A new exhibition in London – 'King of Hearts' – marks Angel's comeback to the art world.



In 1978, when Angel Ortiz was just 10 years old, he joined his local Boys' Club of New York (BCNY) in Manhattan's Lower East Side. In the Club, which provides out-of-school care and teaching programmes, Angel made some friends with boys who were a few years older.

A few of them were into graffiti -- a young, underground and predominantly East Coast form of art that involved spraying tags and drawings around the city. One day they hit Angel with a proposal. "They used to go writing on the streets, on the trains, on the buses," he says. "And they were like: 'LA, do you wanna come tagging up?' And I was like, 'yeah'."


Jumping into train yards and painting buildings, Angel instantly caught the bug and started spraying his tags, "LAII", "LA2", and "LAROC" -- short for "Little Angel" around the Lower East Side and beyond.



Angel Ortiz (LA II) In His NYC Studio


Naturally, as children, they also left their marks around their school, so much so that their principal came up with a plan to contain the scribbles, signatures and artworks that were popping up around the grounds. In 1980, he sent a list around the different classes, and those who wrote their names on it would be allowed to paint the schoolyard. Without hesitating, Angel signed up.

Around the time Angel was getting into graffiti, so too was Keith Haring, who, aged 20, had recently moved to New York from Pennsylvania. He had become enamoured with the DIY nature of the scene, made by young artists who sprayed their art outside of the traditional confines of galleries and exhibitions, and used the urban jungle as a canvas. Keith had caught wind of the school project and decided to pay a visit himself.


One calligraphic tag, in particular, caught his eye -- he'd seen "LAII" before scrawled in the street and had been impressed. "One of the kids came knocking on my door," Angel says. "He was saying: 'There's this white guy with glasses doing babies and dogs -- he's called Keith, and he's asking for you.'"


Angel Ortiz, Woodstock, 2022


Over four decades after this first encounter between the pair, Angel's first solo exhibition outside of the USA, King of Hearts, is being shown at east London gallery D'Stassi Art. Upon first glance, his art instantly brings to mind Keith Haring's, with its bright colours, virtuosic lines and 80s-style Manhattan markings -- until you realise that Keith Haring's work was also Angel's.

Angel went out to meet Keith in the schoolyard that day and helped carry his ladder to his nearby apartment, where Keith had a yellow taxicab hood that he wanted to work on. While he was there, Angel tagged his signatures across it before Keith started "adding his figures to it" and painting details around it. A couple of weeks later, Angel received a phone call.


"LA, I got some money for you," Keith said on the other side of the line.


"What?" replied Angel.


"Yeah, I sold the paint, man," said Keith, having flipped the taxicab hood for $1,400.


Angel Ortiz, Red Zone, 2022


In 1982, Keith wrote about the first meeting and their subsequent connection himself: "The contrast between our lines was exciting. There is something uniquely satisfying to me in the fusion between our two styles of drawing. It is a delicate balance between the archaic and the distinctly modern, classical and psychedelic art at the same time."


From here, as their art took off, the duo worked relentlessly for the next six years, with Angel even dropping out of school as they travelled across the world. They split any money they made 50/50. "We painted so much," Angel says. "We did walls together; we did shows together; we painted vases, coaches -- we did everything. It was magic."


The workflows were fast and loose, but often Keith would draw figures and outlines with a brush, and Angel would spray in empty spaces with his signature scribbles, lines and details. Look closely at some of Keith and Angel's most iconic works between 1980 and 1986, and you may find "LAII", "LA2" or "LAROC" hidden within the detail.


"I taught him everything," Angel says. "I showed him how to refill the markers. I showed him how the community is run -- I showed him my type of environment."



Markings by Angel Ortiz courtesy of Ferco Col


Their work together slowed after 1986, as Keith's fame exploded worldwide and Angel chose to stay closer to his Lower East Side home and roots, but they remained close friends and "brothers" all the way until 1990, when Keith tragically passed away.


A few months before, when Keith was dropping Angel back at his apartment, he broke the news. He was working on a biography with some writers who had interviewed Angel. "We drove together in the car, and he said: 'LA, I got the AIDS,'" says Angel, as he wipes his eye. "And I just started crying. It was all the way to the end."


After Keith's death, his legend, and much of the work that the pair collaborated on continued to grow in popularity, but without his friend and creative partner, Angel's contributions were overlooked. With that also ended due credit and payment for his work. In the three decades since, he has struggled with personal loss, financial instability, and run-ins with the authorities -- all while his art with Keith was shown in galleries across the world.


A concerted effort from some of those closest to him has attempted to rewrite his contributions back into the history books, as well as shine a light on the art that he has continued to make since. It's given him the platform for his first international exhibition since the 80s with Keith, and a full-length documentary is under works for a release next year. "It's beautiful, you know," Angel says, as a grin beams across his face. "The D'Stassi Gallerygiving me the opportunity to display my art in London. It's a world of joy."


The works created for King of Hearts are a wink to the past, but also an expression of the present. Now aged 55, his artistic style is ever evolving since those teenage years spent working with Keith. There is a tribute piece to his former partner, set around Keith's iconic "Three Eyed Smiling Face", as well as a painting using the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, marking solidarity with its people, in light of the Russian invasion earlier this year.


Also featured in the exhibition is a collaboration with STIK, the Shoreditch-based street artist on his home turf, on a large six-foot-by-six-foot canvas painting merging their distinctive iconography and styles. The pair are friends and have previously worked together after meeting in New York in 2014.
Most of all, though, over 40 years after first writing graffiti in the Lower East Side, Angel is just happy to be doing what he loves the most. "Before I met Keith, I was doing my art," Angel says. "After he passed away, I was still doing my art. I'm still doing my art today -- I came to London to tag up. It's the blessing that I have."
'King of Hearts' is running at D'Stassi Gallery from 30 September - 28 October 2022