Jean-Michel Basquiat. Keith Haring. Kenny Scharf. All icons of the 1970s and 1980s art scene whose influence can still be felt today. They not only created enduring art but they gave a legitimacy to a movement that was once associated with gangs and crime: graffiti. Out are the days of the rebellious (and illegal) guerrilla tagging, and in are culturally enriching and socially acceptable works commissioned by cities, corporations, and community groups (like our own Arts Council of Princeton and Trenton’s Isles, Inc., to name two). Higher visibility in urban “outdoor galleries” and an emphasis on social and political issues have blurred the line between highbrow and lowbrow art—allowing the street artist to become a player in the “legitimate” art world. As important as the design of urban art is the idea that a camaraderie is created—and in this digital age, an in-person dialogue with your fellow citizens can be had—by simply viewing these pieces. In Princeton, we’re lucky to be surrounded by our own set of incredible outdoor art in the shape of the masterpiece sculptures on the Princeton University campus, the alleyway installation next to Landau, and the vibrant murals decorating some of our favorite downtown buildings. But a few short miles away, on the streets of Trenton, brews a Technicolor revolution.
Enter Leon Rainbow. (And yes, his perfectly perfect last name is the one he was born with: He’s half Native American, from the Quechan Tribe in Winterhaven, California, and he shortens it to “RAIN” for his tag.) The de facto archivist of Trenton’s street art, Rainbow can tell you the who, what, when, and why of any of the Krylon masterpieces that line the city’s downtown. And don’t let the “Trenton Fresh” flat brim fool you—though California-born, Rainbow is now a proud Trentonian, he wears many, many hats: that of curator, Web designer, fine artist, urban-art champion, and mentor. It’s difficult for him to tell you where life stops and art begins, but he likes it that way. A key figure in Trenton’s art community, Rainbow is also helping to transform his city one colorful spray at a time.
When asked why he feels such a pull toward the city and its revitalization, he describes arriving here from San Jose more than two decades ago, ready for a fresh start and ready to satisfy his need to “build something.” He found Trenton’s environment to be the perfect incubator for art-making.
“We have been able to create freely and do some really interesting projects here,” he says. “Everyone in Trenton is so supportive, from the man on the street, all the way up to the mayor.”
And that support is palpable. For this article, Rainbow took us on a private tour of his favorite street-art spots around town—and he can barely go a block without someone saying hello or beeping their horn in greeting; he never fails to respond in kind. It’s in part because he’s generous with his time, his knowledge, and making sure to give credit where credit is due. He also makes it a priority to create chances for others.
These opportunities include those at Rainbow’s brainchild, the Murals on Front project, sited on Front and Broad Streets, alongside the popular Levitt AMP Music Series. The series offers up 10 weeks of free, live music at Trenton’s Mill Hill Park, and the crowd can stroll across the street to watch a Rainbow-curated slate of 11 artists (including himself) throw up incredible murals en plein air. The work is as diverse as the artists themselves: Some are political, like the timely piece about deportation painted by Princeton resident Luis Sanchez; some are moving, like Evan Lovett’s A Blessing; some are beautifully delicate, like the stenciled piece by Jonathan LANK Conner, who teaches at Rainbow’s alma mater, Mercer County Community College. And some just defy spray paint’s known capabilities, like the photorealistic mural by Dean RAS Innocenzi.
On our urban-art walk, Rainbow points us across Broad Street, to Turning Point United Methodist, where a sprawling mural welcomes churchgoers. It’s yet another joint venture, this one by Rainbow and good friends James LUV-1 Kelewae and Will KASSO Condry, the Trenton-born organizer of the Anthill Collective, a group of community-minded aerosol artists from the Vermont area. No matter where they’re from, it’s easy to see how tight-knit this community is, with artists often collaborating, pitching in when needed, or painting side-by-side. It’s these relationships that keep the fire burning in this colorful community. Not only is there comradeship, but there’s a mutual respect here, and an inspiration that seems to flow from artist to artist.
Music is another source of creative energy. “Poets and rappers inspire me, and a lot of my pieces are based off of sayings or wordplays,” says Rainbow. “I like to listen to ’90s hip-hop when I paint in the street. Though I only wear one earphone most of the time because I want to be aware of what’s going on around me.”
So it comes as no surprise that Rainbow, along with KASSO and the rest of the talented Vicious Styles Crew graffiti collective cofounded Jersey Fresh Jam, an annual celebration of wall writing and urban arts. Founded in 2005, this end-of-the-summer event showcases some of the best street artists from far and wide, the established and the just-starting-out, from Australian newcomer Damien Mitchell to MERS, the curator of 5Pointz, the now-defunct Mecca of street art in Queens, New York. These and many other artists gather to repaint the headquarters of recycling innovator TerraCycle, all while local and regionally known emcees, bands, and DJs provide the soundtrack.
The diversity and volume of Rainbow’s work has been dizzying, with innumerable museum and gallery shows, the wall of a Crunch Gym, downtown murals, the facade of a popular Hopewell eatery, even delicate watercolors that hang at Studio 51, the new space belonging to the Trenton Community A-TEAM, a creative coterie of self-taught artists. The A-TEAM’s outdoor courtyard, the 12 Panel Gallery, showcases murals that were spearheaded, of course, by Rainbow. He takes both his business—Web design at Princeton’s InForest Communications and the business of his art—very seriously.
“I try to change the perception that artists are flaky or not serious businesspeople,” he says. “I am very responsive. I make sure I show up early to complete my projects on time. I work within budget. And I expect to be treated as a professional.”
He also makes time to balance the paying gigs with his own art. “I find it helps to keep certain things for myself. I paint a good number of commercial projects, so I try to balance that with things I paint for myself, like my fine art and graffiti.”
Rainbow is doing what he set out to do: building something real and important. The positive impact on Trenton neighborhoods is acutely felt, stirring a pride that comes from not only the beautification of its streets, but also from the people who walk them.
When asked if he minds when the art around town disappears, due to construction, weather, or another artist claiming the corner, Rainbow shakes his head. “I choose to look forward,” he says. “And get focused on the next thing.” —Rae Padulo (photographs by Dan Komoda; article originally appeared in Bricks & Mortar: Fall/Winter 2018)