by Nancy E. McCarthy
Justin Suarez was 17 when he began painting graffiti around the Albany area. Though it was 2000 and by then graffiti was considered an art form, it was still illegal. Artists used tag names to conceal their identity. Suarez’s moniker was Mr. Prvrt (short for “pervert”). Provocative, yes, but Suarez explains: “I always have referred to the dictionary definition of the verb “to pervert” meaning to alter or change the meaning or course.”
Suarez is now a mural artist living in Rochester. He finally dropped Mr. Prvrt and signs his actual name. His works are branded under Aerosol Kingdom, which aptly describes his love of using aerosol paint to depict the animal kingdom in urban environments. Suarez’s finely detailed outdoor murals are mainly created freehand with spray paint and can be found all over Rochester, other U.S. cities and abroad.
“I am still astonished when I see the detail he achieves on his animal murals with spray paint. It’s truly something to behold in person,” says Erich Lehman, a longtime friend and collaborator who is owner/curator of 1975 gallery.
Birds of prey became Suarez’s preferred subject matter after painting an owl mural for Wild Wings (WW) in 2013. WW is a Honeoye Falls based not-for-profit organization that houses and cares for permanently injured birds. Suarez has since painted numerous murals for WW and has learned much about the raptors’ anatomies and personalities. “It’s really helped me get better at painting them,” Suarez says.
Animals were always a big part of his life. Suarez grew up on a farm in Nassau, near Albany. His parents were animal behaviorists and Suarez spent time with primates. His family even visited Kenya when he was six. Later, he would volunteer at a local zoo.
Suarez was also consumed with making art. “My mom used to love to tell people how my teachers would call home and complain that I spent more time drawing on my tests than I did answering the questions,” he says. There was no question he would be an art major in college. “I honestly couldn’t think of anything else I could picture myself doing,”
After his Associate’s Degree in Illustration at the Sage College of Albany (followed by a semester as a printmaking major), Suarez stumbled upon the technique of hand-cut spray painted stencils. He feverishly practiced this method on small and large scale works but making and using stencils was time-consuming. Eventually Suarez experimented and perfected his freehand style while picking up tips from other aerosol artists along the way
Suarez moved to Rochester in 2003 after visiting a friend attending Rochester Institute of Technology a few times. “Rochester had all the things I needed from a city—mainly other artists to be around,” says Suarez who also enjoys the area’s parks, diverse neighborhoods and unique restaurants.
Rochester quickly became home but even more so after finding his artist tribe. After Suarez met Sarah C. Rutherford, Michael Moncibaiz (a.k.a St. Monci), Lea Rizzo and Erich Lehman they formed an art collective in 2009. The Sweet Meat Company was an obscure tribute to the Hungerford Building where two colleagues rented art studios. Sweet meat is slang for candy and the building was formerly a fruit syrups and ice cream toppings factory.
The artists collaborated on large scale installation exhibits and a group mural. But as their respective solo art careers continued to evolve “scheduling for other major projects for the five of us became nearly impossible,” says Lehman. They now often work in pairs, especially on murals.
Rochester’s neighborhoods have been significantly brightened with a plethora of murals after Dr. Ian Wilson launched an annual street art festival in 2011. So far, WALL\THERAPY has produced over 130 murals by local and international artists. Lehman, also a graphic artist, initially helped with the website and branding but is now lead organizer and co-curates the artist roster and subject themes.
Suarez painted murals as part of WALL\THERAPY in 2012 (both Masked Woman and an owl series are by the Rochester Public Market’s South Union Street entrance) and 2013 (the untitled Heron and Toad is painted on the Premier Pastry building on South Avenue and untitled Fox and Rabbit is on the corner of South Avenue and Comfort Street).
“Without WALL\THERAPY, Erich and Ian, I do not know that I would be able to make a living doing what I love,” says Suarez. “They really paved the way for our city to become aware of, and embrace contemporary mural arts.”
Suarez moved on to produce commissioned works and started his volunteer association with Wild Wings. “Working up close with those birds has made me a better artist, and person, in countless ways,” he says. In addition to murals, he designed bird prints used on fundraising items. He is now a raptor handler and educational program docent.
“Justin works incredibly hard helping to care for the animals whether it’s through his hands-on work at the facility or through his artwork,” says Executive Director Terry Kozakiewicz. “He is a wonderful and talented artist whose work not only enhances the Wild Wings facility but also countless places throughout our community”
Sarah Rutherford is one of Suarez’s frequent mural collaborators. They painted some WW murals together, many more in Rochester; Burlington, Vermont; Jackson Mississippi; and even in Berlin, Germany! The Jackson mural, produced last summer during the Bright Walls mural festival, was 50 feet high—the tallest Suarez has ever created.
Suarez and Rutherford, along with muralist Brittany Williams, serve as Public Art Coordinators for Roc Paint Division, the City of Rochester’s Youth Mural Arts Program. Its mission is “to beautify the city’s Rec Centers through mural arts while providing employment and training opportunities to young developing artists.” Just finishing its fifth season, the program has grown from seven teenage students to 14.
It came full circle for Suarez when the students partnered with WALL\THERAPY to produce a mural at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park in 2019. “Our concept was to depict young musicians, living and creating within our city,” Suarez explains. “As young living artists ourselves, it felt great to be celebrating the life and creativity of our city.”
ROC Paint and Wild Wings keeps Suarez anchored in Rochester until summer when he typically travels for mural painting. But “the art world is a little up in the air right now, with the state of everything surrounding Covid-19,” he says. Many projects were cancelled or pushed out. “I am hoping that things will clear up sooner than later,” he says. “If given the choice, I would love to be painting on a wall outside every single day.”
The Artist’s Process
Suarez takes a picture of the wall before beginning the design process. Then, using Photoshop, he creates and lays his images directly onto the wall photo. This helps him to plan better and gives building owners and clients a way to envision how the final mural will look.
When ready to paint the mural, Suarez physically “sketches” the design on the wall using transparent black and white spray paints. “The sprays have more solvent than pigment, which means that the paint does not come out opaque,” he explains. “The feel of this could easily be compared to using a black or white charcoal pencil.”
The sketch is key. “Dialing that in before you start to paint is a huge part of setting yourself up for success,” says Suarez. Next up: the basic fill to get everything covered quickly as possible with base colors. “Then comes the fun part, the details!” he says.
The spray paints Suarez primarily uses are a brand called MTN 94. This paint is specifically designed for outdoor mural use and holds up well to the elements. When he works on very large surfaces, Suarez occasionally uses an industrial sprayer and house paint to fill in the largest areas. Since he primarily paints animals, a lot of his color palette involves earth tones.
Learn more at aerosolkingdom.com