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Retna in the Spotlight

Driving through Wynwood, his mural caught my eye despite the fact that like most viewers, I could not discern a single figure or understand a single symbol in it. For some reason, Retna’s work is hypnotic and beautiful. The work is a series of sometimes intertwining symbols, an invented writing. The paint sometimes runs, but this adds to the appeal. Letters can be made out, but they are embedded in lines and forms that conceal them. As one takes in his work, one feels as if in the presence of an ancient, secret language that communicates to everyone. And indeed, after listening to some of his interviews, I think Retna’s driving focus is to unite the different cultures and people: to communicate that although diverse, we are one; that there is beauty in all. Not surprisingly, he says his work is influenced by a variety of symbols and alphabets: he mentions Egyptian hieroglyphics, Asian calligraphy, as well as Arabic and Hebrew as influences. He also mentions Old English as an influence, but I think he means Blackletter, the gothic style lettering used in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. He is also interested in architecture, and in one video one can glean beatuiful art pieces and furniture that lie about in his studio. But as with most great artists, there is more to how he came to be what he is than a curiosity and sense of aesthetics and design. He is of a mixed race heritage that includes African-American, El Salvadorian, and Cherokee. He grew up in LA, was drawn to gangs yet never part of them. He says that early on he gave his mother, a single parent, grief. He talks of getting into a lot of trouble at various schools. He wanted to make it up to her by making something of himself.

Retna, whose birth name is Marquis Lewis, and who had many other assumed names, picked his name from a Wu-Tang Clan song called Heaterz. He remembers the words as “burn holes through your ret

[i]na,” but the actual line is “Kinetic globes light will then shine, burns your retina.” (Check out the song at ) Those lyrics struck him, and as he is a visual artist, his work is literally consumed through the retina.

As I watch videos of him filmed at events and interviews, I see a humble guy with a deep appreciation for his good fortune, his roots in the LA ‘hood that made him who he is, and the art of others.

He doesn’t often give away the meaning in his work; nonetheless, he is puts messages in his murals: names of friends, family, poems, thoughts. Here is the message in his mural at Wynwood Walls: the top line reads, “Sacred dance of memories” and the lower one reads, “Salve los espiritus santos” (Latin for “save the sacred souls”). (He coincidentally started working on this mural on the anniversary of 9/11.) Once I learned all this, I was intrigued, hooked. I spent hours identifying the letters. I want to learn to decipher his script. If I make progress, I will post it here.

In the meantime, I invite you to come to Wynwood and explore street art. If you want a guide, book a tour with us at

by Anna Vamos

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