Francis Virella is a Righteous Man

Photo by Ash Hoden

I first met Francis Virella in the East Village. It was late at night and I was out having drinks with a friend. The two of us were standing on the sidewalk in front of a bar, talking with a girl who had stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. That’s when Francis rolled up. He flashed before our eyes two samples of his work; rectangles cut from a shower curtain and adorned with erratic multi-hued smears of nail polish. He was skinny and his hands were dirty, as though too many hours had passed since his last shower or warm dinner. His nail polish paintings were on sale for twenty bucks. “I’m gonna be famous,” he told us. I thought he was high. The girl with the cigarette asked why he wasn’t in the homeless shelter. It was December in New York City. Her question smacked of bourgeois pity — simultaneously denigrating and concerned. I knew he spoke the truth when he said that the shelters were full of lunatics and people in need of mental health services that no longer existed; that he hated to go there because it made him feel crazy too. Sometimes he actually wished he was crazy enough to tolerate those places. “I’m sure that’s exactly how the shelters are,” I said. Two weeks later Mayor Bill de Blasio said the same thing on the local news: rejecting the shelters was a sign of mental health.

Francis turned and inspected me more closely, saying, “You look like a king.” My scraggly shoulder-length hair hung in tangles beneath a blue stocking cap. I wore jeans and sneakers and a black winter coat with no collar and zippers on the sleeves. Small hoop earrings, one in each ear. I had no job, no prospects, and a book manuscript that nobody wanted to publish. I looked and felt nothing kingly. “You must be talking about my friend here,” I said, extending my arms like Vanna White. My friend routinely wore a hand-stitched suit with a perfectly creased kerchief precision-tucked into his left breast pocket — not too high and not too low. Eight-hundred dollar shoes. A tie. He is known to have claimed on multiple occasions that his name, when translated to English, just so happens to mean “king,” and he was doing all that he could to present himself as such. From there Francis and my royal friend spun off into their own dialogue. I turned my attention to the girl with the cigarette and she made fun of my “little mustache and earrings” before going inside.

Six months later I spotted Francis in Chinatown, strutting the streets with a painted canvas rolled up and slung over his shoulder. I chased him down and told him about this new project of mine. We exchanged numbers and spoke of the future. Text messages came and went. Appointments were made and unmade. I threw in the towel, figuring I’d never pin the guy down. Weeks passed. Then he sent me a message: “Wassup”. I responded, asking how he’s been.

“Im alive ive been checking out your stuff i think u have some crazy stories to tell”.

Indeed, but it’s time to tell other people’s stories.

We scheduled a time to meet. And when that time neared I asked to push it back thirty minutes. I was running late.

“Ive been up all night im sill willing to do the interview but do you mind a change in location?”

We had planned to meet in Chelsea because he rejected my first suggestion to meet in Union Square and take it from there: “union is overrun with bums and ppl playing pokemon”. I told him I didn’t mind changing locations but we could do it another time if we needed to.

“We’ve pushed it back for a while im runnin on addy bring some pot or a drink if u can il be fine”.

I didn’t know what to expect when we met in Chinatown, where he was crashing with a friend. Considering that our talk followed an adderall-infused all-nighter, he was in good form. I bought him a beer and we hiked six flights of stairs to the roof of his friend’s building. I asked if he was from New York.

“New York City born and raised. I was born in Brooklyn. Crown Heights.”

Did you grow up there?

“I grew up for the lower half of my life in Brooklyn, but due to family circumstances and money and all this other shit it kind of forced me to move around a lot.”

You were living with your family?

“I grew up with my mom, my step-father, and my mom had six kids. Three of them from my father. My big brother’s name is Francisco, my big sister’s name is Francesca, I was stuck with Francis. And I have three younger sisters who I’m going to keep their name out because of their age, but I love them very dearly. I didn’t grow up with my father. He was a heroin addict. And he was just, not a great example. My mother left him right before I was born.”

So you guys had to move around a lot? She was trying to take care of you guys and make it in the city?

“Exactly. All the while trying to keep her faith.”

She’s religious?

“My family is very religious. From as long as I can remember ’til about the age of fourteen I had gone every Sunday Tuesday Thursday and even Saturdays to church. To Pentecostal church.”

How was that for you?

“At the time I’d call it traumatizing. Now I would call it extremely enlightening.”

Church? Really?

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with religion. There is absolutely a lot wrong with humanity and the way they portray religion; how the people in charge, the leaders, go about scrutinizing what it is they’re supposed to be preaching. We’re in a generation and a time [in which] there’s not a lot of people to look up to. At least for a fair reason. At least for a good reason. People are turning to politics. People are turning to music, art, and all these other things.”

You’re able to separate the people from the message of religion?

“I believe not in religion, but in righteousness. I believe that there is knowing to do the right thing, and doing it. I know plenty of people who know to do the right thing and don’t do it. And regardless of whether they’re religious or not, still are righteous. We can all determine right from wrong. It’s very clear. A very very very precise, very very defined line. I’m trying to walk the right kind of path. I believe that everybody has their own calling, their own story, their own lifestyle, their own problems. Everything happens in their own psyche. The world around us is all brought to us by our own focus. Our focus determines our reality. That’s a quote from Kwi-gon Jin. Star Wars: Episode 1.”

So right and wrong is defined on an individual level?

“I bring it back to righteousness, man. A lot of people are gluttonous. And we don’t even recognize it because we’re so blind to it. Because of media and everything. It’s not going anywhere good if we don’t make it go somewhere good.”

In church, bouncing around New York — what was growing up for you? What were you doing?

“Growing up I was chasing girls. I was doing my best to find myself. I tried a lot of different forms of art. That’s why I can’t just call myself a painter anymore. I recognized that I’m more of a polymath. I saw an interview with Salvadore Dali, or it was like some gameshow, and nobody could guess who he was because every time they asked him a question as to what he did, he kept saying, ‘Yes.’ Every question they asked he said, ‘Yes.’ And I was like, ‘You know what, I feel the same way. Can I write? Yes. Can I paint? Yes. Can I read? Yes. Can I act? Yes. I can do anything if I put my mind to it. Yes. Benjamin Franklin, the only guy on the dollar bill that wasn’t a president in America — before the Harriet Tubman comes — he was a polymath. He was great at doing everything that he put his hands to. And I aspire to be like that. Every day.”

Did you recognize this when you were young? Whatever you put your energy into, you could make work?

“I could put it to you like this: I always knew I wanted to be different. I always knew I had to create a way to stand out, and I knew that it wasn’t from my social class, you know what I mean. I wasn’t comin’ in with the newest kicks. I was doing everything to rebel from the positions I was being put in. When I was in kindergarten one of my first memories of art was me bringing home a drawing of stick figures of my family. And on all of the women I put circles for boobs and all the guys I put lines between their legs for dicks. When I brought it home to show my mom, I was so proud of it and she was laughing at me. I remember I ran into the bathroom and I cried. It was horrible. It was terrible.”

She was laughing at you because it was funny?

“They were laughing at the irony of it; me being young and coming home with this really provocative drawing at such a young age.”

She wasn’t upset, she just thought it was hilarious?

Photo by Ash Hoden

I was upset. I was so upset. I wanted my shit on the refrigerator. I wanted my stuff to be celebrated and held up, you know what I mean.”

It was like not being treated seriously?

“And imagine being treated that way everywhere you went. Now I mentioned I was in the pentacostal church… I’m very light skinned-ded. Let me just put it like this: it was a huge difference in the way that I felt about myself as opposed to everybody else in church — how they felt about themselves and how they felt about me. I was always looked at as an outsider. I was always looked at like [I was] a brat.”

How they felt about themselves?

“Themselves. Yeah. They had more confidence than me. Like, there was the girl in my choir that I wanted. Even to this day! Man! Ugh. I don’t want to say her name. That one girl from church. She wanted to get with the drummer, you know what I mean. And I was just this awkward, not cool kid. I knew I was put in a position that I was made to feel different. It was just like a cocoon. When I got into high school and kind of broke away from allowing my life to be decided for me, I started to make my own decisions—”

That was in high school?

“Yeah. I kind of, like, created a persona [and] brainwashed myself into it. And still to this day I’m brainwashing myself. For good reason. I know a lot of people might think it’s crazy, but, everything is crazy and delusional before it comes into fruition. That’s a quote by Kanye West.”

That’s a pretty good quote.

“I mean, a lot of people would disregard that quote because it came from him, but it’s a good quote. I feel as though success can only come if you take action from the vision you have. And even when that action hits a wall you keep smacking it head first anyway. It’s like in Kill Bill. When you’re in a coffin and you’ve only got so much space, you keep punching that… You don’t know how thick that wood is, but you know you’re going to punch it and you’ve gotta have enough strength to dig yourself out afterwards. I was born in that coffin! What do I have to lose?! I’m diggin’ myself out now. I know I’m out of that coffin. I know I’m out of that feeling of being belittled; smaller than everybody. Now I feel so gigantic.”

That’s the coffin — how the world sees you?

“Because of class. Because of the time we live in right now. With all of the ignorance and chaos happening in the world — that a lot of New Yorkers and Americans are doing really great jobs at ignoring. I just recognize that this is a calling. If I have the will, then anything is possible. That’s really what keeps me going. Not because I think I’m the shit. It’s just because in those times when I really don’t feel like I’m shit at all, that’s when people come and lift me up! Those times when I least expect it. It’s like I’m ready to break down and quit everything, and then somebody will come around. For example — this is a really good example. I was on the train one day and I was showing my art work with all of the intent of trying to get out of the broke-ass situation I was in. And nobody was helping me. Nobody! I was telling everybody who the hell I am. Standing there asking for support. Not help. Not a donation. Support! Something to make me feel better. I didn’t have no money. It was bad enough I didn’t have no money, just don’t ignore me now. I go on to the next cart on the train, feeling so aggravated. And standing in the place that I would stand to show my artwork to everybody was a blind man. Rather than asking him to get out the way, or anything like that, I told him exactly who I was. I told him exactly what I was about to do; explained to him the artwork. And he told me he was born blind, so it created a very interesting… I immediately knew that saying the word ‘blue’ meant nothing to him. I had to explain to him the cool — the freezing touch of that painting — because it was painted completely blue. And it was huge. And I was like, ‘Sir, I know you can’t see the painting but would you like to feel it?’ He reached out his hand and he felt the painting. And he asked me, ‘So, what are you trying to be? A millionaire?’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Hell yeah!’ He said, ‘Damn dude, I’m just a dollar short.’ And me and him chuckle and laugh on the train. It was a really good moment. Then he goes on to tell me that he’s an art collector. And then he goes on to say that most artists only make it when they’re dead. And I said to him, ‘I am not one of them.’ He reached into his pocket and gave me forty dollars. You know, I broke down. Not over the money. Not over the fact that he was blind. I didn’t pity this man, or nothin’ like that. It was simply that it took for me to meet and approach, say, two hundred people, [and] it was the one person who couldn’t see that supported me the most. The one person who didn’t need to see the abstraction. He inspired me! He made me realize I can’t quit!”

And he’s an art collector too?

Photo by Ash Hoden

“Well he says this, you know what I mean. Lord knows what this guy does or who he is. We didn’t exchange numbers. I don’t even remember his name. I hope he remembers my name. I just know that that situation is worth talking about right now. It’s one of those defining moments. I’ve had countless. I want to say hundreds. I want to say thousands. But countless.”

You were thinking of giving up?

“It’s very difficult to say “give up,” because giving up means suicide. I walk around New York City. I see people lying on the streets — not even on the street, on the sidewalk in the heat. People shaking their cups asking for money, who have two hands, two legs, and a brain. I may be in whatever situation, but I’ve learned the secret. The secret is, honestly, the world is run by synergy. Synergy is an invisible energy that brings people together at the appropriate times to create movement; to create the motion towards what it is that’s supposed to happen. This is one of my huge beliefs: faith is stronger than hope. Remember, I told you I’m not religious, I’m righteous? I’m a very righteous man. When I go out… I’m sure this was the same mentality I had when I met you’re friend—”

I interrupt him and recall the events of the night that we first encountered each other. My kingly friend and the girl with the cigarette pooled their money to buy one of his shower curtain and nail polish paintings. The girl was entrusted to keep it but the following day she wrote to say that the painting had been stolen during her drunken night out.

“Whatever the circumstances, I appreciate it. It’s kind of cool to know that somebody stole my painting from somebody.”

Do you want to know the circumstances? I ask, before explaining how he had said that the city’s homeless shelters were full of crazy people and he sometimes wished he was crazy so he could tolerate going there.

“I can tell you something, and this is in all honesty: I’ve only stayed at the men’s shelter on 30th Street one time in my entire life. It was on a cold winter night and I had gone there stupid drunk. Like so drunk man! I didn’t want to go there in a sober state of mind ‘cause I would literally drive myself nuts. I’d twiddle my thumbs and I’d just walk out and stay in the cold. Except I got there… I didn’t even fall asleep, funny enough. I just sat there and I did twiddle my thumbs. And the morning came and there was this man, he was in a wheelchair. I wanted to go to the welfare office to apply for that “Eat Better Today” card — that EBT card. And he just so happened to have to go to the same place. So he approached me in his wheelchair and said to me that he felt that out of everybody, I was probably the coolest looking person around. He told me that, because of him being in a wheelchair, he couldn’t push himself through the snow. So I pushed this man through the snow. We went together. He hooked me up wit’ a sammich and a bunch of cigarettes. Dude, I believe that I only went to that men’s shelter to meet that man. Seriously. It’s insane. I know so many people in New York City. I don’t have the luxury to say that I have nowhere to go. A lot of people are depending on me. A lot of people are saying, ‘Francis stop ending up in bullshit situations all the time.’”

How are they depending on you?

“Well, I have a lot of people who have invested time, money, resources, and wisdom in me. And let’s just say that I intake everything and spit it out in my own way. Seriously. When you have confidence — when you have the know-how and you have the product — you can go out there and make money at a fast pace. And when it comes fast, spend even faster. Rockstar lifestyle, man. And I’m not saying that to say that I do heavy drugs or anything like that. No, I just…” He sings: “I’ve been down so god-damn long, that it looks like up to me… I forgot the name of that band, but it’s a good-ass song.”

The Doors.

“Is it The Doors? Alright, all-in-all, I chose this lifestyle and I have faith that as long as I discipline myself in this lifestyle, I can make it. At this very moment I am not completely disciplined.”

Disciplined in what way? In doing art every day?

“Know thyself and you shall know the secrets of the gods. Basically, like being able to hold composure in certain situations. I met a couple celebrities and in certain situations I could not hold my composure. Mainly because I’m an opportunist, and a glutton. Which is a very, very bad combination, and it makes people wary of me for good reason. I don’t try to take advantage of people, I try to take advantage of situations. I’m an opportunist. Make what I have work. I’m known to do that. And… Uhhh…. I forgot what we were talking about. What were we talkin’ about?”

Discipline.

“You see! I got no discipline! This is what I’m talkin’ about.”

The other thing that happened that night when we met… You said I looked like a king and I said, ‘You must be talking about my friend.’ Then you guys went off on your own. Later, he told me that you were bowing down to him on the street. I didn’t see that part. Is there something to that?

“Fuck yeah. Let’s put it like this: at the end of the day I am the greatest at being me. Anybody out there who can declare that same thing for themselves gets all praise from me. Anybody who can show me a mirror of my own confidence, even when I don’t have it at that moment, they deserve a bow. Praise. They need to know that this energy, this eccentricity, is still out and about in the world. We’re not alone. We’re not.”

Totally nailed it. My friend is absolutely the person who will tell you how great he is.

“And it makes me sound crazy when you say it.”

He was sort of caught off guard. But he’s the kind of guy who loves being pr—

“I mean it to [be that way]. You can imagine that doing that kind of gesture is definitely something that people don’t get on a daily basis. It’s just a way of me showing my endearment to other great people. I believe in affirmations. I have this affirmation I tell myself like seventy times a day. Remember I told you I brainwash myself? My affirmation is, ‘Success and prosperity flow towards me in a river of abundance.’ By saying that over and over and over and over again… It’s not like the White Lotus Sutra or namaste or anything like that. It’s something clear, straight to the point. By saying that I take that chip of negativity out of my mind and replace it with positivity. I put a huge grin on my face no matter how I feel inside, and I go on. I have nothing better to do.”

When did you start to paint?

“Like I said, when I was in high school I did a lot of different things. I had gone into high school for playing the saxophone.”

So you were growing up on music?

“I was growing up on what my momma told me to do.”

And that was music and church?

Photo by Ash Hoden

“Music and church and… Yeah, so she just felt like being in the band was something that would progress me and my talents. I did acting in high school. I did playwriting. I turned to fashion design. I started ripping up clothes and doing silkscreens and all different types of stuff. Something happened to me: guy comes up to me in Union Square with a clip board, and I’m sitting with a girl. She’s hot and I just met her. I don’t know how this guy identified the situation, but he did. He asked me a whole bunch of financial questions. I lied about everything. Every single question he asked me, I lied about. Bigging myself up. Making it seem like I make a lot of money. I’m doing a lot of things. And at the very end of it he asked me for a dollar. It kind of threw me off guard. ‘Damn dude! In front of the girl?! I gotta give you a dollar now.’ And he goes on to say: ‘If you ask six million people for a dollar you’d end up with a million dollars.’ That’s when I recognized: ‘Oh shit, he’s right. Oh my god he’s super-duper right! He may have caught me in the weirdest way ever, but he’s freakin’ right! I live in New York City! How many millions of people are around here?! I gotta start fuckin’ goin’ out there! I gotta start promotin’!’ I know that if I have the charisma and the know-how to step up, present myself, and not only have my work speak for itself, but speak for myself and the feelings of those around me — not like a prophet or anything like that — but, like Neo. Like Neo, dude. Seriously, I’m the one. And I don’t mean it to sound arrogant or to big myself up. I feel this way because I don’t see anybody else doing it for me. I just don’t see the next person in my group or bracket, age-wise or class-wise or American-wise, that’s going to step up if I don’t do it. And I feel that way. I’m not asking people to look up to me. I’m asking people to understand. And even when they don’t — know who I am. Because those who do understand will create value from it. That’s why I go freakin’ hard man. I go stupid-hard bro. I make myself look like an asshole a lot of the times, just tryinna get my name into somebody’s ears.”

How do you do it?

“So many ways, man. Honestly, let’s just put it like this: I treat my art and my lifestyle like a Jehovah’s Witness would. I go to hell if I don’t let you know who I am. That kind of thing. Like, if you don’t know who I am and I let you miss the opportunity to find out — and not get free wine, cheese, and crackers, and have a good time with me — then I’m doing something wrong; I’m not being the greatest that I can be. I don’t allow opportunities to pass me by. I was blessed to be featured for the second time in Chelsea, at a very young age. I was featured in a gallery right next door to Pace gallery. And under that gallery was SIR studios, where 50 Cent recorded his latest album. My debut had happened and I was outside having a photoshoot, holding a painting, and his Lamborghini was parked in front of the gallery. Nobody knew whose Lamborghini it was. Everybody just knew that I was standing out there lookin’ fly as shit, holding my painting, inviting people to come up to my show with a Lambo parked in front of me and people taking pictures of me.”

(I’m laughing.)

“Seriously! The visual was, ‘Yo, I must be that guy.’ Next thing you know, the entourage comes out of SIR and the word is starting to get around. ‘Oh shit, it’s 50 Cent. Oh my god, oh my god. Francis, yo, you gotta try to get his attention.’ And mind you, I freakin’ grew up on 50. I’m not even gonna get into it. When 50 Cent walked out of that place and was surrounded by his entourage… I had already spoken to people in that entourage to try to get clarity as to whether they could introduce me; make sure that they knew that I’m the youngest artist featured in Chelsea, above the studio where you’re doing your album, or whatever. So, basically it came to reveal itself that I couldn’t walk up to the guy. He was too surrounded by his entourage. But he’s literally like five feet away from me, and I’m standing here looking at what I thought was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m right here. He’s right there. And we’re both working in the same area. All in all, I told 50 Cent that I would get rich or die trying. To his face. He looked at me, immediately turned his back on me, got in his Lambo. One of my heroes turned his back on me in a time when all I needed was… Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. If you’re not prepared for your own luck then it’s not gonna happen. My mother didn’t think I was gonna graduate high school, and I did. But prior to it I told her I wanted to be an artist. My mother disagreed. A hundred percent. In the worst way that somebody could. And kicked me out, which made me strong.”

Strictly because you wanted to be an artist?

“Strictly because I wanted to do things my way. Had I been a white collar, stand-up, iron-your-shirt kind of guy, maybe she would have gone for it. But because I showed myself to be a lot more of a rockstar, denim-wearing, out-there, pot-smoking, girl-bringing-in-the-night kind of guy, it wasn’t a good look for me. It wasn’t. And I understand that. But I didn’t know what else to do. I was fighting so hard to use whatever bits of youth that I had to take advantage of all the times where I felt like I didn’t have shit.”

That’s a cool way to put it.

“Yeah. And I still feel that way. Except now, at the age of twenty-one, everything is falling into place — but in a way where discipline has to come into play now.”

You’ve been shown in a couple of galleries?

“Yeah, I have. And I’ve had some gallery owners buy my work. I have art in several countries, and it’s not because I’m the best painter. It’s not because my artwork is beautiful or anything like that. It’s just because I refuse to be a starving artist.”

The painting that you sold to my friend was nail polish on a shower curtain. Do you do that often?

Photo by Ash Hoden

“Oh goodness. Let me put it to you like this: if it was nail polish on the curtain (he laughs), let’s just say that [that] was a prime example of me using super-powers and proving to myself that I can turn absolutely — nail polish and curtains — into an interview with Ash Hoden.

That is exactly what happened.

“Somehow, some way man. I’m blessed.”

So most of it is on canvas with regular paint?

“Well, actually, I’ve been experimenting. I just did some on camouflage. I’ve done double-sided paintings on denim. I’ve done sculptures. I’ve designed clothes, as in I’ve chopped and screwed my own clothes. And I like to call myself a model because it makes getting girls a little easier.”

What’s next?

“Time will tell. But I will say that whatever does come next will be great, terrible, powerful, all at the same time.”

I think he’s probably right about that.

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