Once you pass through the picket fence of CV alum Andre Charles’ home studio in Brooklyn, you think you have entered a dreamland. Every surface that could possibly retain paint has been tagged with Andre’s bright, beautiful signature art. Ladders and enormous pieces of wood are ready for his next inspiration, which currently is an enormous original design for The Children’s Village. Check out the video below.
Andre, who is arguably one of New York City’s most successful urban artists, has designed for Donna Karan’s DKNY brands and Seinfeld, and worked alongside Keith Haring. But Andre’s world was not always beautiful. He came to CV in the early 80’s because dyslexia and ADHD caused him to act out in school. At 12 years old, he was unable to read or write. At CV, he learned to use his hands and his art to focus his energy. Staff gave him lanyard string to keep his hands busy so he could focus in class, a trick he still uses anytime he needs to concentrate. He fondly remembers his local Dobbs Ferry mentors, a couple who took him for birthdays and holidays and who “believed in me and gave me hope.”
Andre’s first designs were flyers for CV events such as the circus, which he also built and designed the sets for. On home visits to NYC, Andre would study the graffiti on the trains and come back to campus and practice. He made posters for the cottage walls and he would take magic markers to the CV-distributed jeans and sneakers. Before he knew it, kids were trading the Nike’s they got from home for Andre’s designs on off-brand CV shoes. That’s where he learned his “hustle” which eventually became a successful career on the urban art scene.
Andre left CV and returned home to the Bronx. He tried to get a job at the supermarket, but he still wasn’t able to read or write very well. “I would be in line with pretty girls and I was embarrassed that I couldn’t complete the applications. That’s when I knew I had to be my own boss.”
Rather than selling drugs, he capitalized on the thriving drug trade in his neighborhood and sold custom t-shirts to the dealers. “I wasn’t a crack dealer. I was a crack t-shirt dealer.” Everyone in his neighborhood was buying custom clothing from Andre. Businesses were paying him to decorate their storefronts. He became the leader of a graffiti crew in the Bronx.
“I learned to be a leader at CV. You either followed bad kids or you became your own leader and did good. People followed me and it was my choice to do good or bad. I always chose good, but I never judged anybody for their hustle. All I could ask was that you be the best you can be. If you’re going to be a drug dealer, be the best drug dealer. If you’re going to steal cars, be the best. CV taught me to choose my career and to be the absolute best I could be at whatever I chose. I always chose art.”
Today, Andre welcomes neighborhood kids into his studio to help with projects and events. He gives kids a safe place to hang out. “They hear my story, they see my energy, and they’re motivated to do stuff.” One of these teens, Isaac, was helping in the studio during our visit.
Isaac said, “I’m trying not to be in the street a lot. I know I can help out here and I’ll be doing something positive. Andre is full of energy. He’s a kid at heart and he has something new for me every time I come, so I keep coming back.”
Andre’s advice for current CV youth: “If you’re smart and you have an idea, stick with it. No matter what, don’t believe that you can’t do it. Take advantage of everything that’s free up there. Grab it. Learn from it and hold it in your life forever. When you come back from CV and into the jungle, nobody is going to give you a break like they do at CV. There are no breaks in the real world. Be grateful for everything you’re being given and taught. It will shape the rest of your life if you know how to use it.”