Everything changes: Alicia Lea

Alicia Lea

"I wanted to be accepted by everybody in all these groups. I wasn't pleasing myself. I was trying to please these other people."

Everyone has a moment in life when things change. Sometimes we know it right away, other times we only recognize it looking back. With the turning of the year, we're taking some time to listen to people's stories about the moments that changed them, and what they've learned.

When Alicia Lea was 16 years old, a high school guidance counselor told her that based on her age and family circumstances, she'd have more of a chance of becoming a pregnant teen than going to college.

"That made me angry," Lea said.

And it propelled her to put herself through HVCC and UAlbany. By day she was a model fine arts student -- but by night she was painting graffiti, living a double life that eventually fell apart. She got arrested, and ultimately learned valuable lessons about who she was as an artist and as a person.

Today Lea lives in Scotia, in her first home, with her boyfriend Josh and her daughter Zappa. She works at a paint-and-sip and does commission work while she pursues her own art. Her latest project will appear in the upcoming film about fans of the band The Smiths that filmed in the Capital Region earlier this year.

Lea told us about a transformational year when things fell apart.

At that point in time I didn't care about anything. I was very passive... selfish. I did a lot of things that I shouldn't have been doing, but mostly just graffiti. I was being very promiscuous while I was painting and I was much more aggressive -- fighting with people. It was not good.

I was, "Oh, I'm Alicia, the nice, sweet girl." And then I had this other side of me where I'm like, "Let's go pop some Xanax and drink a beer and go paint some fucking train with the homies."

You know, that's where I ended up getting to on one end, but I was this whole other person that I would expose to people. For the longest time I was really guilty, like I had to portray myself to society a specific way in order to be accepted because if society saw me in this other way, in the subculture, I'm just a punk kid. I wanted to be accepted by everybody in all these groups. I wasn't pleasing myself. I was trying to please these other people.

Alicia Lea -Smith's movie set.jpg
Alicia Lea on the set of Shoplifters of The World.

Someone else was caught and they had released my name to the police. So the police were looking for me. They came to my apartment without a search warrant and said, "If you don't come clean and tell us who you are. We're going to blame you for X Y and Z."

I was like, "I'm not telling you shit. Nothing."

But I had a panic attack. So I went and I destroyed a bunch of drawings that I had. I tried to throw away any empty paint cans I had to try to get rid of everything. I quit my job at Starbucks and I left my apartment. I was sleeping in my studio on the SUNY Albany campus and I knew that I had a warrant out for my arrest. Eventually Troy police contacted campus police. They found out that I was going to school there and campus police came to arrest me and turn me in to the Troy police.

I didn't think that they were going to press charges. I mean, like, me -- how could I get charged?

I definitely had an ego. My ego was the biggest thing that was driving me then. I thought I was the shit. And then when I got caught, it brought me back. I realized I'm not the shit. I can't just do whatever I want however I want because there is a way that we need to function in society that can be productive.

But it took me a little bit to finally realize that about myself -- that I can utilize my talents and my personality and the way that I interact with people in a positive way.

Alicia Lea working .jpg

I got a really good lawyer. He wanted about five grand. But I was a poor art student so I reached out to Albany Center Gallery and they lent me the space, and all these artists participated to raise money to help me financially. It meant so much to me -- seeing the community come together like that. But I was a little shithead. And I still was painting trains and abandoned buildings. I would be sneakier about it. I was just sneaking in and trying to do, you know, small art pieces. I got a job teaching at a summer camp, but I was still trying express myself. For some reason I felt like I couldn't control the adrenalin. I was like an adrenaline rush junkie. I wanted that excitement. And that idea of free art for everybody appeals to me so much.

I was hanging out with one of my favorite writers at the time. They came to meet up with me and I was so excited to meet them and I wanted to show them a spot where I painted. We ended up getting rolled up on by a cop. I didn't notice it at first. He pulled a gun out. I panicked. So I just ran into the woods. I'm hiding in the bushes. And these two kids on a boat see me hiding and they see the cops running around above where I was hiding, and they pointed me out to the cops. And they had dogs and stuff with them as well. And the one cop ran down the hill and just tackled me. I did a night in Schenectady County Jail.

You know -- it's an experience.

Alicia Lea -Abuela .JPG

I ended up getting a public defender for that case, who helped me out a lot. While I was going through my court case I ended up getting pregnant. I was already on probation with Troy. I had stopped painting illegally. They were very sympathetic to my case. I just had to pay a fine.

Just before I got into trouble some of my professors had found out that I was painting graffiti. But my artwork in class wasn't reflective of that.

One in particular said: "Why are you having two separate identities? This doesn't feel like you --- the stuff that you're making in class -- this isn't you. You're doing this whole other life over here. You need to make them come together and let it be a whole you."

So I started incorporating the actual spaces that I was painting in into my artwork, along with my ideas of residual energy and the way that we interact in spaces, as well as the gritty texture of the abandoned spaces where I was painting graffiti. I brought it into my paintings on a large scale. That was really pivotal for me.

Alicia Lea Flowers.jpg

So, now I'm obviously very open about the person that I am. Some of the choices that I've made I'm not proud of, but they make me the person that I am today -- the decisions that I've made and the things that I have done and crawled through.

Now I don't care if somebody accepts me. I'm tired of lying about who I am. And without it all -- I don't know -- I don't feel like I would be me.

I'm extremely non-judgmental when I talk to people. I can relate to them better. I love people. I love making people feel good. And we're all human. I am authentically honestly and unapologetically me.

That's what it did. It made me. It stripped my ego and made me realize that there is so much more to everything around me than just me.


It's really great to hear how her life has turned around and she is a positive influence on other people.

But I really have a hard time getting past the graffiti and the apparent lack of consequences from it. It is really expensive for property owners or the city to repair, and sometimes you can never really restore the surface back to what it was. Graffiti steals from society.

She is a GREAT Mom good person, very helpful with everyone very great artist all craft.see what she done with Zapa great things I could go on for ever,very very Smart...... Wish her all the luck in the world.,lu friend,,,,,,cu soon

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