Federico Massa

Living and working as a full-time artist in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Milan native Federico Massa aka Iena Cruz first visited NYC in 2008. He has since moved here, enhancing NYC and beyond with his strikingly stylish aesthetic. This post is the first in a new series of interviews with artists born abroad who have decided to make NYC home.

"Iena Cruz" "Federico Massa"

When did you first visit NYC?

It was the summer of 2008. I stayed here for a month.  At the time, I didn’t know anyone in NYC.

What brought you here? Why NYC?

I was on vacation, and I was interested in exploring other cities. I had begun to feel that Milan is too small for me.  NYC seemed like a logical place to visit.


What was your first impression of NYC?

I fell in love with it at once.  I didn’t understand it, but I loved it. I felt inspired by the chance to be connected to so many different cultures. I thought everything about NYC is great!

What was your image of NYC back in Milan?

It was out of focus. The only image I had of it came from what I saw in movies and music videos. I really had no idea what to expect.


When did you decide to return here? 

I knew soon after my first visit that I needed to come back.

How did your family feel about you leaving Milan for NYC?

They were supportive. They know how difficult life is for an artist in Milan. Back home no artist is taken seriously until after he is past 50.


What were some of the challenges you faced once you decided to make NYC home?

I had to learn a new language. I had to find work to meet basic living expenses. I constantly had to concern myself with visa requirements and paper work. And in order to do all this, I had to put aside my painting. There was a general sense of instability.

Your current living situation is ideal – as your home is also your studio. How did you get so lucky?

I discovered this place on craigslist. When I contacted the owner, he asked me to show him a sample of my artwork! As soon as he saw it, he took me on as a tenant. At the time there were two other artists living here, both Mexican.

Iena-Cruz-bushwick -street-art

What was that like – sharing the space with these other artists?

It was wonderful at the time! And they’ve had a tremendous influence on my aesthetic. Through them, I discovered Mexican culture, and I’ve since adapted elements of it into my artworks.

Now that the space is all yours, how do you meet all your expenses?

Largely through a variety of commissioned projects. I also sell artworks and do set design.


Do any particular projects stand out?

The huge mural I did for the Williamsburg Cinemas on the corner of Grand and Driggs was an experience! It was unlike anything I had done before – both aesthetically and in terms of the people with whom I interacted while painting it.  And last month, I had the opportunity to participate in FAAM, Fine Art Auction Miami in Wynwood.

How has your artwork evolved or changed since you came here?

My current works feature and fuse elements of Italy, Mexico and NYC.  And as I’m inspired to push myself here, my art is certain to continue to evolve and develop.


How receptive have New Yorkers been to your artwork? To you?

It’s been so positive. My sense is that folks here admire my work, and they’ve been so welcoming.

What’s ahead?

Now that I have my green card, I just want to keep painting murals and exhibiting my artwork.

Interview by Lois Stavsky with City-as-School intern Zachariah Messaoud  

Photos: 1. In Miami for the FAAM MAJOR STREET ART AUCTION and 4. In Puerto Rico, courtesy of the artist; 2. In the artist’s studio, Lois Stavsky; and 3, 5-7, In NYC, Dani Reyes Mozeson


We discovered Federico Massa’s wondrous artwork this past fall on the streets of Bushwick, and we became instant fans. We recently had the chance to speak with him in his Brooklyn studio.

"Federico Massa"

 When did you first start hitting the streets?

Back in 1997. I was 16 years old and living in Milan.  But even earlier, I was writing my name, Fede, all over my house — to my mother’s dismay.

We’ve noticed that you sign your work “Cruz.”  Why “Cruz?”

It is derived from Santa Cruz, one of the most popular skateboard brands.  I was inspired by the skateboard culture back home in Milan. I grew up with it.

Do you have a formal art education?

I studied set design at Academy of Fine Arts of Brera in Milan. I graduated in 2006.

When did you first come to New York City?  And why?

Three years ago. I wanted more of an international experience as an artist.

"Federico Massa"

We have seen your work in Bushwick. Where else have you gotten up here in NYC?

Two years ago, I painted a mural in Williamsburg on Hope and Marcy. I had an exhibit at the nearby Graphite Gallery at the time.

How does the experience of painting in the streets here compare to that in Milan?

It was much easier for me to paint in Milan. Here I need to get permission to paint, or I could face serious penalties.  It is much more casual in Milan.

Did you do anything particularly risky back in Milan?

The riskiest thing I ever did was painting on moving trains. I learned how to run fast!  I loved the adrenaline rush!

Any favorite surfaces?  

No. Nothing in particular. I look for a surface that inspires me. Back in Milan, I loved pasting huge painted papers onto plywood panels on the streets. It was my way of reinventing them.

"Federico Massa graffiti"

What inspires you to continue to work on the streets?

I like sharing my work with lots of different people, and it’s great when people stop and talk to me.

Great! We’ve loved watching you at work, and we’re so glad you’re sharing your art with us here in NYC.  Do you always paint alone? Have you worked with any crews?

I created canvases and installations with The Bag Art Factory collective – a group of artists, including painters, sculptors, and set designers — in Milan.  For eight years we collaborated on a variety of projects and constantly organized exhibitions of our works. I’ve also collaborated and exhibited with Biokip, a group that fuses visual art and electronic music.

What about branding? Any thoughts about it?

I have no problem with; it depends on the project. A number of years back, I customized bags, graffiti-style, for Mark Jacobs. I loved getting paid to do what I love most to do!

"Federico Massa graffiti"

What is your main source of income these days?

I do set design. It is the perfect job for me, because I like to work with all kinds of materials.  

How do you feel about the move of street art into galleries?

I think it’s fine. Just about every artist who works on the streets would like to show in a gallery.  

Any thoughts on the graffiti/street art divide?

Lettering is the art of graffiti. Street art was born from graffiti. Street art has simply taken graffiti to the next level. The graffiti writers feel they are the original ones to claim the streets. And they are.

"Federico Massa graffiti"

How have graffiti writers responded to your street art?

They like and respect it.

We’ve noticed Latin American influences in your art work. Tell us something about that.

The Mexican aesthetic has had a huge influence on my art. It continues to inspire me.

How do you feel about the role of the Internet in all of this?

I think it is great. It is the best way for one to find artists and for artists to get noticed.

"Federico Massa" What’s ahead?

I’m open to all kinds of collaborations. I like to work with different materials and ideas. I’ve collaborated with poets and sculptors, and I look forward to more such collaborations.  I’m also always seeking huge walls. They inspire me!

Great! We are looking forward to seeing more of your murals on our streets here in New York City.

Photos by Dani Mozeson, Stefano Ortega (final image) and courtesy of the artist