Canvas comes in many forms. It can be pliable, absorbent, water-resistant, uneven or smooth. It can be made of linen or vinyl, paper or plastic, wood or stone. Whatever the material and texture, though, it is up to each artist’s skill and creativity to bring to life what sits in his or her mind’s eye.
For Adam Suerte, that vision has led him to paint everything from moody streetscapes and street graffiti to horny ghosts and comic-inspired art on anything he can get his hands on. So far, that list has included a baseball bat, a samurai sword, toys, 40-ounce glass bottles, the standard stretched linen, and even the human body.
“Art came first, then tattooing came out of it,” said Suerte, a Cobble Hill-native who co-owns the Brooklyn Tattoo shop at 99 Smith Street, which is connected to a gallery space he and fellow artists opened next door called Urban Folk Art Studios. “When I started, I had to relearn how to draw – the tattooing machine is heavy. I never drew straight lines and circles until tattooing. My art changed and became a lot more deliberate; it brought my art to a whole new level.”
Exploring the levels and styles of art has been an ongoing process throughout Suerte’s 42 years, starting with the moment he could hold a pencil. “I’ve been drawing since I could remember,” he said. “My mother always tried to see what [my brother and I] were into, trying piano, swimming, art classes and museums. Art was always for me.”
This was despite the fact that he is partially colorblind, the only noticeable effect of which is the fact that Suerte’s artwork sticks to a color palate of brown and grey buildings, beige roads, greens, blues and reds.
At 12 years old – below the age limit allowed – he was “snuck in” to the Art Students League of NY by teacher Tom Fogarty, who was a family friend, to practice his skills by sketching nude models. He soon moved onto street graffiti, blending old school graffiti with his burgeoning interest in comic books ranging from superheroes to underground. By the time he graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in Illustration, Suerte had absorbed a wide range of influences.
“I had a very stylized view of things to begin with so in college, it was a lot of art history and things that helped influence my art [into something] that still had an urban graffiti feel, plus Impressionism,” explained Suerte of his early and transitory artistic inspirations, which also included artists Robert Crumb, Rick Griffin, Gregory Irons, Keith Haring and Vaughn Bode.
For a while, Suerte and a group of friends made a living through their artist’s collective, dubbed Urban Folk Art, operating a silkscreen studio in a Bushwick loft and selling prints to local bands, artists, small businesses and nonprofits. The proceeds helped support their art projects, self-published comic books, T-shirt line and art openings. Eventually, everyone pursued their own paths, and Suerte accepted an apprenticeship with the All Souls Tattooing shop near Harlem, where he was given the name “Suerte,” a softer alternative to Gould in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.
The identity stuck.
Not only did the tattooing trade teach him how to draw straight lines, but it also taught the then 29-year-old that unlike with painting, “there is no room for mistakes,” “I can’t paint over it,” and “you have to always be in a good mood.”
Still, amidst changes in his life that mirrored the changes creeping into Brooklyn, some things stayed the same. Suerte moved home to Cobble Hill, just a few blocks away from where he is now. Financial security meant that he could continue his fine art projects and clothing line. And in 2001, when the tattooist he worked for moved to England, he and co-worker Willie Paredes bought the Smith Street space and launched what would become “Brooklyn Tattoo.”
“Brooklyn, it’s different than Manhattan. You don’t have to look up in the sky. It’s spread out, there’s more community, people stay longer,” he ruminated. “I feel lucky and blessed to have been raised here, to see how it’s evolved and what it’s becoming. This neighborhood is an even mix between the born-and-raised and new people. We interact, we cross-market. I’m glad to represent my community.”
“Cityscapes are pretty prevalent throughout my paintings and tattooing,” he noted, pointing out a recurring theme in many of his personal and commissioned creations, from a view of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges as seen from DUMBO’s waterfront, to Cobble Hill Park and a chain of subway cars winding its way across and around a piano.
“This neighborhood has been changing over the last 40 years I’ve been around, so I’m capturing the parts before they change, the areas where I grew up,” said Suerte. “It is kind of the backdrop of my life story and I try to capture it before it changes too much.”
Many of Suerte’s fellow artists in Brooklyn share that fondness. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Avenue Art Walk for years, the Urban Folk Art Studio gallery – which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year – hosted its first Brooklyn Bridge group art show last year (a second is to come on May 25), and one of his graphic novels was nominated for the Ignatz Award at the 2002 Small Press Expo.
The studio also offers an internship at the artist’s collective, and Suerte and co-owner Paredes teach mural and printmaking workshops around town.
More examples of Suerte’s work can be viewed at www.adamsuerte.com. For tattoo and merchandise requests, visit Brooklyn Tattoo and Urban Folk Art Studios at 99 Smith Street, or call 718-643-1610.