Ruben Henriquez first caught my attention with his website Help Ruben, a website he created to accept donations to cover his tuition for the School of Visual Arts. Born and raised in Washington Heights, this artist dabbles in a little bit of everything with a natural confidence. I met with him at Carrot Top Pastries where we talked about art, inspiration, the Heights, and about young’ns pulling their pants up.
Let’s start by talking about Help Ruben. How did the website come to be?
It began with this website I saw, sarahneedsajob.com. I got the idea to revamp that concept, and do it from a different angle. It also came from conversation, from just talking to people. I started with just a little stick figure drawing that I did. Little by little I improved the site.
When did you learn you got accepted to the School of Visual Arts and when did you launch the site?
I graduated from Hostos Community College earlier this year. Usually you expect a letter in the mail, you know, that big package or an envelope. But I got my acceptance in an email. I knew I wanted to start the website about four months ago, I was just waiting for things to fall into place. I wanted it to look a certain way, and that took time.
There was a fundraiser held for you in APT. 78, how did that go?
The event at APT. 78 was overwhelming. A lot of people came up to me that I don’t know. They would tell me that what I’m doing is great, and tell me to keep going. I ended up selling a lot of prints and t-shirts, I did well. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
How are you doing in terms of meeting your goal?
I still have a long way to go, but it’s all about consistency. As long as you keep it consistent it will work out. I don’t want people to think that I started something and then I’m going to let it die down. Realistically, I expected people to respect what I was doing, maybe Tweet about it or put it on Facebook. I didn’t expect them to donate.
How did you get into art?
It started with a professor. He is actually one of my really good friends now. When I first went to Hostos Community College I was going to study…I completely forgot, but I was going for something else. Then I took a photo class, and my professor would always tell me, “You’ve got a good eye, you’ve got a good eye.” One thing led to another, then I bought myself a camera. My grandmother passed away, and when we went to DR for the funeral I took my camera, and I shot all these pictures. Then I started taking pictures at all my family functions, baby showers, stuff like that. Through that I would get contacts and hired to do other events.
Your art supports you then? By taking pictures at events and selling your t-shirt.
Yea. Every time I wear my t-shirt, I get at least ten compliments, no lie. And if I don’t get the compliment, I see people reading it and smiling to themselves. As of right now, I don’t want to be a t-shirt designer of any sort, but my t-shirt is a social statement and I believe that it is relevant.
Speaking of your t-shirt, what’s the story behind it?
It’s a Jay-Z line. [From the song "People Talkin'"]
What other music do you listen to?
I listen to a lot of rap. I listen to Adele. I’ve been listening to The Weeknd. It varies.
What do you find inspiration in? Who or what inspires your art?
My father used to tell me, “dime con quien tu anda’, y te dire quien tu eres.” ["Show me your friends and I'll tell you who you are."] So, I always try and surround myself with good people. People who are doing something for themselves and not just talking about what it, but actually accomplishing it. I would say the people I associate with definitely inspire me. Like, the people from APT. 78, Tony Peralta, my mother, my girlfriend, my brothers. Some of my brothers didn’t necessarily go down the right path, so that taught me to do the opposite of what they did. I’m the youngest of five.
How did you meet Tony Peralta?
My website is WHRPhotography.com, that stands for Washington Heights Renaissance Photography. I knew that if I wanted to live up to that name I would have to be more involved in the community than I was at that point. I started searching online for people that were from Washington Heights/ Inwood; I wanted to see what they were doing. That’s how I came across Uptown Collective, Tony Peralta, and a couple of other people. And I just sent them an e-mail, like “Hey, how you doing? My name is Ruben, this is my website, this is what I want to do. I’m interested in collaborating with you.” Tony responded, we decided to meet, and it went from there. I shot all the videos for his Complejo Exhibit.
I see you like to do a little bit of everything.
I don’t want to put myself in a category, like, I’m just a photographer. Nowadays, anyone can call themselves a photographer. You got a camera? You’re a photographer. Photography is my foundation. But now I’m doing videos, I was making jewelry at one point. I made some rings, I designed a broach. I just try to do whatever feels right. Like the t-shirt, at the time that felt right. I had no idea about screening, or about anything in that process. I just knew that there was a market because its a relevant social statement.
Having grown up in Washington Heights, do you feel like the culture and the neighborhood affect your art?
Yea, because a lot of these kids you see them with their pants on the ground. I guess its a fashion statement. The t shirt is meant to say there is a time and place for everything. Imagine me, going to these events where I’m taking pictures, like a wedding or something. I’ll have my blazer on with a button up, and my pants are down.
When is the time and place to stop having your pants on the ground?
When you grow up. I used to do it when I was younger, but there comes a point where you wake up and you’re like, ‘That’s how I look?’
You must have noticed some gentrification in Washington Heights. Has that impacted you also?
There is a standard of living that we aren’t getting, we need new windows, and so many other things. But with gentrification they’re trying to kick people out. For example, they told my friend if he moved they would give him $80,000, but if they’re giving him $80,000 then they are going to make five times that after he moves. So, he’s not leaving. We aren’t leaving.
Do you think anything positive could come out of gentrifying?
It would be nice if it kept happening and no one would even notice it anymore. One of my teachers used to always say, “If I’m telling you a story, there is no need for me to tell you the race of whoever I’m talking about.” Hopefully we get to that point, where we just live in the same neighborhood. But, they are picking up the rent.
Lets talk about the video on helpruben.com. Was that the first time you panhandled on the Subway?
Yea, that was the first time. I did it on the 1, 2, and 3 trains. I thought out of everything I did that would be respected the most. I thought it would make people see how serious I am. But it didn’t work that way. I think the camera threw people off. These days, people probably thought they were getting Punk’d. Those people were probably thinking, “oh this is being recorded, this is going online, let me chill.” They were nervous about the camera. Eventually they saw it wasn’t a prank.
How successful were you?
I got two dollars.
Collectively, on all three of those trains?
Do you plan to panhandle on the subway again?
Yes, I’m going to Massachusetts for work, and when I come back I’m going to try it again. Without the cameras. Hopefully people will have another perspective.
People on the subway are so jaded, how do you think your approach is different from other panhandlers?
My whole approach is I’m trying to save money to afford my tuition. I feel like that alone has to be respected. Its hard to break the ice, I’m still trying to figure it out. You don’t have that much time on the train, just a few seconds between stops. I don’t know if I should make it comical, I don’t know. I’ll figure it out. A lot of people told me they almost cried when they were watching the video. They said they don’t have the heart to do something like that. And I have to say, a lot of times I was standing there, it would be completely silent and my legs would shake.
Why does it mean so much to go to the School of Visual Arts?
A lot of people live their lives like, “Oh man, thank God its Friday.” I don’t want to live like that.
Do you have a plan B?
Plan B is let’s get it. It’s time to work. This year, for 2011, my New Year’s Resolution was not to work for anyone. I don’t want to work for anyone else anymore. Everything I’m doing is for me. So far I’ve been able to live up to that.
Do you have a solid support system? I bet that helps.
Hell yea, without a doubt. For you to believe me, I have to believe in myself. My mother, my girlfriend, my brothers, they help me make t-shirts. I have little cousins that are 4 and 5 years old helping me, they get excited, “oh, we’re going to help Ruben make shirts!”
So, you’re telling me you’re running a sweatshop and little children are making your t-shirts?
They want to help, I’m just introducing them to the process.
Yes, they have to realize they’re going to be working for the rest of their lives.
I pay them in candy.
Nice. Do you feel like everything you’ve done up to this point has met or exceeded your goals?
There is always a lot more to do. That is always my perspective. The way I learn is by trial and error, there is always more to learn and do. Eventually, I want to teach. I want to come back to the community and work with kids. I feel like kids are growing up way too fast. If I could just have a few hours with them and teach them to be recreational and artistic, that’s what I want to do. I don’t remember ever having any art classes when I was a kid.
If you had to describe yourself in six words, what would the be?
Damn, that is hard to do. Ambitious. Honest. Respectful…I don’t know. This is hard.
Well, that completes it. “Ambitious, honest, respectful. I don’t know.” Good job. I ask Ruben’s friend, Kenny, how he feels about everything Ruben is doing.
Kenny: Oh, I’m too proud. He’s making moves. Whenever he needs me I’m there. Even when he doesn’t need me.
Ruben: I’m mad you don’t have my t-shirt on today.
Kenny: I wore it all day yesterday, though. It’s in the laundry.
If you want to help Ruben, learn more about his journey and donate at HelpRuben.com.