Benny Cruz has never been to New York City, but don’t be surprised if you see one of his hand-painted works hanging in an MTA subway car someday.
The Swedish artist of Chilean descent has gone viral in recent months for his text-based artworks featuring uplifting, political and sometimes funny messages.
But despite the popularity of Cruz’s work on social media, the pieces do not stay on the subway permanently. They are printed from photographs or physically mailed to Cruz’s Brooklyn-based friend and collaborator, Jana Gagliardi, who hangs the works with double sided tape and snaps a photo for Instagram.
“He's a New York based artist, but he's not actually in New York,” Gagliardi tells BK Reader. “So, it’s kind of funny and ironic.”
Messages found in some of Cruz’s recent works include phrases like “Forgive Yourself” and “I need a cup of coffee that equals a therapy session.”
Some of the messages are Benny and Jana’s own, while others are popular phrases found on the internet, such as “Racism is a public health crisis.”
“The message is the most important thing for me,” Cruz tells BK Reader. “Most of my art is like a reminder for myself.”
But the works that have netted Cruz the most attention are the ones expressing pride in New York City culture, with phrases like “New York, I have so much to thank you for” and “She’s got a soft heart but is New York tough”.
Cruz dates his appreciation of New York City and its culture back to his childhood in Sweden, where he grew up listening to New York-based rap groups like Wu-Tang Clan and Beastie Boys.
Though he’s been making art in various forms for years, it wasn’t until he started posting his work on social media that he gained an audience, most of which came from New York.
“People from Sweden, they, you know, they weren't interested,” said Cruz of his work. “My style and what I do my, my reference, everything I do is totally different of what you can find here."
The collaboration between Gagliardi and Cruz began around two years ago when the two started following each other on Instagram. Gagliardi was instantly a fan.
“All of his art is like, it’s really the vibe of the city,” Gagliardi said. “I loved that he knew the stuff I knew and went to the places I’ve been but not actually, you know, only visited in his mind.”
Cruz began sending photos of his works to Gagliardi to post inside the subway. She first started posting them in stations near her job in Manhattan, but eventually moved to posting them her home borough of Brooklyn.
“This was a way for me to contribute to an artist that I admired,” Gagliardi said. “And it was a way for me to contribute to my city.”
Over the past year, Cruz’s work has gotten attention from some big names, and has been liked and reposted on social media by Cruz’s idols RZA and Ghostface Killah of Wu-Tang Clan. He’s also been featured on NY1’s Feel Good Friday segment.
Cruz plans to finally visit New York next year for an art show, but his biggest dream is to have his work displayed in the Brooklyn Museum. He’s even coined the phrase “No Sleep Till Brooklyn Museum”, a riff off the Beastie Boys’ song “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”.
“I know it's a fantasy, you know, but I think you never know what can happen in the future," Cruz said of his Brooklyn Museum dream.
He’s also counting on a call from the MTA to collaborate on a longer-term display of his work in the subways.
“I think art is something that is full of energy. I think I want to release that energy in New York.”