The art of the bodega

Ever-changing mural is talk of Kingsbridge


Hiciano Grocery and Deli is the newest canvas of Bronx artists José Serrano and Carlos Perez. Known as Base and Styler, the two have collaborated on murals decorating the side of the Bailey Avenue and Summit Place bodega for weeks, seeking to bring art and inspiration to the community.

“I’m always looking for permission to beautify,” Base said. “There’s a lot of tags, stuff that doesn’t entice the eyes.”

Base’s painting started at the now-closed M.S. 143 in Kingsbridge. An art program there allowed students to legally practice experimenting with spray-painting their names, and Base loved it.

“If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” he said. “I definitely wouldn’t be an artist.”

He had missed out on the golden age of graffiti in New York, and the 37-year-old says his parents wouldn’t have let him out late anyway. But it did serve as Base’s entry to the art world.

He would go on to buy and start practicing with an airbrush at 18, eventually becoming an apprentice at a tattoo shop on Fordham Road. He now runs his own one-man tattoo operation on Fort Independence Street.

In the 1970s, spray paint-covered subway cars rolled through Brooklyn and the Bronx, tagged by artists like Lee Quiñones, Tracy 168 and Blade. Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat claimed walls for their own. Decades of New York City mayors fought the “war on graffiti,” sending the vandal art style into the shadows.

Styler, too, missed out on the era of painting his name in every borough. “I was an urban youth at the time. After the demise of graffiti on trains, the natural path was to do murals.”

Bodega owner Mayberry Hiciano allowed the artists to paint on the old side wall of his building, visible by those traveling on Bailey Avenue.

“The one guy, on his stops here, would see this ugly wall, and he asked if they could paint it,” Hiciano said. “He said they know people respect the art, they wouldn’t destroy it.”

Base and Styler met through another friend who already had been working on the Bailey Avenue wall and agreed to start painting together.

“We hit it off,” Styler said. “That’s the beautiful thing about art, it connects you. Once you start vibing, the ideas flow, you get the camaraderie.”

It’s art that helps the community, but there are some personal benefits as well.

“We’re not like Robin Hood, we do it for ourselves first,” Base said. “It’s a passion project. But the community gets the benefits, when it’s 5 a.m., and they’re on their way to work, maybe they’ll see it. Maybe they’ll get inspired.”

Styler wants his art to inspire the neighborhood kids to explore with their own art.

“The world is so volatile now,” he said. “You saw those sickos with the mass shootings. In the Bronx, if we can turn an ugly brown wall into something colorful for the kids to look at, to try at home on paper. Bringing color to an ordinary neighborhood.”

As of Aug. 5, Base’s side of the mural was a dramatic portrait of Pennywise the clown from the Stephen King horror story “It,” complete with a bright blue, abstract piece in traditional, angular graffiti style by Styler.

The artists say they keep the neighborhood in mind, creating art that is respectful to everyone there, especially children.

“We try not to do anything that the kids will see,” Styler said. “No cuss words, no ugly images. This one has Pennywise the clown from ‘It.’ But we were conscious, no knives, not any blood.”

Styler hopes to invite more collaboration on the wall.

“I’m trying to get female artists to get a whole female wall,” he said. “Their perspective is completely different from males, and it’s incredible the stuff they’re pulling out.”

Base and Styler both dream of working to instill the importance of art in the minds of Bronx kids. A father of two, Styler laments the lack of youth programs in the area.

Base dreams of recreating his own childhood experience — reaching out to build a one-one-one program with art-loving kids at the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center. 

As for the future, the artists plan as they go, getting together to paint every few weeks. Yet, Styler hopes the next mural will focus on the Pixar superheroes The Incredibles.

“The kids will know who it is right away,” he said, and at the end of the summer, it could be a perfect back-to-school painting for the kids in the neighborhood as they haul their backpacks down Bailey Avenue.