CAMDEN, NJ — Camden muralist Roberto Morales’ makeshift workspace doubles as a private tattoo studio.
Hints of artistic flair are evident from the moment you step in.
The TV - blasting music videos - is bordered by small white light bulbs. Mirrors have been framed in gold and the black walls are covered with graffiti tags and logos.
On the floor near the entrance: a pile of custom rugs.
“It’s something I’m trying out,” Morales, 25, says.
The small space on Mt. Ephraim Avenue has enough room for that ilk of creativity - for now.
“We do want to get a bigger space in the future, maybe a warehouse. To do more stuff, keep growing. We don’t just do tattoos, or airbrush or paint murals,” he added.
“It takes years and years of doing this,” chimed in Angel Fernandez, 24, his longtime collaborator and friend. “Down the block at my studio I’m airbrushing six days a week. We do this constantly.”
Morales and Fernandez, both of Camden, met in high school. Since then, they’ve honed their respective disciplines enough to gain the eyes of fellow artists, non-profit organizations, and the city itself. Before the coronavirus pandemic diverted much of the local attention to helping more dire needs, Morales said they engaged in talks with the city about possibly commissioning artwork.
“We still plan to get back to that,” Morales said.
So far, the pair under the moniker “Townhouse” have worked to create eight original murals in Camden.
Their first around the fall of 2018 was a colorful and busy street scape along the side of Uniform City - a local retailer that provides work clothing to professionals from all walks of life.
Morales said they incorporated the city’s sense of unity in the piece with a crossing guard, nurse, police officer and construction worker populating the busy street as a yellow school bus whizzed by.
“People don’t necessarily always get what we’re doing or how good we are until it’s finished,” Morales commented. “We also have set a standard and then just keep breaking it.”
“So like this,” Fernandez says pointing to the Uniform City mural, “was from years ago. We’ve learned more since then...About making it look better, about the material [to stand] the weather."
What may turn out to be Townhouse’s most ambitious project yet is still in the works. “The Welcome to Camden Tour” will be a series of pieces that span the city’s various neighborhoods.
So far one in North Camden has been completed but when done there would be ten - one per neighborhood. Morales, of Cramer Hill, and Fernandez, of East Camden, hope to see them in their own corridors and beyond soon.
“We have it mapped out on every single wall throughout the city, and they would in a prime spots where everybody can see them,” Morales said, noting that it will be important to include the community in those conversations before any work is done.
Ultimately, Morales and Fernandez hope to see some of their respective Mexican and Puerto Rican roots also be incorporated in more of their work. The pair said the city is well known for its diverse population and believe it’s art should reflect it.
“Everybody just sees Camden as something bad. People get killed, drugs, you know, stuff like that. It's what we're known for. You're still able to see that real grimy side of Camden, but we’ve seen the change too. It’s a complete change from what I saw when I was 15 and that’s just a 10-year span."
Speaking on how Camden is sometimes portrayed nationally, Fernandez said, “Our art is a way of showing that there's more to Camden than just violence, homelessness and poverty. There’s a lot more."
For Fernandez, spreading his brand is important, but he also wants to see more artists spring up.
“All types of people can be an artist. It could be a welder that’s an artist. It could be a high school teacher. It could be anybody,” he said.