Saturday, October 8, 2011

“El Podrido”: The Rotten Makes Good

"El Podrido", (C) 2011, Miachelle DePiano.

When we are in our teens and our 20’s, the majority of us experience that euphoria of feeling invincible, that we can and will conquer the world. Nothing can defeat us, regardless of our good or bad choices. Then Fate steps in, and we learn a new definition of invincibility. We learn it is not our physical being that is invincible, but our spirit that is invincible, and we find out just how invincible our spirit really is.

Five years ago, El Podrido (the Rotten), a graffiti artist as well as a welder and metal artist, learned such a lesson. Originally from New Mexico, El Podrido always dreamed of living in Arizona, and moved to Phoenix. Deeply influenced by graffiti, he lived a dual life. By day, he was a certified welder, and by night a graffiti artist. Eventually he became recognized for his work, and was invited to create murals.

 One night, in September 2006, his invincibility was challenged as he unsuccessfully attempted to hop a train from Tempe to Phoenix after attending an event. He ended up a double amputee, both legs needing removal at the knees. After spending three weeks in the hospital, he endured physical therapy, focusing on desensitization so he could be fitted for prosthetics.

“Before the accident, I’d always been spunky and outgoing,” El Podrido recalled. “I was enjoying my 20’s. I thought I was immortal. I thought I was king of the world…I could take on trains, the world, the law…a rebel.”

That spunkiness, which some might call his demise, became his salvation. Within three months he was on his short prosthetics, and in six months he could walk in his “long legs.” Formerly 6’ tall, his short legs now make him 4’ 5”; his long legs make him 5’10”.

“I’m officially a midget,” he joked.

Within six weeks of his accident, he returned to welding. Since then, like many people, he has endured the roller coaster economy, sometimes being out of work, and dealing with the frustrations of varying levels and quality of insurance coverage. It’s only been recently that he’s both employed and receiving insurance benefits that can cover his prosthetics. His latest good news is that running prosthetics are in his future.

“I’ll be able to exercise again, and get down to a weight that’s good for me,” he chattered happily. “That will allow my prosthetics to be more comfortable for me. “

He described his newest set of long legs, which are robotic with hydraulics; they attach to his stumps like a vacuum. Unfortunately, though these prosthetics are easier to put on, they came with a price. From the suction of the hydraulics, he developed a blister along the scar tissues on his stumps, which turned into an open wound. He had to stop wearing them, allowing the wound to heal, fearing infection and the need for further amputation.

“I see people like me who are in wheel chairs instead of in prosthetics, and for the first time I understood why.”

Through his ordeal, two things have kept him motivated: his art and his mother.

“My mom has been my main supporter. My father walked out on me when I was three.”

He continued to describe how as a typical teen, he had no desire to meet his father. When El Podrido was 18, a girlfriend convinced him he should meet his dad. He bought some gifts and that Christmas he met his father. They took pictures together and to this day those are the only photos El Podrido has with his father, and since then he has not spoken to his father.

With his typical humor and disarming openness, he summarizes the situation.

“At least I know I’m not exactly a bastard.” It was a shocking statement at first, but his laughter removed the shock of it. This is a man who has faced death, and reality does not scare him.

When asked why he loves graffiti, El Podrido stated, “Graffiti is freedom, being loose, risking everything. One minute, you could be 100 feet in the air, with a breeze in your face, risking everything, and the next minute you could be on the ground. It’s a rush…a release. When you’re done, you’re proud…accomplished.”

He added thoughtfully: “If you’re going to risk everything, you should do something nice.”

I asked El Podrido if I could use his real name, and he hesitated, and then politely refused.

“I am pondering when to come out of the hole. I want to; it’s part of my maturation. I turn 30 in four weeks, and it’s almost time. I want to make sure I’m safe when I do.”

He creates paintings on canvas, and gets commissioned to do murals. In addition to his graffiti-style artwork, he creates small metal sculptures, and longs to do sculptures on a grander scale.

“I want to get public funding, and create work that people travel from across the country to see.

He also longs to take his work on tours in Europe and Asia, though he’s concerned about how his work, especially his graffiti, will be received.

“I hear stories about how much worse in other it is countries if you get caught creating graffiti. I don’t know…I’ll have to wait and see.”

El Podrido’s indomitable spirit is evident in his outlook on life, his humor, and his frankness. As we talked, he shared with me that in spite of the accident and his altered physical state, he still loves trains.

“As part of my maturation, I got a tattoo this year for my favorite railroad.” He pulled aside his t-shirt to reveal a Union Pacific railroad tattoo under his tanktop. I could not resist, I had to take his portrait with the tattoo. How else do you shake your fist and defy Fate?

As for a legacy?

“I want to let people know that no matter how tough life is, you can do something.”

Indeed, El Podrido is doing something; he is making good.