Blunts, Joints and Lean: The Art of Sergio Garcia

By David Jenison on February 7, 2017

Sergio Garcia previously made music with the post-hardcore band Lady of the Lake, but his visual expressions found more fans among the hip-hop elite. His sculptures include cannabis-themed pieces purchased by the likes of The Hash, Marihuana & Hemp Museum, but Garcia became famous for his Lean series depicting the infamous mix of prescription-strength cough syrup and soft drinks popularized in the Houston rap scene. This codeine- and promethazine-powered intoxicant—known as lean, syrup, purple drank, sizzurp and other creative nicknames—blew up during the Governor Bush years thanks to DJ Screw, while Oscar-winning Tennessee rappers Three 6 Mafia helped take it national with the summer 2000 anthem “Sippin’ on Some Syrup.” How Garcia stumbled upon the idea of purple drank art, however, will blow your mind. 

You come out of the hardcore music scene, but your art is huge with the hip-hop community. For example, Diddy, Lil Wayne and Future all like your work. I imagine the rappers especially like the Lean series about syrup.

Yes, and those pieces made me worry the most because people died on it before and I feared the pieces might not be perceived the way I wanted. I’m from Texas, and it’s a head nod to the Houston rap scene. It originally started as a commission. I don't want to put the story out there, but the guy who commissioned it was really Christian. 

You can’t leave it there. Please tell me what happened.

Basically, a buddy asked me to do it as a gift for someone. I started on the piece, and he even helped me. I’d ask, “Hey, what about this pinky ring?” and he's like, “Ah, that’s about 70 percent,” so we worked together to get the jewelry up to about 90 percent of what rappers were wearing in Houston. Then I had his brother come out to shoot it. They're both Christian, and the brother got weirded out when he took the photos. I don’t think he expected it to look so real. 

We did the photo shoot to say, “Hey, this is what it looks like when it's displayed,” because it would be really weird to just hand their friend a box full of hands. Later I went to the place where they worked and asked, “Hey, what's up with the photos? I need them before we give the gift to your brother’s friend.” He was like, “Hey man, let me talk to you outside. I had to destroy the photos. I almost died off that stuff. I found God and like demons came out of me.” I was like, “That’s cool and all, but you were just supposed to document it. When people document a war, they don't have to agree with either side. They're not really there for that, they're there to document something, and that's what you were supposed to do. It's even what I kind of did with the piece.”

He took it too personal, so I'm driving home calling his brother like, "Please don't tell me you destroyed the piece!" He said, "I'm kind of on the fence 'cause one week I want to give it to my friend, and the next week I feel like it’s praising it." The guy he was giving it to needed to kick the habit. He wears jewelry and even had a clothing label with “lean” on it so the friend had second thoughts about giving it to him. Finally I convinced him to give it back to me, and Thinkspace [Gallery] said they’d show it in Sculpt New York. The next morning he texted me, “Man, you got through to me, and I was going to give it back to you, but a guy at my church destroyed it." I pretty much forgave him as he told me, but that was one of the first pieces where we didn't have [professional] photos of the work, but it was one of the first pieces I actually shot with my phone. I promoted it, and it did really well. Then I made another one for Sculpt Miami, and it did really well.

How have other people reacted?

I think Complex posted it on Instagram, and a lot of people really liked it, but someone wrote, "That's messed up, I'm going to unfollow you." I saw they liked the photo, they tagged me in the photo, and it was up for like five minutes, but I think they scanned all those comments and deleted it. They must have thought it was a touchy thing in some ways. It's very controversial. When I did it in Miami, I was worried about the same thing, but then Paul Wall reached out to me, “Hey man, I really like what you're doing." That told me that at least the Houston rap scene dug it, and they knew I wasn’t trying to mock it. 

There's a photographer named Peter Beste who documented the Norwegian Black Metal scene and the Houston rap scene. He got into this community that most people can't get into, and he got the document. He didn't know anything about it, so he had to do it pretty trill, and that's where I was with it. This is a hardcore part of the culture, and I wanted to stay real true to it.

There's way more to this than that, man. Someone wanted me to do a collaboration with his particular hand and the Lean. Money was not an issue, so they couldn’t understand when I said no. I tried to explain that my piece was about the Houston rap scene, and I didn’t want to mess with it. They said, “What do you mean? A lot of celebrities do it. Justin Bieber does it.” I'm like, "Man, you're not even helping the situation at all."

If I can backtrack, why would Christians ask for a syrup sculpture? 

My buddy and I were in the same graffiti crew. When you see him, he's all tatted up, and he evolved at [church] later, I think when his mom passed. He got way more into it than normal, you know. He and his brother still do hip-hop music, and it's like Christian oriented, and they try to combine everything too much together. If you meet the dude, you'd be, “Okay, I can see it's kind of a weird deal.” He hasn't fully gotten out of everything, but he's still… you know? 

Did his brother give you details about the demons that came out of him?  

He has before. When you see him tell these stories, he gets into this zone like he goes somewhere. I really don't believe the story, or at least I don’t think his interpretation of what happened is accurate, on top of how extreme it is. 

The Hash, Marijuana, and Hemp Museum in Amsterdam collects your art, correct?

When we did Miami two or three years ago, I did a joint piece in a woman’s hands with a diamond ring, and I did a blunt piece with a guy who had an American Eagle and grease under his fingers. He looked like he had been working on cars. They ordered two of the blunt ones for both [the Amsterdam and Barcelona] locations.

At Art Basel in Miami, you exhibited a giant ashtray with a cannabis joint that you titled A Little Conversation Piece. What is the conversation people should be having about cannabis?

It's really a conversation piece about everything in America. It’s weird how [cannabis] is legal here, not there, this county yes, maybe that county. It gets to this point where it’s like, is it taboo to smoke out in the open? Where are we on this? Where are we with anything? When I was younger, there was more middle ground. It's gotten so extreme that common sense went out the window. Especially with Donald Trump, it's like, what are we doing now?

Are you a fan of cannabis yourself?

Oh, for sure. My wife smokes every day, and I'm around a bunch of people who smoke, but I don't smoke a lot. For me, if I'm in an environment like a festival or a party, that's more or less when I smoke. I do a lot more edibles than smoke.

Do you feel Texas is undergoing positive change regarding cannabis?

I do, but who I kick it with is probably a lot different than most. In general, I think people are slowly starting to see The Man behind the blue curtain. People aren't accepting [cannabis] super fast, but deep down, a lot of people are starting to know [the government] overreacted. Information's coming so fast these days. Everybody thought, “Oh, this is the truth, and that is the truth," but now they're starting to think, "No, maybe that's not the truth." A lot of older people are getting super gassed up. They thought everything Fox News fed them was gospel, but now it’s like, “Wait a minute.” Some people don't want to be open minded, and they will always be that way, but the people who can be swayed are starting to persuade Texas.


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