Tête-à-Tête with Tony Peralta
On a cold, crisp and snowy Friday morning, after a hearty breakfast at The Park View on Dyckman, we walked over two blocks to Taller Peralta, Tony Peralta's new brick and mortar in the heart of Washington Heights. I rang the doorbell, one of his employees welcomed us with a big smile, directed us to the back of the gallery (which serves as Tony's silk printing studio, painting studio, conference room, event space, and stockroom. The backspace is covered with Tony's art from floor to ceiling. The tables covered with merchandise from hats to hoodies, to baby onesies, boxes of shipments, and materials for projects in progress. Tony looks small in his chair with life-size art surrounding him. After some warm hugs and hellos, Tony told us a little bit about his experience at Art Basel, and how happy he was to be back home working and making art. During a comfortable silence, Tony served us some fresh Cafe Bustelo, and we got to chatting...
Loyal Nana: Loyal Nana's Tete a Tete sessions usually start with the same question: who are you?
Tony Peralta: My name is Manuel Antonio Peralta and I’m a kid from Washington Heights. I was born and raised in 187th street between Audubon and Amsterdam. I am an artist and entrepreneur.
LN: When you grow up in the hood, finding inspiration to become an artist or an entrepreneur is rare. As a kid from Washington Heights, what inspired your entrepreneurial tendencies?
TP: Being a Peralta means being an entrepreneur -- which is something that I owned up to just a few years ago. My father and all of my uncles were bodegueros. My mom was a hustler, with the first hustle being her immigration to the United States; she was a jack of all trades.
LN: What did your mother do for work?
TP: Well, we grew up on welfare. My mom would make pastelitos to sell at the Dominican Day Parades every year, and they would sell out within the first hour. She sold $5 lunches to the drug dealers on the block. She bought used clothes by the pound and would sell them in DR. She made so much money doing this that when I was 16 years old, she bought her own food truck which was operating out of 187th street and Audubon. It was one of the first food trucks uptown. If she wasn’t in sociedad (a Dominican community savings operation)… she was busy finding a new hustle.
LN: That’s MAJOR, that is true hustle.
TP: I haven’t even told you about my father! He was working in a factory when one day one of his cousins told him that he should drive a cab. My dad did not know how to drive, but he figured it out. One day he made $100 as a cab driver and that same day he decided he wasn’t going back to the factory. He would go out every day and not come home until he made $100. Everyday, that $100 went toward something: on Mondays, it would go to rent, on Tuesdays he would send it to the Dominican Republic, etc. Eventually, he bought his own car, saved is earnings, and with those earnings, bought a bodega in cash and stocked it.
LN: I'd say you have a natural hustler's soul. You grew up watching your parents move and shake and figure out their lives the best way they could...this must be how you got here, today.
TP: Yes. Very recently, someone assumed that I got a grant or loan for my new shop. And, no, I did not. I paid for this shit out of pocket. My parents taught me well.
LN: Talk to us about growing up in the Heights… How was school?
TP: I was a Freshman at George Washington High School in 1988 (Manny Ramirez was actually in my school this year). This was the first time I was in the same school as my friends from the block. I didn’t go through any of that Freshman initiation shit. I was always hanging out with the older dudes from the block in school so I was in the 7th or 8th grade sneaking into clubs.
LN: What inspired you to make art? Did school have anything to do with it?
TP: Elementary school and junior high school were different… in elementary, they would take me and a few other “talented” kids to the library to have art class every day. I loved it. In junior high school, I was in the “T” class… “T” stood for “talent” so we were always singing, dancing, or doing art… I always did art. Overall, junior high school was trash… my grades were trash.
I always knew I wanted to go to a High School focused on art and design, but since I didn’t have the grades or the portfolio, I had to go to George Washington High School (AKA G Dubbs) which accepted all types of kids with bad grades. Dubbs was no joke there were tigueres everywhere. There were wild cowboy type dudes, drug dealers, and football players. I was hanging out with all of them and my grades suffered. At that point in my high school career, I needed 42 credits and only had 12.
LN: How did you turn your life around for the better?
TP: I read the autobiography of Malcolm X, and that got me up and out of that fog that I was in. I remember thinking “I need to get the fuck out of this school.” Shortly after, I left the school and went to City AS School for one semester and then I took my GED.
LN: What’s City AS?
TP: City AS is an alternative school--Basquiat went there. My goal was to get in and get my GED, and get out. I was so depressed in high school that I had stopped drawing and playing basketball. But, while I was at City AS, I met this girl who eventually became my girlfriend. She was about six years older than me and she was my first love.
LN: That’s so beautiful… would you say that she was your muse?
TP: Her mom helped me get into the HEOP program at Long Island University. I was a History major but then someone told me about Media Arts and Graphics so of course, I switched majors. I wanted to be a filmmaker something like the Dominican Spike Lee. My creative block and depression was subsiding and I was getting back into art.
LN: So you were a high school dropout, turned college graduate. That must have been a grand feeling of accomplishment. What did you do after college?
TP: When I graduated, I was struggling to find work as a production assistant; meanwhile, my friend was having the time of his life working for a PR marketing company. Eventually, he hooked me up with a job and I became the design director at this small company owned by two black men. This is where my career in fashion started. We used to go to urban fashion conventions in Las Vegas like MAGIC and I was inspired by the young graphic designers who owned their own brands. That’s where I got the idea to start Peralta Project in 2003.
LN: What did The Peralta Project look like in 2003?
TP: In 2003, I started to make designs with iron-on's... I would make my own shirts and wear them too. I took a screen-printing class at SVA, and that is when the Peralta Project graduated from iron-ons to screen printing. The famous Peralta Project Goya Can art was my first screen print.
LN: What was your first design?
TP: In 2004, my friend Leo started the company called Sound of Art, which allowed him to curate an art show with Latina Magazine for Hispanic History Month. He knew my work and my passion for the arts so he encouraged me to get involved. That’s when I started to work on paintings and that’s when I did my first piece, Freedom.
About 300 people attended that art show. I remember going to galleries and museums and just laughing at some of the artists, and the works. Now I was putting myself in that same situation, in a place for criticism from strangers, it was terrifying but I did it and people loved it. The following year, in 2005, I officially launched the Peralta Project.
LN: At this point, did you feel ready to officially take the leap into the art world? You've mentioned before that you have never wanted to call yourself an artist because you know real artists, and you know that dues have to be paid to carry that title. Were you now becoming more comfortable with the idea that you might actually be an artist?
TP: I was super insecure- I’m very sensitive, I’m a Cancer... I remember thinking "I’m an artist and this is what I do.” I was creating artwork that was being showcased in different exhibition, I was moving up in my career, and doing really well as a designer. I was learning and I was getting better. At 29, I quit my job, to dedicate more time to the Peralta Project, that is how sure I was about this art thing...
LN: What was the vision for your business? How were you planning on marrying your hustle?
TP: I’m remember being so inspired by the business model Shepard Fairey used: If my art piece costs $1,000, then I’m going to put it on a t-shirt, charge less, and be able to sell to a bigger audience.
LN: Was it working?
TP: Yes, I just kept on hustling. I started dating this woman around the same time, who happened to be a stylist, and soon enough, Diddy was wearing my Freedom shirt. Simultaneously, I got a call for an interview with a magazine called Giant, that was the Peralta Project's very first interview. It was about me and my art, so naturally, I started feelin' myself.
LN: What were some of the happenings around The Peralta Project that allowed it to go to the next level?
TP: It was three major events: First, things changed for the better when I started to sell my designs at Probus. And right after that, it was when the show Washington Heights premiered on MTV. I had already made Washington Heights apparel, which some of the cast was wearing. Frankie P, who was on the cast of the show, bought and wore the WASH. HTS hat and that brought on a lot of attention to the Peralta Project.
This was a time when everyone from Washington Heights was feeling extra proud to be a Dominican or Puerto Rican from uptown. This all worked to my advantage, because I had already been designing Washington Heights merchandise. Lastly, countless amounts of blessings came from the 2011 opening at the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NOMAA) where I exhibited the Complejo series.
LN: So it wasn't when Lin Manuel Miranda came into your Taller?
Or when Alicia Keys made a selfie video in front of your Doña con Rolos piece?
Or when Desus & Mero went on the Late Show and wore your apparel? That would have been all of the come up I needed!
TP: Haha! That too is all so special to me. It is evidence that you can make your life what you want it to be.
LN: How has your work evolved and where do you see it going?
TP: People don’t see that it has taken me 10 years to get here… I was making my art when I didn't have the audience to show it to. When I first started, my work was very politically heavy, and social media wasn't around yet. If it were, I am sure everything would have been different. As I developed and grew, I took a turn with my art which is what I am doing now. A whole generation had to grow up to appreciate this new art.
LN: Right now, we are sitting in your brand new, and very beautifully curated brick and mortar, Taller Peralta, just one block from La Marina, and two block from Dyckman Street. How did you know it was time to open up your own shop?
TP: In July 2017, I was seriously considering leaving NYC. I had an exhibition going on in LA at the Mexican Consulate where people were lined around the block to see my work. About 400 people showed up to my show, and I am not even from there! I felt received and I was ready to go. On an errand, one day, I came to Henshaw Street to visit some friends. I saw that this location was closed, and up for sale. I asked around about the details of the location and started going through the motions. I turned to my father, my sister, my friend Jose for advice and they encouraged me all the way to stay in NYC and open up shop. I took my savings and paid in cash, like my father with his first bodega. And, here we are.
LN: How has your community treated your come-up?
TP: I’m not sure. There are people who are very proud of me and there are people who don’t know who I am. There seems to be mixed emotions about a lot of things and people don’t know the real story. Just the other day, someone told me that I was privileged as a man, which is strange to hear because my upbringing wasn’t “privileged”, I grew up on welfare for 20 years. Then, there are people who come here and have genuine love. The worst kind though, are the folks who don't know you but still criticize you. I’m not trying to be the best Dominican artist in Washington Heights, I’m just trying to be a great artist. A lot of people try to put me and my work down by saying things like “You’re good for a Dominican artist.” People look at my stuff and feel bad that they didn't come up with it first. They think "Now this Tony guy is here getting all of this attention and press." The kind of vibes I get from my community is "why him and not me." It is frustrating. The people who walk through the doors of Taller Peralta are people from the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Downtown… not Washington Heights. It took me 6-7 years to be comfortable enough to call myself an artist… AND I AM HERE TO STAY.
LN: How do you feel about the changes happening in our community and how do you think we can defend Uptown?
TP: Support your local businesses!!!! Not enough people in this community support their local businesses. Go have a glass of wine at Pop and Pour (a new wine cafe on Dyckman) and tag that local business, talk about it with your friends. A lot of young folks from the Heights complain about gentrification but never do anything about it.
LN: Dominicans and bochinche (gossip) go hand in hand. What are some rumors you’ve heard about yourself?
TP: That I am an asshole, that my accomplishments just fell on my lap, and that I am taking advantage of my culture. How can I be taking advantage of something that has not been done before? I am putting our Dominican culture out there, in front of people's faces, in galleries, on social media, I am taking it around the world. I work on beautifying, and glamorizing the simplest things about being Dominican because it is a part of who I am.
LN: We have also heard that you are some sort of Dominican misogynistic womanizer. Have you heard that about yourself?
TP: There are people calling me misogynistic, and a womanizer? Where does that even come from? In my opinion, only the women that I have dated, and that know me can call me that, and you go ahead and ask any and all of my ex-girlfriends who and how I truly am. I’m sure those words would not be in the description.
LN: I had to ask because of Hollywood's recent fall from grace, the #MeToo movement, and essentially all of the abuse that women have been going through for centuries.
TP: In fact, there was one young lady who was 18 years old in High School and looking to gain experience through an internship with Peralta Project. At that time, I was working out of my tiny apartment, and despite her being overage, I decided that I had to talk to her mother first about the arrangements because I didn’t feel comfortable having her come to my apartment to work. That is how my mother raised me.
LN: What I love about your work aside from the way you bring Dominican culture to life, is that I see how much you are helping young adults, and us millennial Latina and Afro-Latinas become more comfortable in our skin. You've helped Latinas RECLAIM words like NEGRA, SABIA, BRUJA, MORENA, LATINA, which, at some point, were words that carried negative connotations. As a man and an artist, you have put respect on rolos, curly hair, dark skin, large hoop earrings, and most importantly, you have somehow made the stank attitudes we got from our mother be acceptable.
LN: Speaking of latina women, what did your mom think about your art? God rest her soul!
TP: My mom didn’t know much about the art… for example, when the Complejo series was up for view at NOMAA, she called me and said, “Mira saliste en la television, pero yo no sabia que tu te sentia asi, que tu tenias complejo.” LOL. She was very supportive.
LN: Your mom is no longer with us. Where or who do you go to for advice?
TP: I have a nice little network of artist friends: my friend Bluster, Jose... I share ideas with the girls who work in my shop… I have artists friends who I looked up to and now consider me their friend...
LN: What kind of ideas do you have for your new shop?
TP: I want to use it as a space that can bring people together for the sake of art. This month, for Women's History Month, I am partnering with four women artists and putting on 1-2 events every week highlighting that female artist's work. I want to host more workshops, talks, exhibitions, and so much more.
LN: What would you say is your [major] key to success?
TP: Go ahead and take the road less traveled... If I see too many people doing the same thing, or going the same way, I find another route.
LN: What is next for Tony the artist?
TP: I’m a 43 year old man who has no kids and has never been married. I’m probably going to get a dog next year. I need to take care of something other than myself. I’m in a different phase in my life because I’m older and I’m dealing with getting older. I’m trying to grow and have proper balance in my life… as good as things are here, they can always be better (it's the hustler in me talking). I don’t have family here, and being an artist can get very lonely at times. I’m trying to be in the moment and figure it all out.
LN: Stay cool, keep creating, you make me proud to be from a Dominican-American artist from Washington Heights
TP: Que Dios te Bendiga...