Tony B. Conscious: Where art meets activism

telegraph avenue
Mary Zheng/File

A brief walk down Telegraph Avenue, and his booth is hard to ignore. Set on the corner of Telegraph and Durant avenues, his art sprawls all over the pavement, the colors vibrant against the otherwise bleak, gray sidewalk. Mondays through Fridays, he can be found displaying his pieces while shamelessly dancing to the music blasting from his van, greeting students with his own freestyle rhymes.

Tony B. Conscious, who seems like a permanent resident of this corner, has been a poet, visual artist, musician and writer for much of his adult life. Conscious has been painting for 25 years, and over the years, his style has not changed so much as his canvases. Previously, he spent much of his time vandalizing property, tagging walls and subway cars with cans of aerosol paint. But after witnessing much of the violence associated with “tagger crews,” he moved onto canvases in hopes of escaping the negativity. Despite this transition, Conscious held onto the cans of spray paint dominant in his style and uses them to continue with his graffiti-like artwork, providing his pieces with a sense of authenticity and a reflection of his past.

This artwork, which is done in what he calls a “fly-dye” style, is the most noticeable element of Conscious’s setup. In what he calls his “daily ritual,” he first sketches, then spray-paints portraits, mostly of influential figures in the Black community. The portraits are frequently accompanied by a unique quote from the figure and topped with a sprinkle of glitter, a testament to the individuality his subjects possess.

Growing up, Conscious said he felt frustrated when the achievements of people of color were overlooked in the Eurocentric history classes prominent in schools across the United States. Instead of absolving this frustration, Conscious developed his artistic skills and utilized them to bring the spotlight back on those achievements. Because of those efforts, Mondays through Fridays, portraits of Bob Marley, Maya Angelou and Lauryn Hill, as well as dozens of others, can be found on display by his iconic van.

His own upbringing and cultural background have greatly inspired his artwork. The son of a Black Panther, Conscious said activism is “in his blood” and that his work is a product of that activism.

“I represent for us,” he said. “I’m an activist. Born one, (been one) my whole life. My whole life I’ve been Black, so as long as I’ve been Black, I’ve had to fight.”

According to Laura Pérez, a professor at UC Berkeley in the department of ethnic studies with a focus in post-‘60s U.S. Latinx artwork, the use of art to reflect one’s culture and political beliefs is a common occurrence.

The portraits are frequently accompanied by a unique quote from the figure and topped with a sprinkle of glitter, a testament to the individuality his subjects possess.

“Artists are always making work that reflects the world they live in, and in that way, art can’t help but to be political,” she said.

In the eyes of both Conscious and Pérez, art is a mirror. It is a reflection of our society, and thus a significant platform for artists of color to express their struggles.

“The world that they reflect and the world that they help us to understand is often unjust because of racial privilege and racial inequity, so they help us see an example (of) how people of color are negatively racialized,” Pérez said.

Stephanie Syjuco, an assistant professor in the department of art practice and an artist, has similarly recognized art as a platform for such political discourse. She has used her experiences as an immigrant from the Philippines in her own pieces. These experiences aid her in communicating a message on the complexity of U.S. culture as well as “what it means to be an immigrant in America today.”

Recently, she created a photographic series staging 19th-century ethnography from the Philippines that “critically plays with the notion of expectations of political exotic people.”

For Conscious, his identity is affirmed and reaffirmed through his pieces. Each of his portraits tells a story — one that may have been overlooked in Eurocentric English and history classes. A portrait of Nelson Mandela, for example, allows his achievements to resurface into the view of the public. A portrait of Beyoncé reiterates her successes and setbacks as a Black woman in the music industry. A portrait of Malcolm X reminds the public of the struggles Black people have had to face and how hard they have had to work to overcome them.

Here, the music booming from Conscious’ speakers and the neon colors popping out from the open-air corner make these stories hard to ignore.

Because of the social changes his pieces have the potential to make, Conscious nicknamed his art with the acronym A.R.T., or “always resonating truth.” He wants his art to have a greater purpose than entertainment — he wants to make a change.

“We are at a time where telling the truth is medicine, and art is medicine for both activists and also for the mainstream and also for people who have the opposite opinion.” —  Laura Pérez

“For my culture, we didn’t do art just for amusement,” he said. “Everything meant something. Everything was to pass down wisdom, knowledge, history, something. So therefore, I cannot paint just to paint. I have to paint with that premise in mind, that I am painting with a purpose.”

Although Conscious, Syjuco and Pérez all stress the extensive history of art as a political platform, Syjuco and Pérez credit the recent political climate after the 2016 presidential election for a greater focus in the pubic eye on political messages evident in artistic pieces.

“We are at a time where telling the truth is medicine, and art is medicine for both activists and also for the mainstream and also for people who have the opposite opinion,” Pérez said. “Art and anything that tells the truth is invaluable. (Making it) is that social responsibility that we have, not just the country we live in but the world (and) the planet.”

One listen to Conscious’ rhymes, and his role in the world is clear to see:

I’m still over here with my spray-paint cans, so if you’re a fan, then you gon’ be like, ‘Damn.’ ‘Cause I got the biggest booth. Because I do it for the youth. I’m the only one that’s telling the truth. I’m not a capitalist, I’m an activist. Read a couple of quotes, and maybe I can give them wisdom and a little hope.”

Contact Alice Markman at [email protected]