Art and Community Building with Elijah Maura


Born in Las Vegas, ELIJAH MAURA is an illustrator currently based in New York. His work is versatile; spanning a variety of mediums and styles, it is impossible to pin down Elijah’s artwork to just one location. He draws, is a painter, graphic designer and graffiti artist, designs merch, creates zines, directs and creates album covers, and more.

I was introduced to Elijah’s art from constantly seeing the flyers and art he had created for many of the rappers I mess with. His art commonly features hand drawn text and illustrations, graffiti lettering, cartoon-like figures and symbols, and digital manipulation, creating pieces that — somehow — convey the importance of the art itself and also the context for the art; its significance, its historical position.

His artwork, strikingly distinct and unique as it is, is certainly enmeshed within current art, music, and fashion in the city. Elijah is the co-founder of CENO, “a NYC based studio comprised of individuals with a unifying respect for the culture of the youth.” He is also a part of CORPUS NYC, a hardcore music and art community in the city. He’s designed art with a slew of musicians: album covers for Pink Siifu and AKAI SOLO’s “Black Sand,” rapper Medhane’s “Ba Suba, Ak Jaam,” as well as for Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment’s “Surf” EP; not to mention dozens of flyers, posters, and imagery for band Show Me The Body, rapper MIKE, and numerous others.

Though that only partially shows Elijah’s track record as an artist, I’m also not sure that these individual examples truly capture his art. As evidenced by the numerous name drops and references to friends, family, and other artists in our long conversation, Elijah’s art is inseparable from the love he has for his homies. All throughout our conversation he invoked his community of friends and family (many of whom are artists themselves) as sources of inspiration motivating many of his creative projects and desires.

To view more of his art, follow Elijah on instagram. All art in throughout this post made by Elijah.


What drew you to art? Why and where did you start?

When I was young, I grew up playing music and shit. I played the drums until high school, and I was really not into school. I grew up in Las Vegas and it was pretty miserable. I was trying to drop out – not go to high school. My parents were just like, You gotta try something. And, I was into graffiti; my dad did graffiti growing up, he’s from the Bronx. My whole family’s from the Bronx, or Puerto Rico. So, yeah, I just grew up around his shit, I started doing graffiti and shit. 

Corpus skateboardI also grew up at a tattoo shop. A good family friend – EZ, my brother – he wanted to intern at a tattoo shop that my dad used to get tattoos at. Then, he started working there so I was really just at the tattoo shop doing graffiti. I had a portfolio of just dumb tags and shit, and I got into this arts high school Las Vegas Academy. I was just happy to go somewhere else. And, it ended up popping off. That shit really put me in a whole nother direction.

What was it about the school?

[The arts school] was cool because all the cool kids were the kids who actually gave a fuck abut what they were doing, and that was the difference.

And, the people who everyone at the school was chattin about was the kid who was just snapping right now at school. Cause there was jazz, performing arts, theater tech, photo at this school. So everybody was like, Yo, this kid is nice with the lighting. This kid is like a crazy dancer, this kid is a crazy painter. So we were all trying to be cool based off that shit. So that school…that’s why, really, all my friends I was fans of on a peer level.

I want to ask about that later, too, cause I think one of the things that’s cool about what’s happening in New York art right now is that it looks like there’s a lot of collaboration. It seems like that’s been in your code, I guess, since you were young.

Yeah, man. You gotta work with people. I used to paint and shit. That shit is kinda boring. Why is one person’s ideas this important? I don’t fucking care, I don’t go to galleries anymore, unless it’s the homie.

What are your artistic influences, if you have any?

The homies!

I don’t know even when I was painting and shit, I didn’t really have any favorite painters. Well, I guess I did; I had some, like back then, I guess, it was like Egon Schiele, like weird, contorted bodies. And Francis Bacon shit, just really dark shit. I don’t know, shit like that. And, I guess I was excited to be learning how to get good at something. But as soon as I realized that when I was having gallery shows and shit, none of my friends were there cuz that space was not made for them. Who the fuck knew about galleries? Nobody did that shit on their Saturdays, or Thursdays, or whatever the fuck. 

For my people shirtSo, then I just realized that the shit I was really looking at, and the shit I was actually getting excited about, really was album covers and t-shirts I wore every day. I’d get a fucking t-shirt and be hype growing up. Still, to this day, and my friends! That was one things in regards to art that we all appreciated, so eventually I really started looking at the shit I grew up looking at more closely. Just a lot of old posters I grew up seeing, album covers. I remember like Stones Throw and DEFJUX have the same artist doing different covers, and making those connections.

And now, yea, really just the homies. My homie Chris Wilson, he’s a fucking incredible illustrator. I always think about him when I’m working on shit. Of course my homies, like, Abe from AINTWET, that kid has absolutely…we’ve made a lot of shit together, and definitely helped me think about the way I make shit. And the homie Clay (Late to My Funeral), we went to school together and he fucking put me on odee also. He really put me on to just flipping shit, which I always kind of did, but he really made me think about it. Just taking images that exist and – like popular culture – turning it into something more specific, and it’s sick. It’s like sampling.

Yeah, it seems like there’s a lot of historical influences you draw from, based on recent history or even just like old posters and flyers.

Yeah, I do a lot of that, for sure. Once again, I started referencing shit that I just grew up looking at. Like, that Liv [Pink Siifu] poster with Maxo and Jada Reign and Fly Anakin and shit…

Siifu-Jadalareign Cover

Yeaa, that one went crazy.

…Yea, I just wanted to draw some Fat Albert type shit. I just, like, sat there and figured out how to make it look like them. Liv likes to be really involved, which is always nice. But we were going back and forth about background, talking more and more about airbrushed mall portrait backgrounds and shit, and we started fucking with that. So, it’s just like getting your portrait taken at the mall, regular hood shit. And then I just drew them all in their clothes. Or, like the Medhane shit is an old Black Power poster that I have in my room.

Yeah, I was looking at that, I think that’s one of my favorites just cuz it’s so historically rooted, but it still looks crazy today.

Yea, that shit is nuts. That’s another thing, when I reference something, I’m usually obviously just referencing it. I’m not trying to take credit. But, that’s another cool thing about illustration to me, it’s pretty linear history. Everything is just mad connected, and I’m not worried about new ideas necessarily, you just gotta flip it. If this idea is something I care about, I’m gonna make it work. If this is what I’m thinking about, like, that’s what I’m gonna end up using. It’s like sampling to me.

When you make your art, it doesn’t seem like any external concern, really – just making art for you, your friends. So, how do you navigate questions of commodity and capitalism? How does that influence the way you think about stuff?

It’s mad hard. It’s mad hard. I do random shit, and I do a lot of shit I just don’t post, you know? Like, for bread. And yeah, it’s just hard. I guess you just hope to grow with people, and hopefully everyone’s in a better position to be putting each other on. That’s really the main way I try to move.

It’s really just hoping that you can grow together. I am part of two collectives. One that I started, and one that my homies in Show Me The Body started — my homie Julian. Basically, CENO is the shit that I run, with my sister Asha, Elias, and Naya, Noble. … But, we were just like, yo, we do all the same shit, we deal with a lot of the same misrepresentation, we have a lot of homies who don’t know how to deal with this shit. And my sister Asha’s always been in this shit. She used to be the tour manager for Lizzo four or five years ago, and before that was her photographer. And she manages Show Me The Body now, and is a part owner/creator of CORPUS. I knew a bunch of kids. And, we were all just like, Yo, we don’t know what to do with ourselves, so we kind of put our heads together and were just like let’s organize what we know. And that has been the most profitable thing. Just going for the long haul. Taking L’s and letting it happen.

And then CORPUS is mostly hardcore shit. And just like New York underground shit. There’s rap in that shit, too. Tripp Jones is part of CORPUS, some other projects coming out with other rappers.

But just building! We’ve got a fucking headquarters and we’ve all just got a live-work situation that’s just garage space. We’re just trying to fucking stick together and pay each other. If five people make music, three people draw, four people make videos or whatever, you can hire each other in a fucking circle. That’s what we’ve been trying to do. And, be open. … You just work with people you trust. And that’s the only way to keep something sustainable. And do random jobs. That was a long-winded answer, but you work with people you trust and just do random fucking jobs.

I was going to ask about CENO, too, because I think the mission that y’all have of centering the youth and community through art is something that’s so distinctly different than what happens in a lot of art today, at least. How does your art embody the youth, embody that community spirit? Are you conscious about that, or is that just how it is?

Yeah, I mean, it’s tricky. I never want to say I’m capable of being, like, representational of everybody in a particular community. I can’t say that my work is just a snapshot of time and space, by any means. It’s definitely my perspective. And, I know you always insert your ego when you’re making something. It’s hard, especially when it’s art. I mean, I guess it doesn’t have to be ego, but you know what I’m saying. You insert yourself. 

But, really the main thing for me is a disconcern with the spaces that aren’t made for me or any of my people. Like, I really could care less. I think, hopefully, it sticks in that way, in the sense that I just work with the people that I trust, and the people that I see as my peers. 

Since I got here five years ago, I was finally linked up with my whole family again, and was just like, I need to find my friends. … I met just a bunch of kids that I’d keep seeing over and over, and I just started going out based off of that scene and those venues, and kind of watching what’s happening, and meeting kids that are super talented and figuring this out.  All of us just being kids and not having resources and doing exactly that – just being like, We got each other. So, hopefully it’s just representation in the sense that we’re in the same place at the same time, and none of us had shit. We saw each other’s work and were like, that parallels with what I’m doing; I think it would make sense if we worked together. But, I don’t know, you just gotta be there, bro. 

Going outside is, like…you just gotta go outside and link people.

I feel what you’re saying. Even the shows I’ll go to, I’ll see some of the same people, and it feels like a very small scene at the same time.

Yea, it is a small scene. I really think the main thing is a disconcern with whatever else. And, I don’t know. I’m trying to be more careful about, like, using fucking buzzwords like “the community” and shit, because I don’t know what the fuck that means, necessarily. It become divisive and territorial.  “The” is quite broad. But, I mean community in the sense that we are all in the same room all the time. We have mutual friends. Not even on some, the rap scene or the DIY scene or whatever, which is all positive and great and a part of me, but the community really in the sense of like, We are connected. We have connections.

Tripp Jones coverAnd, I went to art school, and I’ve had access to shit. And, I was in high school, painting, trying to get into galleries, did get into galleries, into cool shit. And then I was like, nobody fucking cared. As soon as I was around other people I was actually comfortable around, making shit, it was just like…nobody actually cares about this shit here, nobody cares about us in these spaces, so let’s just not. The institution of art needs us either way, though. Don’t fucking suck Pitchfork’s dick, or Fader, because they’re gonna hit you up. If we all keep working with each other, they’re going to need a fucking article. Everyone’s gonna need something, as long as you’re focused on what you’re doing, and you’re doing it, people are going to…they need to talk about it.

How does your identity as Puerto Rican influence your work?

I don’t know man, odee I guess! It’s the only perspective I have. It’s mad cool. I think it’s cool cuz…it’s complicated, it’s not even cool. Being Puerto Rican is mad bugged out, yo. It’s just super complicated, and really gives you a lot of perspective. It’s embodied colonization.

For me, I was born in Las Vegas, bro, I was born in “the” States, I wasn’t born on the island, or in the city. I don’t speak Spanish. And, the Puerto Rican that I know – the shit that I grew up being like, my peoples made this, my peoples made that – that shit was graffiti, hip-hop, salsa. That shit is, you know, the communities that we all grew up in. I don’t know. Knowing our history, in regards of how disposable we’ve been to America…

I think, really, being Puerto Rican just makes me a little more empathetic. Just socially…I don’t know. Yea, I love that shit. But it’s mad complicated. I’m very proud of my peoples and my diaspora but it’s complicated. It’s mad complicated. There’s a lot of different perspectives to have, but I know where I’m from, I know what I look like, you know what I mean? But it’s ill. It makes me think a lot about the space I’m taking, and whose space, and it makes me appreciate sharing space a lot more.

Based off what you just said, what do you think the role is of art – your art, specifically? What does art do for your community, as Puerto Rican, as someone who grew up around graffiti?

neighborhood's watchI think a lot of it is representation in the sense of mofuckers actually doing it. That’s the thing, that’s kinda like what I was saying before, about really not being concerned with the other shit. Representation is obviously mad important, but sometimes it’s just not enough to see another person like you in the room when the whole machine is the same color or same thing. I feel like, with art, graffiti…just knowing the linear history. The Bronx was fucking burning from the late 60’s to the fucking 80’s. And no one was doing shit about it, they were leaving everybody over there. There was, like, hundreds of thousands of people that had to dip. Mad Puerto Ricans, mad Black people. And were just left with literal rubble and burning buildings. And then they started writing and drawing on the shit. You don’t think they did it to make it more desirable for themselves? To see each other? They were writing their names, like fucking TAKI 183, from 183rd! Oh shit, homie’s from 183rd! I’m from fucking 150-whatever, I’m gonna put my shit up over there so they know we’re in their hood. It’s just like representation.

And, growing up, the album covers and shit. Or, like Fat Albert! Like, referencing Fat Albert, bro. When I was a kid, that was the only black motherfuckers as cartoons on the screen. There definitely wasn’t no specifically Puerto Rican motherfuckers i was aware of on the screen. But, like, my sister looks like that. My grandma looks like that, you know what I mean? And then, finding out it is people who look like you and your friends and grew up like you that had these ideas. And I also think more than like reading books and learning how to study, that’s like oral history and visual history. Just sharing stories. Narrative shit. That’s what we got! We’re written out of history, but this is our indisputable history, our relics!

Another reason I like illustration is cuz it’s mad narrative. Even if it’s one little still image, not like a series of squares like a comic strip, it’s a person in a place doing a thing, most of the time. It kinda puts you in a particular space. It’s a little quick story time. And it’s just cool that the space you could be brought into is yours. Even though it’s in your mind, you know you belong there. It’s just cool, and I fuck with all types of shit, it’s about all that shit, bro. It’s seeing eye-to-eye. It’s knowing that other people…you’re not the only one thinking about this shit, or seeing this shit. It’s like, that’s what up.

Concrete Chronicles coverI want to ask you real quick about the album covers, because you keep mentioning it and I think it’s one of the coolest things, for me too. Album covers have such a distinct memory on your childhood, on your existence. You talked about Stones Throw, like the Madvillainy cover, I don’t even know how to describe it. Or, even graffiti too, just seeing these specific symbols and stuff is so meaningful. I don’t know if there’s even a reason or need to put words to it, but what does that do for you, that imagery? Is that a feeling you hope to create? How does that translate to what you make?

I guess it’s just communication. It’s cool you feel as strongly about seeing a piece of graffiti or something. But, it’s just a cool language. It’s that same thing! It’s representation. Hundreds of hundreds – and thousands – of people walking past the shit I write on, nobody’s thinking about this shit. But, everyone else who sees it is like, “that’s crazy”, or be like, “that’s that kid.” Like, damn, he was over here? What the fuck was he doing over here? Oh, that shit’s crazy, that letter’s nuts. And really just gassing something that you’re parents and their parents came up with. It’s a tradition that came out of the wild poverty and the situations, like, not too long ago, and not very far away. It’s just evidence of needing to prove and to see ourselves. So, for me, seeing graffiti and shit feels good because it feels like I’m talking to my people without even having to talk to anybody.

With album covers and shit, yeah, I don’t know. When you hear an album, and you’re looking at the cover…like, I grew up with CDs and shit, and my dad had mad cassettes so I grew up listening to all his cassettes and sneaking shit upstairs that I knew was too bad for me to listen to. When you’re listening to an album and you’re looking at the fucking cover, and you’re like, Yo exactly. That shit just crazy. And it’s cool to see that it’s just people who occupy the same spaces that are like yeah, I hear this. I hear it the way you hear it. I can draw and see it the way you see it. It’s just cool to communicate with each other and not have to prove anything to anybody else. And just be like, this is about us right now, fuck what they think. This is cool. This is all about our ideas. We not referencing nobody but ourselves. We not tryna impress nobody but each other. It’s not, This in-relation-to a history that, once again, doesn’t give a fuck.

Everything we’re referencing cares about us and was made by us and is for us. And is always going to be, because we care, you know?