Alumni Stories: “Where Are They Now?”
Edition 40— Mikey Guadarrama
From Outcast to Mentor & Everything In-Between
When I ask Mikey Guadarrama to share his favorite memory from his time at Artists For Humanity, he struggles to pick just one. Amid a whirlwind of stories, he places a special emphasis on “The B-Boy Olympics,” an event hosted by a local breakdancer in the AFH space. Grinning, Guadarrama recalls DJ battles, BMXers, skateboarders, and graffiti artists filling the street — “I was a kid, an outcast…but when I went there, it was like we were all together.”
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Guadarrama compares his early childhood to scenes from the Jungle Book, exploring the rivers and forests with his brother. While he was still young, Guadarrama’s parents moved his family to the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, a completely new environment that came with a variety of new obstacles. Between fending off bullies in school and struggling to find a sense of belonging as a Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican, Guadarrama felt like an outsider.
It wasn’t until his sophomore year of high school, when Guadarrama’s brother mentioned an arts organization in South Boston employing high schoolers, that things began to change.
Guadarrama recalls the first time he and his brother visited the AFH building with immense gratitude, “that’s where I met Jason Talbot and I met Rob Gibbs…they pretty much just hired me and my brother on the spot…we just stayed there all night because we couldn’t believe that this type of environment existed.”
During his time as a teen artist in the Painting Studio, Guadarrama was mentored by AFH co-founder Rob Gibbs, and absorbed with enthusiasm everything there was to learn. Though he was a fairly good student in school, Guadarrama explains that he was just doing what needed to be done to move on to the next chapter of his life. How he describes his work at AFH, however, is a completely different story.
“I took it so serious. I would show up to every event, and I would speak about us with the highest honors, and I would sell every painting…my buddy would always ask me, can you sell my painting? I was like, yeah, I got you.”
Beaming, Guadarrama recollects the diverse, welcoming environment cultivated at AFH that encouraged him to work so passionately as a teen. Guadarrama paints a picture of an eccentric group of creatives — mentors and teens alike — who were more than happy to admire each other’s “weirdness” and individuality.
For a skateboarding, rock-listening, graffiti-loving teen who had faced constant bullying in school, AFH offered Guadarrama a genuine sense of community: “[at AFH] everyone’s an outcast, so I’m not an outcast anymore — like we’re all in this together.”
Guadarrama expresses a special appreciation for his mentor Gibbs, who motivated him to pursue his interests at AFH and beyond. He describes a variety of fond memories — from Gibbs encouraging his passion for skateboarding, to bringing him along on trips to the art store — “He exposed me to a lot of beautiful things.”
In 2007, Guadarrama graduated from high school with plans to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He explains that he had skipped school at seventeen on multiple occasions to secretly visit the city, find a job, secure an apartment, and learn the train system.
Guadarrama credits AFH as a pivotal point of support in his move to New York. Beyond the confidence and skills he gained in his artistic practice, his employment at AFH provided a financial foundation for the relocation.
After only four months of studying traditional animation at SVA, however, Guadarrama made a decision that would change his path completely. Befriending a fellow skateboarder and sound engineer, Guadarrama had the opportunity to work on the technical end of production — an experience that helped him realize his desire to conclude his time at SVA and start working in the field.
After finishing the semester, Guadarrama immediately began to absorb every bit of creative and technical knowledge he could, much like his teen years at AFH. He taught himself Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, After Effects, and scripting.
“I grabbed every book, every resource I could find…I would literally see the sun go up, sun go down, sun go up, and I’d still be awake working on this stuff. And I loved it.”
A few months later, Guadarrama experienced what he calls “the miracle,” but what seems to be, more accurately, the result of years of hard work.
While working at Jamba Juice, Guadarrama became friendly with a regular client, one day asking him what he did for work. Coincidentally, the man was the owner of a successful animation studio. One business card and about three months later, Guadarrama was one of his employees.
Over the next few years, Guadarrama’s path continued to change directions. His accomplishments range from creating the illustrations for the 2009 B.E.T Awards, to forming a Boston-based skate team with over fifty kids, to working with thousands of clients as a freelance designer. He describes the role of art as “chaos,” but says so with a smile, explaining that it’s what keeps life interesting.
Guadarrama’s creative outlets are not limited to illustration and graphic design, however. He also expresses his passion for engineering and mechanics — the more gritty, industrial arts. Years after his time at SVA, he attended the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology, studying mechanics.
“My occupation is being hands-on really, with anything.”
Guadarrama has pursued many different avenues over the past few years, most recently wandering back to his roots at AFH, where he currently works as a mentor and lead graphic designer in the Graphic Design Studio. When I ask Guadarrama what ultimately attracts him to art as a career, his reply reminds me of what drew him to AFH as a teenager over a decade ago: “It’s healthier for me…I realized I am an artist, so I need that support system.”
Though Guadarrama has come a long way since his days as a high school “outcast,” he continues to express the utmost gratitude for his fellow creatives. In many ways, our interview is an ode to the people he has met and been supported by throughout his journey — whether it be breakdancers, his brother, smoothie shop clients, or the AFH staff, past and present.
The help and encouragement Guadarrama has been given, however, is not one-sided. For everything he has received, he hopes to continue the cycle and offer the same to others.
“If there’s anything that AFH has provided to me, it is an understanding of myself, of where I come from, and what I want to do in this world. And I want to be an artist, and I want to provide creativity to the world. But I also just want to provide anything else that I can provide…if I can mentor anybody through those challenges that I’ve already faced, I feel like I’m accomplishing a lot for myself and for them.”
Written by Eliza Whalen.