If someone was looking for you on the Lower East Side in the 80s, it usually meant trouble. Angel Ortiz (AKA LA2) was 14 years old and wrote graffiti on the streets of his neighborhood while his mom thought he was at an after school program.
“I was scared at first,” Ortiz says. “I was like who is looking for me? Then they introduced me to this skinny white guy with glasses named Keith who was drawing babies.”
The skinny kid in glasses was Keith Haring who became a world wide art sensation. His ubiquitous symbols are now on everything from massive public art sculptures to tote bags to shower curtains.
After that fateful meeting with Ortiz, both their lives changed forever.
I’m sitting with Ortiz in a little studio in the back of the frame shop/gallery on Avenue C that he shares with his girlfriend and partner Ramona Lugo. The room is floor to ceiling in Ortiz’s work. The wild shapes and colors mimic the movement and vibrancy of the neighborhood he’s always called home. When Ortiz was growing up in the 70s, the Lower East Side was one of the most dangerous places in the country. He had no way of knowing it then, but in the 80s the neighborhood would create the most important artists of the last half of the 20th century and would become as famous as 1920s Paris for its art world significance.
“My father died when I was 3 years old and my mom was on a fixed income,” Ortiz says. “She did the best she could. She sent me to the boys club after school and I took art lessons there. I was always signing my name on everything. One day some kids were like, ‘Let’s go draw our names around the neighborhood.’ So I would sign into the boys club, go draw all day then get back before my mom picked me up.”
He says it was a way for him to meet people and stay out of trouble. But when Haring discovered him, they began to work seriously on art. Ortiz told Haring he needed more movement and energy in his work. He taught Keith how to refill his markers and helped him stretch canvas. Then Haring started to get recognition. Patty Astor had opened the Fun Gallery and began showing Haring’s art and collaborations he’d done with Ortiz.
“Keith taught me about the art world,” Ortiz says. “It’s a very ugly world.”
Ortiz found himself as a teenager among the most famous people in the world.
“Keith was throwing a party at his apartment. Keith always wanted to be like Andy [Warhol] so he invited Andy. And Andy was always with Grace Jones back then. They were smoking pot, doing a couple lines. Then Andy tried to kiss me. I told him I was into girls and we were cool after that.”
Ortiz was thrown into a new glamorous party world. Madonna used to pose nude for a few extra dollars, but was now enjoying international success. Basquiat had been living on the streets but was quickly becoming an art world superstar. (He came to Ortiz’s birthday party and gave him spray cans and markers as a gift.) But Ortiz mostly sat on the sidelines as everyone was making their money, preferring the work to schmoozing with dealers and curators. He and Haring had a studio together and Ortiz would work all day with him and party all night.
“I couldn’t get into any of the clubs because I was still a teenager. But when Andy introduced me to all the bouncers, it was smooth sailing all night. Keith loved to party. He would take his Quaaludes and his mushrooms and he would dance all night.”
Still in high school, Ortiz began to travel with Keith.
“Keith picked me up in a limo from the projects and we drove to a helicopter that took us to the plane. We went to Japan, Spain, Italy. Everywhere.”
Everything that Haring touched turned to gold. Even the letter that Haring wrote for Ortiz to get out of school sold for $1000 at auction a few years back.
But soon the party was over. The late 80s brought AIDS to the city.
“People were afraid to shake hands,” Ortiz says. “No one kissed you on the cheek anymore. I was always telling Keith to be careful, to have safe sex.”
Then one day Haring showed up in a rented Corvette and asked Ortiz if he wanted to take a drive.
“He told me he was sick. I started crying. Keith loved partying too much. He loved making love.”
When Ortiz talks about Haring’s death, I can see it’s something he still deals with to this day. Haring became a father figure. Ortiz saw art as a way out of poverty and crime. When Haring died, it was as if he lost two fathers. His biological father, and his spiritual father.
Haring told Ortiz that he’d set up a trust fund for him but after he passed away, many of the people in charge of the Keith Haring Foundation refused to acknowledge the importance of Ortiz’s collaborations. Giving him only the paintings Haring left him in his will and cutting him out of potential millions.
In the years follow Haring’s death, Ortiz found work where he could and started a family. But after his wife died, his life took a turn for the worse. He was faced with losing his apartment and living on the streets. Then he met Ramona Lugo who had a framing shop on the Lower East Side. She helped him get back on his feet and he was able to get a show in the Hamptons, it sold well and Lugo moved her store to Avenue C where it is today.
“He’s very big in Italy,” Lugo says of Ortiz’s work. “They send us things for him to sign and we send it back. They come and visit the store. His work sells for thousands, but he really loves doing stuff for the kids. They bring him sneakers to sign and he does them for free.”
Ortiz says that without Lugo’s support in recent years, he would be nowhere. Now his career has turned a corner and he’s getting commissions everywhere.
The art world is full of stories of exploitations, people being cheated out of money, backstabbing and petty jealousies. Many saw Warhol as exploiting Basquiat. Cynics say he was looking for a young black kid from the streets to legitimize him again after his own work had become passé. The same people might see Haring, a white suburbanite, doing the same of Ortiz, who was a true Lower East Side kid. But Ortiz doesn’t see it that way. He says that Haring was his friend until the day he died.
“Keith taught me that art wasn’t for the gallery,” Ortiz says petting his pitbull. “Art should be on the streets. Art is for everyone.”
Photos by Kelsey Bennett.