How a Street Artist Became a Memorial Builder in North Philly

Dino Vazquez was known in his North Philadelphia neighborhood for his street art, including full-sized robots. Then the family of Cesar Vera asked him to make a memorial. It sits across the street from his house on 5th Street, the same place where Vera was found stabbed to death on Sept. 8.

The traditional Puerto Rican memorial is called a capilla, but these are a little more modern-looking. Vazquez built the ornate structure from white shelves, bits of stained glass and a white tent.

"In our country, when some people die, we put out white candles," Vazquez explained. "We think the white candles can help the spirit reach the heavens."

Vazquez says capillas hold favorite items of the deceased.

"He was a young guy, only 33 years old, he was a cool guy," Vazquez recalled. "He liked to collect little cars, Hot Wheels. That's why you see all these cars here. That's a letter from the daughter, there."

Neighbor Gregory Andino appreciates the capilla Vazquez built for his cousin, calling it inspiring.

"His art is beautiful. He makes beautiful art out of junk," Andino said. "At first I thought he was crazy until I seen the outcome. It's very creative."

Vazquez has already been recruited to build a new capilla for another neighbor. But building memorials is an unlikely undertaking for a guy who grew up surfing the beaches of Colombia. His personality is laid back and care-free.

"I was a beach bum. No worries, no school, anything," Vazquez said. "Now I'm working in Philly from Monday to Sunday. Different kind of surf, but I'm still surfing."

His specialty, life-sized robots, has become a staple of the block. Anything is game for a robot creation. One robot is comprised of an old computer, dryer vent and coffee maker.

"The economy is bad, everybody know that, so I go around and scrap, go get junk, and some I keep it to do art," Vazquez said. "My mind has no limits."

He says transforming the area through street art is his personal mission. He's put up mosaic on the small church, painted parts of the playground and added trash cans to curb littering.

"In the beginning when I moved here, it was a mess. When I moved in I started sweeping the street, I started painting anything I can," said Vazquez. "Now, they're fixing their own places and I'm very happy with what I did."

Neighbors are following suit. One planted flowers on a corner lot. Pedro Ospina added metalTiki and alien figures to utility poles on 5th Street.

"Everybody knew Dino's work because of the robot's that he had out. Once I met him it was like automatic." Ospina said. "I think it's a great area and the people around there respect and support the work that you do."

As a fellow street artist, Opsina says using art as a catalyst for change is a slow process.

"The only reason that you do this is because you have a feeling that it's going good and it's helping other people," Ospina said. "You have to be positive. That's what you have to show to people."

Despite the sometimes volatile environment, Vazquez isn't going anywhere. The more memorials he builds, the closer he feels to long-time residents.

"I do it to inspire people," Vazquez said. "People that pass through here, they say oh, you're very creative, and then I say to them, you can do the same. You can do something for your neighborhood, for your family, something for you. Just improve the way you're living."

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