Four years ago, when I started ChicpeaJC and began to write about the creative scene, almost everyone who is anyone mentioned the name “Cheese.” Juan Vasquez is an OG Jersey City artist whose been in the scene for many many years. He isn’t just an artist, he is also a community activist, and very involved in the Jersey City community. In fact, he is very involved in the Puerto Rican community and is a leader for the Jersey City Puerto Rican Festival, which is happening this month.
I had the opportunity to sit with him recently and hear his story. He’s mad cool. I had a blast getting to know him and hearing his stories about Jersey City in the 80s.
What’s your name?
Juan “Cheese” Vasquez
What do you do?
I’m a community activist, artist, homegrown Jersey City owned.
And you’re OG Jersey City.
That’s what they say. Original Cheese.
Let’s start from the beginning. Are you an artist first?
I’m an artist first.
When did you start doing art?
In the early 80s in Jersey City.
I see you paint a lot of celebrities.
That’s how I started. Back in the day with the graffiti movement, doing graffiti first, and then graduated to doing portraits and stuff like that.
Then what happened? From an artist, you became…
An activist, a community leader. I’ve been pushing the issue on our youth getting results through arts programs, making sure they don’t get burnt and that there’s somebody to put them on the right path to do whatever it is they want to do in life. I’m involved with JCPRHAC, which is an organization started with a team of eleven. The board has 5 members, and all members are community activists and leaders from Jersey City. The other organizations, a lot of them are ones that would help PACO and the city.
You do a lot for the Puerto Rican community in Jersey City. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
The Puerto Rican community right now is lacking leadership. It needs more unity, it needs a little bit more control on their destinies, like pushing more issues about us moving forward in our community. I think we’re being held back by devastations like Hurricane Maria and stuff of that nature. We should be, as a unit, pushing forth and getting the results we need as a whole. As a Puerto Rican, born and raised, I feel like we’re being pushed to the side after all the hard work we’ve done in this city.
What are your plans for the future?
My plan for the future is to teach the kids how to stick together and keep their morals, making sure they stay together as a unit instead of fighting each other whether it’s based on the color of their skin or “you’re better than me,” this that and the third. It doesn’t make sense. I think we’re all equal someway, somehow.
You’re raised in Jersey City?
I’m raised in Jersey City.
Can you tell me how you feel Jersey City has changed?
It hasn’t really changed, the only thing is that there’s a lot more people here. There’s a lot more people taking control of what used to be the stuff we controlled, which is alright. If you’re not doing the job, there should be somebody doing the job.
Since you’re located in Downtown Jersey City, you must have seen it evolve, right?
Yes, of course. It’s been evolving for the past 10 years, slowly but surely. Fulop has definitely put a change in bringing in the money that the city needs to make it look better. Is it working? It is for some people, and it isn’t for some.
How was it, growing up here?
There are a lot of stores, good ones and bad ones. The good stories are, you stay focused and stay in your lane, you can become who want to become. The bad ones are the youth killing each other and I know we can change that if we speak to them the right way.
Let’s talk about that. With the violence happening in different parts of Jersey City, do you have ideas on how that can be changed?
Back in the day, when we were in school, we had auditoriums with the DARE organization there and other organizations that would come to speak to the whole school. Right now, the new organizations trying to help out the youth are just in classrooms instead of the whole school and speaking to everyone. Let’s go back to speaking to the kids in an auditorium full of students and make the effort, not just speak to one class. We can’t just speak to one class and expect the other grades to know what you’re talking about. When we were growing up, we had an auditorium and a panel of speakers, and that’s how I learned not to be a bully, not to speak out of turn, to have morals. We’re losing a lot of that.
Do you see yourself going into politics?
Not at all. Politics plays a lot of favors, and I’m not someone who plays the favors. I feel like I play the right over wrong, it makes a lot more sense to play it that way. Staying neutral keeps you moving forward that trying to play somebody’s side.
How long have you been on Brunswick Street?
This will be my 6th year.
What do you do out of here?
I silk screen, I do computer graphics, I airbrush, and I sell t-shirts.
And try to save the world.
And try to save the world, one kid at a time.
Do you have a favorite Jersey City hangout spot?
Yeah, I have a couple of them. Hard Grove is one of them. DC Social Club. Two Boots, the pizza is great and I like the atmosphere. It’s nice and quiet with art on the walls. Anything with art, I’m there.
Nice. How do you feel about the art scene in Jersey City?
It’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous, it’s something that’s been lacking for a very long time. The only thing is that they’re bringing outsiders to do the murals, which is fine with me because I’m not a muralist but I know that I can handle my own if given the opportunity to do one. For the past 20 years, there are other artists that deserved some of those spots.
I love it.
You can find Cheese on Instagram (@cheese201). Don’t forget to check out the Jersey City Puerto Rican Parade and Festival on August 18 & 19.