Graffiti artist known as Totem decorates NYC with murals

Graffiti artist Misael Rivas, 52, started experimenting with spray paint, pens, pencils, and brushes when he was 12 ("just scribbly-scrabbly," he said), taking the artist name "Totem" from a pinball machine in a candy store in the Washington Heights neighborhood where he grew up, still lives, and works today.

"As a kid," Rivas said, "I used to walk past the hospital like, 'One day, I'm going to work there when I get older.'"  

By day, Rivas now works in the hospital where he was born, as a member of the New York-Presbyterian Bone Marrow Transplant team. By night and weekends, Totem paints canvases and murals like the one on 164th Street and Broadway commissioned by the National Audubon Society.

"I picked this bird because of its strength, its beauty, its color," Rivas said, "and I added my twist to it: my colors, my techniques, my style."  

That style — the colors, the lines, and how they meet — identifies murals like the hawk on 164th Street to others in the graffiti art world as a creation of this neighborhood, Rivas' crew, and Totem himself.

"The people from the neighborhood, they'll know it's me without even reading the name down there," he said.

While the pandemic complicated Rivas' hospital job, Totem found it easier to pursue and install his artwork.

"There was less people outside," he said.

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Rivas estimates he now has more than a dozen murals up all around the tri-state, many taking him 12 hours or more to complete.

"But they usually get covered quick and the next guys come and do something on it," he said.

So, Totem is always looking for his next canvas, now working on an exhibit for the Universal Hip Hop Museum and teasing big things to come.

"It started here," he said. "Then the Bronx, Queens, New Jersey but mostly Washington Heights."