#WhoIsHeartHead: Bronx Artist Converts the Hard-Headed
Maybe you’ve seen one of them before.
By: Emma Carey
A few are known to hang around certain streetlights and storefronts along Fordham Road. Others pop out at random passersby from alleyways down 189th Street. The same one might even be frequently seen plastered at the Bronx Beer Hall.
If you haven’t seen one of the “heart-heads” before, though, then a mindful walk around the Belmont neighborhood should do the trick. The series of graffiti drawings, often comprised of a simple black or white outline depicting a crescent-shaped body with a head shaped as a heart, are scattered on the surfaces of many urban landmarks throughout Fordham’s community.
Reminiscent of Keith Haring’s iconic characters, the rudimentary figures often appear throwing their arms up in the air in a “Look at me!” manner. This gesture might seem a bit biting to local shop owners or authorities who happen to discover a new heart-head on private property, but many Fordham students have expressed delight in the drawings’ growing population.
“It feels like a little scavenger hunt that I’m doing by myself,” said Fordham senior Eric McLoughney of his walks around Belmont. “I’m like ‘Oh, another [heart-head]! I haven’t seen this one here.’”
This summer, McLoughney decided to take his “scavenger hunt” a step further. Calling on his fellow Fordham classmates via Instagram, McLoughney began posting photos of the drawings around the Bronx with the hashtag “#WhoIsHeartHead.”
It was then that McLoughney realized he wasn’t alone in his fascination with the figures, as he received multiple replies from what he called “like-minded individuals…who had the same questions that [he] did.”
Unfortunately, McLoughney’s hashtag-driven search for the enigmatic #HeartHead was without luck. But, being one of his“like-minded individuals,” I decided to continue on with the search.
Taking a tip-off from Rival alumna Desiree Savini’s Instagram story of heart-heads on a Bronx Beer Hall napkin dispenser, I contacted the owner of the Beer Hall Instagram account. Being a popular joint among Fordham students and Belmont residents alike, chances seemed likely that the sticker may have been posted by a friend of the artist - or even #HeartHead himself.
Within minutes, I received a cryptic reply: “@Sienide repping hard.”
After a quick scroll through the account, I found the evidence for which I had been searching. Just a few posts down was a video of a blue-bodied and red-heart-headed painting on an unidentifiable urban wall.
So this was the mind behind the heads.
I messaged Sienide (who has asked that his tag be used in place of his full name for security reasons) and we exchanged numbers.
The following Sunday, I received a text from him: “I’m at MG Diner on Arthur Ave and 189th.” Underneath the text, a five-pointed star outline stood as a signature.
It took me a moment to discern whether it was him waiting on the street corner. His wiry body was draped in a long flannel shirt and camouflage cargo shorts. His eyes were covered by sunglasses. On his right hand, he sported a black glove and bandana. But then, I noticed the large red star tattoo on his forearm.
Sienide guided me to Morrone Pastry Shop, where he strolled to the back register and ordered a double espresso and a pastry from the glass enclosure. Though he acted like a long-time customer, Sienide told me he is not native to Belmont specifically.
Like his series (which he has titled the “Heart-Headed People”), the 47-year-old artist and teacher said he has lived almost everywhere in the Bronx: “Yankee Stadium. I’ve been to Bedford. South Bronx. Everywhere.”
“Hold on,” Sienide paused, before turning to the barista again. “Excuse me, ¿quiere miel? Amiga, ¿quiere miel?” Nodding, she handed him a packet of honey.
Along with multiple corners of the Bronx, Sienide said he also lived in Puerto Rico through the late 1970s. “Then I came back to New York in maybe, 1980,” said Sienide, “and my cousin was already writing. He got me into writing.” Writing, he explained, is another word for making text-centric graffiti.
According to Anna Matos, director of the gallery Wallworks in Mott Haven, this generation of Bronx-based writers in the early 1970’s introduced what would become the birth of graffiti. Along with its hip-hop movement catalysts of DJs and block parties, the Bronx became what Matos calls “the mecca for the graffiti world.”
“[The Bronx] is sort of where it all began,” said Matos, “and a lot of people would agree with that.”
Sienide’s cousin, among this vanguard of vandals, went by the tag “Sim.” So, Sienide went by “Sem.” Sienide said that the two of them began writing “inside buildings [and] hallways. Then at school. Then at the play yard. Then the neighborhood … That kept on going until we got into our teens.”
It was in these teen years, though, when more would change than just his tag. The name-change came from a chemistry class gone awry when he purposefully mixed two flammable chemicals together. “The teacher started calling me ‘scientist,’” he laughed, “Then I changed to Sienide.”
The change in course would come in tenth grade, though, when Sienide dropped out of school. “I got into selling drugs,” he said, “and that took up most of my time.” It wasn’t until Sienide entered the workforce that he realized he was “wasting [his] brain.”
“Everywhere I worked, pretty much,” he said, while scribbling on the doily that once held his pastry, “if it wasn’t art-related, I made it art related.”
So Sienide decided to go back to school. “I went to get my GED and I didn’t stop going until I got my Master’s,” he said - referring to his time at Monroe College and then the Fashion Institute of Technology. “School was what changed my view on my artistic endeavors.”
According to Matos, it’s “very rare for someone from [Sienide’s] generation to have gone to arts school,” as she explained that most of his peers continued to self-teach on walls and trains as Sienide once did in his teen years.
It was within these “self-taught” years of Sienide’s, though, when the heart-head was born. “It grew out of who I am. The design comes from me,” said Sienide. He grabbed his pencil and began to sketch in his notepad.
First, he drew an interlocking eye, heart, and the letter, “U.” “This is how I used to sign my post cards to my mother,” he said.
But, Sienide explained, as he grew older he soon realized he wanted his design to be “more personal.” Sienide drew the body of the current heart-head, a crescent shape.
Pointing to the body, he asked, “See this?” He lifted his hand, revealing a scar of the same shape on his palm. “It’s this.”
Sienide said his grandmother, who had been taking care of him when he received the mark, claimed it was from touching an iron. He was two years old.
“When you’re a kid, if you touch something hot, you’re going to move away from it,” Sienide said skeptically. “My mother thinks it was on purpose.”
According to Sienide, this burn signified a deep impact in his family’s cultural background. His father being Trinidadian and his mother Puerto Rican, Sienide said that his parents “used to say it was voodoo.”
“[The heart-head] was a way to get that out of my mind, and to show my mother that I was alright with it,” said Sienide.
Now, when he marks his world with these heart-heads (which he said he does at least four or five times per day), Sienide has a newfound intention of creating an openness to love within his viewers:
“This is a hard city to live in. Nobody helps nobody - hence, the heart-headed people … You’ve got hard-headed people that don’t want to be in love.”
In order to get through to these “hard-headed” city dwellers, Sienide explained that he strategically places the heart-heads in positions that will catch the attention, especially, of cell phone users. He said that most of his “little stick figures” are “down below” as a way to remind viewers to “put your phone away and look around and find happiness in the existence around you.”
“It’s a message to keep you aware that there’s love outside if you look for it. There’s love anywhere if you look for it,” said Sienide. “I learned how to give affection because I never got it. I’d had to search for it in other people … That’s the reason I became a teacher.”
Sienide has been teaching since 1992, and currently teaches at Bloomfield College in New Jersey. Formerly, Sienide taught at the Technical Career Institute in Manhattan.
“I like to talk to the … kids in my class who have troubles. You can tell who needs attention,” he explained, referring to his “loud” or “hardcore” students. “Sometimes four hours [in class] isn’t enough.”
It was easy to see why four hours might feel like a second with someone like Sienide - already our quick coffee break had run well over an hour. If it weren’t for the scribbled-on napkins and table surface now marking the detritus of our stay, I might have thought we’d just sat down.
Luckily, though, class was still in session: “Do you want to come with me to Tuff City and take some pictures?”
On our walk from Arthur to Belmont, Sienide told me of his plans to meet with a fellow artist in the tattoo parlor’s small graffiti park. He explained that the park, though hidden from street-view, has become a temporary “gallery” for works of local Bronx-based and visiting artists.
To see his work on display, though, you won’t need to jump the Tuff City fence. Sienide told me with excitement that this February he will be on exhibition at Mott Haven’s Wallworks gallery with none other than renowned graffiti artist Al “SAMO©” Diaz. Diaz is best known for his collaboration with the late Jean-Michel Basquiat as one-half of the famed “SAMO©” tag during the late 1970s.
Matos, who said she has known Sienide since a young age through her father, the artist Crash, is especially excited to bring together Sienide and SAMO. “It’s always exciting when you see one of the ‘old-schoolers’ getting his moment,” Matos said of Sienide. “There’s a lot of guys from his generation overlooked.”
As we rounded our final street corner, Sienide pointed to Keating Hall, now peeking up over the horizon of buildings in front of us. “I’m hoping to teach there one day,” he told me.
Though it appears that, given his following at Fordham, Sienide’s course would likely fill up quickly, he explained that this dream might not be fulfilled any time soon. However, until this day comes, Sienide’s top lesson to Fordham students during their time here is to explore the neighborhood.
“Satisfy your curiosity. Walk down alleyways. Talk to strangers,” he says. “Don’t listen to your mother. You’re an adult now.”
Who knows, you just might meet a heart-head in that alleyway. Or, better yet, the man behind them.