Rafael “Tatu” Perez is the founder and executive director of XMental, a non-profit organization devoted to creating a safe space for at-risk youth to practice creative self-expression, develop confidence and form a positive outlook on life through muraling and graffiti art.
Perez himself became a graffiti artist in the late 70s, at age 12, around the same time that hip-hop, as a cultural phenomenon, was taking root.
Born and raised in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Perez, who is now 50, was the quintessential B-boy and breakdancer “back in the day.” But it was graffiti art where he found the greatest joy. Perez’s nom de plume was (and still is) “Tatu,” and his work was ubiquitous and well recognized within graffiti circles, earning him the reputation as one of the best of the best.
“I always liked to draw and read comic books,” said Perez. “So when graffiti came around, a lot of my friends were doing it. At first, it started with me doing it as peer pressure…”
But it wasn’t long before Perez grew to love it. Graffiti afforded Perez artistic freedom, camaraderie and an ability to self-express; it kept his mind busy and his hands productive—a big part of what saved him from the violence of the streets, where he knew he could end up either locked up behind bars, or worse, dead. In 1979, Perez and a group of other graffiti artists formed the Xmen Graffiti Crew. And very much so like the X-Men of their comic books, his crew was multi-talented, respected. Invincible.
However, the City of New York didn’t quite see it the same way. Graffiti as a practice was banned across the city. Even worse, tagging his signature only made Perez a moving target whereby, if caught, could find himself juvenile penal system—the very place he was avoiding.
Perez’s life as a graffiti artist would need to change, quick. He would have to lay off the graffiti until he could figure out a plan. Some years later, Perez learned about alternative outlets where graffiti art– under its new title, “murals”– was highly sought after and totally legal. The XMen were back in business, except this time, they were getting paid to travel and showcase their work on both a national and global stage.
It became clear to X-Man Perez that the “new business” he was in could serve as an effective outlet for other young people. And so in 2010, Perez started XMental, where the XMen Crew members, who call themselves “XMentors” could work one-one-one with at-risk youth who were artists to nurture, give focus and offer guidance in their personal and creative lives.
Currently, XMental works with the Department of Probation, where kids that have been arrested for doing graffiti in the street are referred to the organization for help and support:
Through a grant share from NeON Arts— a project of the NYC Department of Probation, in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Well Institute– XMental has helped hundreds of New York City at-risk youth hone their own talents in a direction that will lead to better possible outcomes.
“I teach them how to take their talents and flip it in a positive way,” said Perez. “I’m not trying to make them better artists; I’m trying to make them better people and show them how to positively channel that energy.”
Participants in XMental create mural projects during its summer program while also work on community service projects. Some of the youth participants are paid and even get job offers to do more!
“And there have been one or two of the students that have been good enough to join the ranks of the XMen crew,” said Perez.
Currently, Xmental is working with several programs in the Central and East Brooklyn communities of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville/East New York and East Flatbush.
Although the program works primarily with young people who are on probation, Perez said, if there is a parent that is interested in getting their talented teen involved, he might be able to make a few exceptions.
For five years, XMental has been a shining and successful example of how hip-hop culture can produce very positive outcomes by providing an alternative pathway that fosters their creativity.
Here, we have a program that not only disrupts a legal system that might criminalize at-risk youth in their need to self-express, but more importantly, showcases Brooklyn’s brilliance to the world.