Army soldier, graffiti artist is making his mark at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and on Anchorage streets
By MARC LESTER | The Alaska Dispatch News | Published: October 10, 2020
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Tribune News Service) — For mural artist and soldier Spc. Andrew Garcia, the view from Point Woronzof is getting better all the time.
Garcia has painted here occasionally for three years. With his headphones on and his spray can in hand, he spends hours adrift in creativity, combining bold lettering and images with electric colors and inspirational messages.
“I don’t feel in reality when I spray paint like this,” Garcia said, looking at his most recent light- and electricity-themed creation.
“I’ll be here for a good 12 hours, and the next day my toes will feel sore and swollen…,” he said. “It’s not just your wrists or your hands. It’s your whole body that has to produce a big mural, and that’s the best part about it.”
Ideas crackle in his head like Pop Rocks candy, he said. But what he couldn’t have imagined until recently is his own transformation from the clandestine artist to a forward-facing community member who wants to paint for a greater good.
Point Woronzof is one place where those worlds meet. For decades, the Alaska Water and Wastewater Utility beach tower has been overrun with eyesore-grade graffiti, a situation made more extensive when large boulders were brought in to slow erosion.
In that landscape, Garcia’s work stands apart. He paints on a section of wall near an equipment access door built into the hillside atop the bluff. Whether he should paint there at all is questionable, but it’s hard to imagine it would look better if he didn’t. Every inch is sprayed over by others and has been for years.
Increasingly around Anchorage, where the 26-year-old active-duty soldier wants to make his home after his Army commitment ends, people are noticing his work. Some reach out to thank him, struck by his words of encouragement. His most recent mural reads, “Let your light shine so bright that others can see their way out of the dark.”
Others have begun calling on him to improve areas ruined by tags and foul language. His art is taking off like the deafening planes overhead.
“I got stopped once over here,” Garcia said, motioning to his Woronzof wall as a light rain fell this month. “They just asked me if they could take pictures of it.”
“Back in Texas, it wasn’t like that,” he said.
On the move
Garcia said he had never left Texas before he joined the Army in 2016. He was born and raised in San Antonio, and his large family struggled financially, he said. In school, Garcia felt out of place. He remembers getting worksheet handouts in class and immediately flipping them to the blank side for space to draw.
“I never took an art class in my life,” he said.
Graffiti-style art, with its hard-to-read lettering that seemed like a secret language, caught his attention at about age 13. His mom let him practice with $1 spray cans on pizza boxes stapled to a fence in his yard.
After high school, he supported himself with various jobs and painted by night on the San Antonio streets. One night when he was 19, he and a friend got busted on top of a three-story building that housed a bar. His partner was spotted and the building was quickly surrounded by cops.
“The way they approached the situation was really aggressive, because they thought we were trying to break in the bar and take stuff,” Garcia said.
Garcia spent 14 hours in jail before he was released. He thought about how disappointed his mother would be. He walked home with no ID, no phone and no laces in his shoes, all of which had been taken at the jail and handed off to his dad.
“I gotta do something with my life,” he told himself that day. “I can’t be doing this.”
In the weeks after, he visited several military recruiting offices, thinking his spray painting days were over. It took more than a year to enlist in the Army, in part because he had to save for cosmetic surgery to repair the holes in his ears left by the 1-inch gauges he wore. But even during basic training and Airborne School in 2016, he drew designs in a notebook during down time, dreaming of working with spray cans again.
“Everyone told me to stop doing it..,” he said. “I know it wasn’t the right intention back then, but I loved doing it. I just had to find a way.”
Painting for the Army
Spc. Garcia arrived in Alaska in 2017 to serve as a rigger, an equipment expert who supports airdrop operations, for the Army’s 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division. When he wasn’t inspecting and packing parachutes and jumping out of airplanes, he asked his leaders if he could paint a mural on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
“I always told them, ‘Hey, let me paint the break room. I’ll do something really cool for them,’” he said.
In 2019, they relented.
“Shoot, this is my shot. I gotta show them what I can do,” he recalled thinking.
Garcia painted the 241st Brigade Aerial Delivery Support Company logo, and added his “flavor” with details, color and depth.
“It blew everyone’s mind. They had never seen anything like that,” he said. “Army doesn’t look at graffiti.”
Sgt. Ranfgael Rosa, who has been in charge of Garcia from 2018 until recently, said the mural became part of the company’s official identity.
Word traveled up the chain of command. Soon, Garcia was making murals for his battalion’s leadership, then at the brigade’s headquarters. Rosa said at first Garcia did his painting after his workday as a parachute rigger, a job at which Garcia was one of his best, Rosa said. Eventually, Garcia got more leeway to solely paint murals.
“For the last year, he’s been doing projects left and right,” Rosa said.
Garcia said the Army helped get his “head straight” when he needed it most, and his sharp, symmetrical military painting projects have refined his skills. His 10-day project for the 4-25th headquarters challenged his abilities to add a three-dimensional quality. It also includes a large steel Spartan helmet that protrudes from the wall. He worried it might be “too much” for the Army audience, but reaction has been overwhelmingly positive since he finished it in July.
“I challenged myself and I succeeded and I killed it,” he said. “And I was proud and I got to stick my chest out.”
Still, his Army art never replaced his desire to paint on the streets.
When weather permits, he occasionally repaints the wall at Point Woronzof, a place that graffiti has come to be expected, even if it isn’t sanctioned. Sandy Baker, public outreach coordinator for AWWU, said its spaces at Point Woronzof have been a magnet for graffiti for decades.
“It doesn’t affect how the system works. Aesthetically, it is what it is, right? But trying to keep up on something like that becomes cost-prohibitive, because it does not affect the system and we have to be very conscientious of ratepayers' money,” Baker said.
Garcia said his mission is to improve places that have already been sprayed with “inappropriate graffiti.” “I don’t just go to random spots that (are) clear and gray. I go to spots that are already tagged over,” he said. “And I like to send a positive message for that spot.”
His street art also contains an element of accountability: He signs his work with his handle, “Vow-one,” and mentions his social media feeds and website, which includes his name and contact information. It’s no mystery who he is.
“At this point, I just feel like if my intentions are good, I don’t think anything bad will follow,” Garcia said.
“If they’re going to get upset with me doing something good for the community and cleaning up the neighborhood and making it look nice, then by all means they can come at me.”
Garcia said he has been approached by law enforcement in Alaska twice while painting murals to cover up spots overrun with tags, profanity and sloppy paint. One instance resulted in a $500 fine. He said he now wants to focus on painting where he has permission and hopes the days of having people call the cops on him are over.
This year more than ever, Garcia has connected with requested opportunities in Anchorage neighborhoods.
In spring, he was invited to paint a concrete wall along Hyder Street near 10th Avenue that had long been vandalized. Anchorage Assembly member Christopher Constant connected with Garcia through George Martinez, then special assistant to the mayor. Both Constant and Martinez thought the mural could be part of lasting improvements.
“It’s a known tactic, practice to activate a space, do something positive. The neighbors will take ownership of it and you’ll see a shift,” Constant said.
“If it feels neglected, people will tend to treat it that way,” Martinez said.
Constant said Garcia’s past run-ins with the law didn’t give him pause.
“I do my best to help provide opportunities for people who may have been in trouble for this or that to make good for themselves,” Constant said. “And this is just one of those perfect examples, where he kind of looked up and said, ‘OK, maybe I don’t have to do this the way I’ve been doing it. Let’s do it different (and) get permission.’”
Several other artists helped Garcia on the 10-day project in April and May. He covered the paint costs himself. Appreciative community members sometimes gathered while he worked.
“You get the goosebumps off stuff like that,” Garcia said.
In 2019, Garcia created a large “Welcome to Girdwood” mural under the Alyeska Highway bridge at Glacier Creek during Forest Fair weekend. This summer, some Girdwood residents invited him back to replace racist graffiti that had shown up elsewhere under the same bridge. John O’Leary, who owns The Grind coffeehouse in Girdwood, organized a fundraiser.
“It’s really hard to pigeonhole him in the category of graffiti, because he obviously puts time and effort into it, and a lot of planning. He’s very thoughtful with his color scheming,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary said there was some pushback about the mural project online, but more people voiced support. Kyle Kelley, the Girdwood Valley Service Area Manager for the city, said approving the project isn’t in his purview because it’s a Department of Transportation right of way, but he hasn’t heard complaints. Kelley noticed that Garcia’s murals have largely gone undisturbed by other graffiti.
“People don’t want to destroy this huge piece that you can tell took a lot of hours to get done,” Kelley said.
Department of Transportation spokesperson Shannon McCarthy said anyone wanting to make improvements in the DOT right-of-way should contact them to apply for a beautification permit.
For the most recent Girdwood mural, 31 people donated a total of $1,295, according to the project’s GoFundMe webpage. The money covered Garcia’s expenses for the mural, which includes an eagle, a salmon and the words “Peace. Love. Unity.” He contributed leftover money for a community cookout.
“I know that I was trying to encourage him, like ‘Hey, is your money. You definitely earned it.’ But, he wasn’t looking for that,” O’Leary said.
Garcia likes to talk about wanting his murals to “break necks,” his slang for turning heads. But he had his own whiplash in early October, standing on a Fairview street surrounded by the co-chairs of the Alaska Legislature’s Joint Armed Service’s Committee, the commander of the U.S. Army Alaska (USARAK) and dozens of friends, neighbors and fellow soldiers.
All came to applaud his work with spray paint, something that once led him to jail.
Sen. Josh Revak and Rep. Geran Tarr gave Garcia a framed letter of recognition. Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak gave Garcia a commander’s coin and asked for one more JBER mural, this time at the USARAK headquarters.
“It’s one thing to live the Army values. It’s another thing to take it in the free time that you have and do that,” Andrysiak said of the Fairview project.
John Bitney, who lives on the property adjacent to the wall, said the wall had for years attracted profane and gang-related graffiti. When the city covered it up, it returned in days. Weekly, Bitney cleaned up bottles and needles on that stretch of sidewalk.
“And now? This (mural) was done in May, and as you can see, it’s largely untouched,” Bitney said.
Garcia shyly spoke just a few words at the ceremony’s conclusion.
“I never thought I’d get any recognition or anything like this,” he said. “I just wanted to bring my community together.”
The artist had little time to bask in the moment. He hoped to start work on his next project right away. It’s his biggest yet, a 50-by-40-foot piece for the Anchorage Museum’s Alaska Mural Project on its downtown SEED Lab building.
“They want to see my artwork, so I’m going to show them what I can do,” Garcia said.
"I think the lettering I want to do is ‘Dream Big’,” he said.