Tony Cruz stood in front of the side wall of “Joe’s Place,” a longtime Latin American restaurant between Westchester and Theriot Avenues in Soundview.
“This is the most important mural. It brought me to the U.N.,” said Cruz, looking up at his graffiti mural.
He completed the campaign, “Don’t Kill Your Vision, Dim the Lights, Protect Your Eyes,” in April 2018 and presented his campaign at Baruch College, New York’s Computer Center for Visually Impaired People.
He almost didn’t finish the mural. After being diagnosed in 2009 with Macular Telangiectasia type 2, also known as Mac Tel, a disease that has no treatment or cure, Cruz, who was born in Hunts Point and raised in Mott Haven, found himself depressed and unable to deal with his vision loss for a long time.
For Cruz, 50, completing this mural helped him realize he was strong enough to combat his pain and anger through his art. The campaign gave him something to look forward to, helping him recognize his true calling was to help people who struggled with vision loss, and inform people about the dangers of LED and blue lights.
“Adapting, for people with low vision or blindness is very important to realize that we go through involuntary self-pity. When you go through things in life, you forget about who you are, you forget about what you are, and what you possess,” he said.
Cruz will be teaching his very own class at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for visually impaired artists next February. Registration starts December 1. “The goal is not for them to be a graffiti artist, but to harness the tool of self-expression to make sense of life,” said Cruz, who uses that approach himself.
One way the artist uses his art as a tool of self-expression is through his graffiti miniature canvas art. One piece of artwork that meant a lot to him was a graffiti art drawing that spelled out “Mom” on a miniature canvas. Next to the word “Mom” is “Thank You” and “Never Forget.”
Cruz’s mother passed away 14 years ago, so he honors her through his art, to combat his sadness and make something beautiful out of something sad. He sells his miniature canvas art drawings as a way to promote his brand and make some extra cash.
Nelson Ng ,chef and founding partner of Sabrosura, hired Cruz in 2015 to create a ceiling art piece for his Westchester Avenue chain restaurant, which is still there today. Ng said that although a lot of things have changed in the neighborhood, the art stays the same, because it’s part of the culture and environment.
Holistic nutritionist Keemon Spears, who has known Cruz for years, says he supports his efforts. “What he’s trying to do is show the damaging effect of blue lights and LED lights. From the time we wake up we are looking into this blue light that has an effect on our eyes,” said Spears.
“I already achieved my dreams, I don’t dream no more, I got goals, business goals, because I still need money,” laughed Cruz.
In a sign that his efforts are gaining acknowledgement, Cruz was invited to the U.N. last February by a founding member of 1 Million for 1 Billion, Kareem Hertzog.
“It’s unfortunate that Tony didn’t get to reap the benefits when he was in his prime; when the culture was expanding globally. The beauty is now that so many people around the globe connect with hip hop, I feel the beautification of certain cities globally using graffiti has a tremendous impact,” said Hertzog.
Although Cruz still experiences moments of frustration due to his vision loss, his accomplishments help keep him going. He continues to use Facebook and social media to promote his campaign, and pushes the conversation forward for people who are unaware of the dangers of Blue and LED lights.
He is currently working on a graffiti book and said a documentary is in the works, but does not have a set date yet. “Even though I can’t see far or near, my spiritual vision has no limit,” said Cruz.