feel there's a lot of that going on. I'm constantly hustling to just keep going and am waiting for the day when all my hard work pays off. If you believe in yourself and show the world you have something to say, you will get compensated for it. And no, I don't believe that artists who are part of the art market necessarily have something to say and deserve to be there.

MICHAEL: Given all that, do you feel competitive with other artists? Does competition among artists really make sense?

RAFAEL: I don't feel competitive with other artists Michael. I'm very supportive when it comes to sharing my knowledge and experience especially with younger generations. I encourage aspiring young artists interested in an arts profession to explore their creativity all the time. I try not to let my personal taste affect my enthusiasm for others interest in art production. Art making for me is therapeutic and it helps me expel my demons and explore different avenues in solving everyday problems and issues. It also keeps me entertained by looking at history and voicing my opinion on what I think is right and wrong with the world. If I can encourage others to experience the same in their pursuit of art, I feel satisfied and happy. My resentment and frustration comes from the hyper- commercialization of certain artists and their careers. Granted, I'm not an expert on what goes on behind the scenes and can only speculate that profit is the bottom line. I sense it motivates certain museums and certain art dealers to inflate the value of certain artworks, blah! blah! blah! Look at what's happening in Los Angeles with LA MOCA and the Jeffrey Deitch drama. I had so many expectations of him.

MICHAEL: What's your work routine like? Do you usually paint in the morning or evening? Do you listen to music or watch TV as you paint? What's your process?

RAFAEL: I live in Manhattan and I'm lucky enough to have a work studio one train stop away in Brooklyn. Until recently, I would go in at least five times a week to work on large scale drawings. Now with the change of weather, I'm doing a lot of the prep work from home. The studio is equipped with wifi so I log in to Viva-Radio and Pandora to keep me company. I carry around pocket sized Claire Fontaine notebooks that I fill with observations, thoughts and ideas I later edit and develop in the studio. I work on a few pieces at a time so not to feel like I'm rushing through an idea. I also visit a lot of galleries, museums, group shows and hangout with new and old friends to stimulate my thought process. I do a lot of social media mostly Instagram these days, but it's connected to Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., etc., and all that is part of my process these days, LOL! It all sounds like a little too much even for me when I sit down and think about it.

MICHAEL: As we're chatting, New York is continuing to recover from Hurricane Sandy. How badly was the art community hit? Is there anything to learn from all of that?

RAFAEL: The storm hit the art community pretty badly from my experience. Homes, studios, artworks were lost. Exhibitions were prematurely closed and/or postponed. Artists, galleries and collectors with insurance were covered, if one has patience. I heard FEMA would help recover some of the losses. If you didn't have insurance, you're screwed. So the psychological trauma is pretty immense I'm going to guess. The vibe in Chelsea where a lot of art business takes place was pretty somber. I was there right before and also after the storm and I could sense a very sad tone in the air. It was like watching a scene in a movie where an actor gets hit by a car then gets up and staggers down the street in pain and bewilderment. I'm not sure if there is anything to learn from this type of phenomena. Other than just knowing that we are all vulnerable to the power of Mother Nature and no matter how big, chic and expensive you think you are, like a lot of the galleries in Chelsea, Mother Nature does not discriminate.

MICHAEL: There's something about art from Latin, Latin American and Hispanic artists that I think is very special and it's really pushing contemporary art forward. If you agree, what do you think it is?

RAFAEL: Fluidity and movement have been understated for way too long.

MICHAEL: Don't many artists, regardless of culture, do fluidity and movement? How are these things especially relevant in Latin American and Hispanic cultures?

RAFAEL: I want to apologize for any confusion. I was thinking of pre-Hispanic art when I say fluidity and movement. Aztec and Mayan art in particular. I like to look at a lot of that stuff online, in books and certain museums when I visit them. Yes all good art contains fluidity and movement. First of all, I consider myself an American artist and feel that my work contains and reflects an American aesthetic and sensibility. I do not shy away from my Mexican heritage and culture. I love to eat Mexican food, drink cervezas, sip Mezcal and have traveled extensively throughout Mexico. I was born and raised in California, come from meager beginnings which made me grow up really fast. I was brought up in the 70s and on somedays we had American breakfasts and Mexican dinners and vice versa. On somedays we watched Spanish television programming and on somedays American television. I was lucky enough to get a decent education and meet wonderful people who have helped shape my view of the world I live in. I am open to any and all possibilities in life which I feel may be beneficial in creating a better world to live in. I think there has been an effort by the art market to raise the profile of Latin-American Art recently, but that's a whole different question, I suppose. I follow a few "Latin American artists" but not because of their identity, it's because I think they are intelligent and their work appeals to me. I'm drawn to an artist's mind and seeing their thoughts come to life. If it's good, I will acknowledge it no matter the person’s background. I'm snobby that way. I am in no position nor do I have the means to gauge what the state the Latin American Art community is in right now. I hope it is doing well and has a prosperous future.

MICHAEL:  Of course you're an American artist. However, I still think that there's something about the work of artists of Spanish and Latin American descent that makes the work especially insightful. Finally Rafael, Where are you now in your evolution as an artist and where would you like to go with your work? Why is art so important?

RAFAEL: I’m just doing my thing. I’ve been blessed in many ways recently. I'm lucky enough to have a very kind hearted man in my life who is making it possible for me to travel and see the world. I've never been much of a traveler. So I'm very excited about this. It's never been about the work for me, it has been about the experience. It's like shedding skin. The more I live, the more I shed. In the end, the art reflects my life. It's up to the world to decide if it's important enough to know who I am and what I do. I'm always thankful and grateful to everyone around me who makes things happen. I'm especially thankful for my family (biological and chosen) who have kept me alive for so many years. I feel safe to say the work is in good hands. I hope this answered the question in a proper way. Thank you kindly for your making me think a little bit harder.

MICHAEL: Thanks Rafael.  This has been great.

Check out Rafael Melendez at http://www.todayistomorrownyc.com/.