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Sean 9 Lugo brings the immigrant experience to Paradigm Gallery + Studio

The South Philly Review got Lugo on the phone to talk about what immigrant mentality means to him, how a 2015 trip to the Dominican Republic influenced his work and why he tries to keep his art affordable.

Image courtesy of Jason Chen.

As a first-generation American with a mother born in Cuba and a father born in Puerto Rico, Sean 9 Lugo was raised with the “immigrant mentality.” Lugo’s work channels this not only in its imagery and themes, but in its “accessible” prices. Much of the work displayed at Lugo’s upcoming exhibition, Immigrant Mentality, at Paradigm Gallery + Studio will be priced between $20 and $200, making his work affordable even to the common people, like Lugo himself, who has a 9-to-5er of his own. The exhibition reflects many of the experiences Lugo had growing up around the Philadelphia area and the immigrants he interacted with, most notably at their most common meeting locations: bodegas. The South Philly Review got Lugo on the phone to talk about what immigrant mentality means to him, how a 2015 trip to the Dominican Republic influenced his work and why he tries to keep his art affordable. 

So the exhibition is called Immigrant Mentality. What does immigrant mentality mean to you?

For me, immigrant mentality is being raised by immigrant parents. It’s the mindset of working hard for what you want because at the end of the day no one’s going to give it to you. It’s a sense of community that’s unlike any other community – where you feel at home no matter where you are, you know? And it’s being taught to be better than the previous generation that came before you. It’s family, culture, work ethic. To me, that’s immigrant mentality.

The common theme in your work is the teddy bear heads. Can you talk a little bit about where that comes from?

That’s a funny story. One of my good coworkers – I sent him a painting I did when I started this series of a fisherman with a horse head. I got the image based off a photograph from photographer Corey Arnold. I showed my friend the painting and my friend at work [showed me similar] photos of him and his friends with these teddy bear heads on, and I was so inspired immediately. I was like, ‘Mike, where’d you get these teddy bears?’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, my ex-girlfriend bought ’em for me. So I cut their heads off and wore them on my head.’ I immediately went on eBay, found Hallmark kissing bears, bought ’em, and the rest is history.

A lot of the work in the exhibition was inspired by a trip you took to the Dominican Republic in 2015. What about the trip inspired you?

Well, unlike most trips other people take to other countries – they usually stay at resorts and things like that – this was for a mural festival called ArteSano. It was interesting to have that 100 percent third-world-country feel. Being in slums of the Dominican Republic and talking to the locals and seeing how they lived and how generous they were. They didn’t have anything, but they would invite you to their house and it was just little sheds and they’re saying, ‘Oh, take whatever you want.’ I was so blown away by the generosity of people who did not know you and didn’t have anything and how kind they were. It made me realize that I could do better. I could give back more, I could do more. So the whole trip was very inspiring to me. As I put up stuff in the streets of the Dominican Republic, I would take photos of locals and have conversations and so much of it reminds me of where I grew up. Most of my good friends to this day, who are like brothers to me, are Dominican. So I kinda felt like I was home in a way. The images that I got inspired me, and I wanted to recreate it. That trip meant the world to me. 

Are you a big traveler? Does travel regularly inspire your work?

I wish I could travel more. Having a full-time job makes it tough. You only get a certain amount of vacation days a year. I wish I could travel more. It’s definitely something I have on my bucket list.

The press release talks about how your work is “accessibly priced.” Why was it important for you to do that?

To me, like I said just a minute ago, I have a full-time job. Art to me is my therapy. People think I’m crazy when I say this, but without art, I’d probably be a serial killer or something. I had so much trauma as a child and art allows me to get through all the darkness that lingers in my mind. I always feel – whether it’s suffering from depression and PTSD and all these things – that I don’t do it for the money. I do it for the love of it. I create what I want to create. Art is very selfish in that sense. You make what you want and you hope it inspires other people. That’s why I create art. So I wanted to give back to people who appreciate what I do, who are inspired. 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds – they don’t have $1,000 in their pocket and if they do, God bless ’em. So for me, I wanted to make things that were $200 or things that are $20 that are handmade and give back in that sense. 

You mention trauma in your childhood, which brings me back to another theme of the exhibition, which is the idea of bodegas as these communal places where people look out for one another. Were bodegas a safe space for you growing up?

Bodegas to me are like a family, man. The owners know your name, they remember your birthday, you go in there, they ask about your mom, you go in there with food stamps and you don’t have enough money and they go, ‘No, it’s all right, you can pay next time.’ That next time never came but they took care of me and everyone who they grew up with. So to me bodegas mean a lot. And that’s why I made things affordable in that sense – to kind of give back the best way I can to people who support me. I want to allow them to leave with a momentos.

Lugo’s exhibition, Immigrant Mentality, started on July 23 at Paradigm Gallery + Studio and will run until Aug. 22. For more information, visit paradigmarts.org.

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