Robert Lugo: The Ghetto Potter
The ceramics of Roberto Lugo pay homage to their classical past but are firmly rooted in the realities of his inner-city upbringing.
Roberto Lugo is an admired potter, known for creating traditional ceramic forms with socially conscious decorative designs.
Born in Philadelphia in 1981 to Puerto Rican immigrants, Lugo became interested in art after creating graffiti as a teenager. He started working in pottery after taking a class at a community college. He earned a BFA in ceramics art at Kansas City Art Institute and an MFA at Pennsylvania State University.
His work fuses European and Asian techniques and 21st century motifs, placing graffiti lettering or images of nonwhite people on items traditionally associated with aristocratic white culture. His art is held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art, and other major institutions.
Lugo is an assistant professor at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art.
Roberto Lugo: I have no idea of whether I’m going to paint flowers or a fish scale pattern, or whom I’m gonna paint. I let a lot of that come out through the process. And I love the idea that there’s so much magic left, too. You can make so much of a better piece of art, if you don’t decide it all from the beginning. I like leaving a lot of those spaces empty, for me to make those decisions sort of more instinctually. And I think some of that comes from my background in graffiti, having to make really sort of off the cuff decisions, improvisational decisions.
And until his early 20s, graffiti was the only artistic practice on Roberto Lugo’s resume. Raised in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia by Puerto Rican parents, Lugo never considered a career in art until he happened upon a ceramics class at a community college.
Eight years later he’s become one of the most in-demand artists in his field. The self-described “ghetto potter“ makes work that’s a meeting of a classical medium and his own upbringing.
Lugo: When I say I’m ghetto, I actually think of it as I’m representing a certain culture. I think that’s part of being a postmodern artist, is being able to represent where you come from. And my culture is so underrepresented in the visual arts that I feel it’s really necessary to make it blatant and say “Look, I’m from this place, and these are the qualities that you get when you have someone from this place.” It’s not, everyone from the ghetto isn’t going to be like me. But, for example, when I look at a potter’s wheel, one of the first times I saw it, I saw a wheel spinning, and I think about big rims. Where I come from, like, having really big wheels with shiny rims was a big thing. And so when I see that, I think about bling. I think about standing out. When a lot of people see an image of Abe Lincoln, they’ll think about honesty, you know, all these great things that Abe Lincoln did. And I see some of that, but I also see a food stamp, you know? And so, coming from where I come from, I have all these relationships with visual things. And when I make pottery, I’m able to, like, take those experiences that I’ve had and relate them to people who may not have had those.
Lugo: You know, where I come from, a lot of people think our main issue is poverty, and a lack of education. But also obesity is a big problem. If you’re obese, a lot of times people see you—and, in my case, I’m arguing that they see you as a face full of sprinkles, ’cause they don’t think you can take care of yourself. And so sprinkles is my way of making light of a really serious matter. And I find humor is almost necessary whenever I make the work I do, because if you’re gonna just beat people over the head with really hard issues and not give them any comic relief, it becomes really difficult to swallow.
Lugo: And so not only will I, you know, make sprinkles to talk about obesity, but sometimes I’ll use rap lyrics to talk about political issues or race issues, and I find that those give some light to a really heavy situation.
Lugo’s unique approach has made him highly sought after on the college lecture circuit. Among his most popular moves, infusing talks with his own spoken word poetry.
I prefer people that empathize over people that exercise.
You can work on your pecs and thighs
and see your bodies next to God.
But if your heart’s anesthetized
so you don’t realize how your judgments affect my real life
attempt to feel, gosh, you think you’re real wise.
But this pain can’t heal my real pride.
I haven’t seen my family for a year
and they comment on my weight, wait.
Lugo: The reason why I chose to be a potter is because it was, like, the first thing I ever did that I really received encouragement from. Sometimes I argue it’s the first thing anyone ever told me I was good at. And so you spend your life not sort of receiving, you know, positive reinforcement for things you do, and you finally get it, it kind of encourages you to keep going.
Lugo: When I was in college, I just didn’t sleep. I would work 18 hours a day in school. I was the first one in and the last one to leave. I was very far behind, in terms of my technical skills. I went to schools that were really technically virtuous, and the students could throw pots really well, and sculpt really well. And so, since I didn’t have that, I had to work really hard. And then when I got to the same level, I didn’t decide to stop. I just kept going.
Today, Roberto Lugo is still hustling. A typical day involves teaching at Marlboro College in Vermont from nine to five, and spending the small hours in the studio. All this in service of pushing the limits of his craft.
Lugo: You know, for example I often make these Century Vases, and the Century Vase was made for the World’s Fair here in Philadelphia in 1876. And so it was depicting 100 years of what it meant to be an American—all the innovations that we had. And it has George Washington’s face and bison, and so I’ll make a black Century Vase, and I’ll put, you know, Frederick Douglass’s face on there, Harriet Tubman’s face, and it’s a different conversation. And now I feel like I’m still—I’m not disrespecting the original designer, Karl Muller. What I’m doing is adding to the discourse.
But Lugo doesn’t just let his art speak—he’s also a vocal advocate for racial tolerance.
Lugo: I have this color skin, and so this color skin can be a lot of things, you know? It could be Middle Eastern, it could be from Greece, you know…it could be from a lot of places. But, because I never grew up in Puerto Rico, I had a hard time finding other Puerto Rican friends. And because I wasn’t black, I had a hard time really making black friends. And so I was in this really racially ambiguous space.
Lugo: Before, where I also think racially ambiguous meant that I didn’t have any connections, I find that it means that I have more, you know, and there’s more for me to relate to many different races as opposed to relate to less. And so although I’m really proud to be a Puerto Rican, I don’t see any of my white or black brothers as any differently. I’m really proud to be part of all of them, ’cause to be Puerto Rican is to be black, and to be Native Indian, and to be partly white.
AJC: Whenever we see a description of you, it’s as potter and activist.
AJC: Does it always have to be carrying a message?
Lugo: Yeah, I think anything that I make will probably wind up carrying a message. I don’t have that much time in this world, and I have so much to say, and I lived so many years of my life with no one wanting to listen. And now that people are listening, I’m gonna give ’em all that I got.