Life after the Marine Corps – a 360 with skateboard artist Rafael Colon

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Stepping into Rafael Colon’s Harlem apartment in New York City, you’ll immediately notice two things: painted skateboards are the first — not necessarily a surprise since those are what drew you here. After that, you’ll see a door-mounted pull-up bar.

This shouldn’t astonish either, not once you see Rafael Colon’s impressive arm coming towards you for a warm handshake. Rafael served in the U.S. Marine Corps for eight years and, aside from being an up-and-coming New York artist, he continues to stay in shape.

“Welcome to my workstation!” Rafael guided us through his home towards a desk in the corner littered with rulers, wood burning tools, and a half-dozen Folgers coffee cans filled with markers and pens. “This is my space, where all the magic happens.”

He picked up a nearby skateboard, running his hands over grooves burned into the un-painted wood. Whenever he sees someone else looking at his artwork from a distance, he often encourages them to do the same.

“There was this man who came in who was visually impaired,” Rafael recounts while burning another skateboard in his lap. “I told him, ‘hey, you can touch it because it’s wood-burned,’ and so the man started touching this piece of wood that depicted a lion, and he said, ‘Is this a lion?’ And I went, ‘Holy smokes! Are you blind?!,’ and he goes, ‘Yeah I’m blind, but I can figure that these are the eyes, this is all the hair, this is the nose,’ and I was like, ‘That’s it!”

Rafael Colon carries this childlike sense of wonder into everything he does, whether it be his art or conversation. Originally from Puerto Rico, he moved to the South Bronx — the place that “raised” him — when he was seven.  

“Those first two years of school,” he says, “I didn’t know any English, so I had to learn it. And the way I learned English was with my hands, which is why I talk with and use my hands a lot. It’s not just that I’m a New Yorker, but it’s the method I used to express myself.”

Eventually, Rafael did learn to speak English and became fluent. Living in the Bronx was tough, however, and he wanted a way out. Although he began looking into the Armed Forces during high school, he admits he had no idea what he was getting himself into when he joined.

“I didn’t know anything about the Marine Corps. When I joined the Marines, it was really just a way to get out of New York,” he said laughing. “When I went to the recruiting office at Times Square in Manhattan, the Army, Navy and Air Force recruiters were all out at lunch, and the Marine was the only one eating his lunch at his desk. So I figured, that’s it, it’s fate! And I signed up to be a Marine.”

Those eight years, he says, were more transformative than he ever expected. Following boot camp in South Carolina, he traveled all over the mainland United States, from North Carolina to California. And, while he says he was constantly doodling and drawing stuff on the side — art was not a serious part of his life until five years ago — more than a decade after he left the Marine Corps.

“While I was in the Marine Corps, you have to think differently. You’re a different human, and I didn’t want to have that type of mentality when I was in there,” he said. “I wanted to get out when my daughter was born so I could be more of an engaging parent … she’s the one, actually, that got me onto this skateboard project.”

Rafael Colon’s latest art exhibition, Masterpieces on Skateboards, is currently on display at the Art on A Gallery in the East Village of New York City, although it’s scheduled to wrap-up on April 12th. Those interested in seeing Rafael’s art should watch Lima Charlie’s latest video, or visit Rafael’s website (rafaelcolon.org). The exhibition, Rafael says, has been largely successful, with many of the pieces having already been sold.

The skateboards are not cheap either; some are priced in the thousands of dollars. Part of those proceeds, he told us, will go to World Childhood Foundation, which seeks to prevent and address sexual abuse, exploitation and violence against children.

Diego Lynch and James Fox

LIMA CHARLIE NEWS

Lima Charlie provides global news, insight & analysis by military veterans and service members Worldwide.

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