Meet Oriel Ceballos, the Panamanian American Street Artist Who Is Redefining New York Park Culture
“My art is real. Every piece is about the celebration of tenacity, a person who’s down to go against all odds.”
It’s 5:00 pm on a Saturday in Washington Square Park and Oriel Ceballos is grinning from ear to ear as he hands one of his young art collectors a print free of charge. For Ceballos, the greatest part about selling in public places is not meeting art curators or making money, but having young people profoundly resonate with his art.
Ceballos, 37, is known for his abstract art — sold under the name “OR1EL” in galleries, parks, and in the subway — that comments on social issues such as mass incarceration and genderism. The artist merges vibrant colors with theology, psychology, and sociopolitical issues.
Oriel Ceballos is “ a generational phenom,” says Luby Antoine, a Haitian American street artist and former graphic designer who sells his art in Washington Square alongside Ceballos. “You know, like, 110% that he is going to be the only one of his kind.”
Upon graduating from Brooklyn College at age 21, Ceballos earned a full scholarship to study theology at Princeton. As much an academic as he is an artist, Ceballos obtained a Master of Divinity there. In 2009, he enrolled at Columbia University where he earned a Master of Education.
With every brushstroke, the artist intends to keep pushing forward the ideas he cultivated in Panama, ideas of self-love and overcoming obstacles. Growing up in both Panama and Brooklyn, Ceballos’s identity as a black man has deeply infiltrated his artwork. “We have a Black Jesus in Panama,” says Oriel.
When asked how selling art on the streets is a different experience from selling in galleries, Ceballos said the streets allow him to attract people who have “never really cared for art” and build trust by negotiating with potential buyers. Moments before this interview, Ceballos sold a $400 piece to one of his art collectors. Ceballos says, “he’s been buying pieces for $20 and $40 and $50.”
“There’s a street price and a gallery price,” he said. Ceballos wants to make it easier for younger collectors, including college students, to buy his pieces. He recalls a time when an adolescent boy wanted to buy a piece of his but could not afford it, “I gave him a piece that was $300 for $40.” Ceballos says young people “would pull out everything from of their pockets to give me money,” which he found “to be very humbling.”
But selling on the streets, which Ceballos believes is a “more exciting” experience, has come at a price. Ceballos said he was waiting for the summons when a Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officer “jumped on me with three other officers ” on Sunday, October 6, in Washington Square. He says that the officers had his “arms restrained to my back, cutting [his] oxygen supply.” According to the art publication Hyperallergic, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks) said Ceballos had “ received multiple summonses and 311 complaints in recent months.” The NYC Parks statement said that Ceballos “refused to provide identification and the officer attempted to arrest him” and that he “resisted arrest and began to choke the officer.” Noting that there is no video evidence of this, Ceballos said, “I was resisting a false arrest, I was trying to avoid a detainment that led to pepper-spraying and kicking and my art getting destroyed.”
NYU undergrad Griffin Wood published a video of the incident on Instagram, which has garnered more than 14,000 likes.
When asked about his approach to pricing his artwork, Ceballos said he wants to make it easier for younger collectors, including college students, to buy his pieces. He recalls a time when an adolescent boy wanted to buy a piece of his but could not afford it, “I gave him a piece that was $300 for $40”. Ceballos says young people “would pull out everything they had out of their pockets to give me the money” which [he finds] “to be very humbling.”
Joanna [last name unknown], one of Oriel’s young art collectors, picking out her favorite art piece, which Oriel has given her free of charge. Photographer: Francesca Story
Selling in public spaces also allows Ceballos to meet people who perhaps never had an interest in art. Some of these individuals become his most frequent art collectors. “The gentleman that just bought the piece,” Oriel said in reference to someone who purchased a $400 piece prior to our interview, “he’s been buying pieces for $20 and $40 and $50.” Some originals go for up to $520 in his online shop.
In his art, Ceballos explores poverty, war, ageism, and mass incarceration. In his anti-war and anti-Trump series, Ceballos provides a commentary on politics. For example, his portrait of Perseus shows the Greek hero beheading President Trump instead of Medea, as in the Greek myth. “It’s symbolic,” Ceballos says. In a recent piece depicting his October 6 encounter with PEP, which Ceballos says had a profound and “overwhelming” impact on his life, he explores the abuse of police authority and power.
Image of the artist’s print depicting the attack [Source: Francesca Story]
Stressing the importance of artistic perseverance and tenacity, Ceballos celebrates the idea of overcoming adversity and “going against all odds.” He says, “I wake up in the morning and just think of things and I paint them.” “If I was a writer I would be writing every day. If I was a singer, I would be composing songs all the time. I just feel like if you’re an artist, push that shit to a thousand degrees.”