The death of George Floyd ignited protests across the country. But some communities also experienced looting. Aurora was one of them. A local artist used graffiti to help beautify what was destroyed. WNIJ delved into the history of this “City of Lights” artist.
Sam Cervantes was driving through the city’s downtown area on his way to work.
“This is at 8:30 in the morning and there's just droves of people with brooms and dustpans,” he said.
Then he saw them boarding up windows.
One of his friends has a nutrition shop in the area. It’s called Nuevo Amanecer Tienda Naturista. He said that day she asked him to paint a positive message outside of her vandalized store.
He said he left work, went home, changed his clothes and headed downtown.
“I had this concept when she told me 'Aurora Strong.' I’m like, you know, everybody's doing that,” he said.
Cervantes had a different idea.
“We're going to come out stronger so I was like I'm going to do 'Aurora Stronger,'” he said. “I put a, you know, big old “S,” make the 'Stronger' nice and big and bold and the Aurora really, really pretty because you know, we're a pretty city.”
Cervantes said the Bella Jewelry next door also wanted him to paint on its boarded-up shop.
He didn’t know what to paint at first. Then it hit him.
“I thought back to that mural that I did on St. Nick's and ‘Erase Racism,' I'm like, I got to do that,” he said.
He said he first painted that phrase in 1994.
“That's a powerful statement that stuck with me throughout all the years,” he shared.
This, he said, is the 2020 version.
Cervantes said he posted pictures on Facebook and things blew up. He received a call from Jen Byrne Evans. She’s Aurora’s director of public art. She asked if he could meet her downtown around noon that day.
“I was like ‘Sure I'll be there. I have a little lunch break at 11:30. I can meet you guys down there for a little bit.’ And then that’s just when everybody started painting," he said.
Cervantes said he is an "all-around hip-hop artist."
“I DJ too, I’ve been DJing since like ‘89. Because music and art go hand in hand. I was always really talented in music too,” he said.
Cervantes is also part of the hip-hop group Them Bad Apples or TBA.
This group partners with the nonprofit group Culture Stock to produce the On the Wall: Urban Arts Festival. This would have been the seventh year for the event, but Cervantes said he isn’t sure it will happen now because of COVID-19.
The self-proclaimed “Rogue” one said he was drawing as far back as preschool. He said he came up with that name from watching X-Men.
“I guess you can say it's my tag name. Being in the hip-hop world and then, you know, being a DJ and a graffiti artist. I kind of picked up the name in the mid-80s,” he said.
Cervantes said when he looked up the word rogue he saw a few meanings. One was a thief but he said he wasn’t that. Another said a playfully mischievous person. But the last meaning really caught his attention.
“There was another one like when an elephant goes rogue, you know, he goes mad, goes on a rampage, and all those,” he said. “Yeah, you know, elephant being one of my favorite animals, I was kind of just like alright, I'm going to start writing rogue."
He said he remembers his first graffiti mural called “Think About It.” He completed this with the help of friends.
“Yeah, it was on the corner of Union and Claim which was one of the biggest gang neighborhoods you know, the neighborhood I grew up in,” he recalled.
Cervantes attended Brady Elementary, just a couple of blocks away from that mural.
Cervantes said he wanted children to think about things before they took part in the violence that was going on.
“Do a grim reaper behind it, do a cemetery and do like this kid holding the gun out,” he said. “A b-boy character holding the gun -- but out, kind of like offering it to you,” he said.
He shared the message was that death would come to you, if you took the gun.
Cervantes said the mural was controversial because some people in the community didn’t understand it. He said they thought it was promoting gang violence.
Cervantes said he did get permission to put the artwork on the building from the owner, so it wasn’t immediately removed.
Cervantes said he did more murals but Aurora came up with rules that, he said, didn’t allow him to send messages the way he wanted to.
Cervantes said there were stipulations around the design and the size of the murals. He said he, along with other artists, went to City Hall to try to change things.
“That's the whole power of a mural is to be big and bold and, and the City wasn't having it," he said. "And to this day, they're still not having it.”
Cervantes said he understands that everyone has their own interpretation of art but he doesn’t like it when it is destroyed.
“I'm not a negative person by any means. My whole objective was always to uplift the community to bring art and culture to the community," he said.
Cervantes said a few years ago, he spoke with Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin about a concept that he had.
He painted huge wings on a wall at La France Bakery called “Hope Wings Aurora.”
“Richard actually acknowledged me in front of the aldermen, in front of the City Council, which was pretty cool because I always considered them to be not my enemy,” he said. “But like, they didn't appreciate what I was doing,” he said.
He said he was flabbergasted by what followed.
“But after all that happened and you know, I've got my standing ovation and the mayor awarded me with a holiday on my birthday,” he said.
His birthday is Feb. 13.
Cervantes had his own art shop for a few years. Now he does small projects from home and his work with TBA.
Cervantes said he wants the city to open up more when it comes to the graffiti.
“Let the artists create, you know, let them be themselves,” he said.
He said there are lots of spaces in Aurora that can be updated.
“With art and positive messages and just you know, inspire the kids,” he said. "Because that's what it's all about, raising up a generation of positive leaders for the future.”
Cervantes has children of his own.
Cervantes said he is getting older and a time will come when he is unable to climb ladders. But he said he wants to do as much art as he can.
- Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project which is a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms.