As a 9-year-old boy, Victor Palenque was looking out the window of a bus in Miami when he saw something he later learned was called graffiti.

Those images were burned in his mind and he craned his neck to see them every time he would ride through that neighborhood.

Thirty years later, the colors, the outlines, the drop-shadows, the pulse beat of those works of art are still in his head.

The energy of that form of expression is now often seen in Charleston. It might be on a wall or a fence or even the back of an abandoned building.

Much of it is the handiwork of Victor, but the artist that signs it is known as Ishmael.

All about freedom

For more than a decade, Palenque has been pulling out his cans of spray paint and decorating blank and rundown buildings.

His first words to me when reaching him on the phone one recent morning were “I don’t do ‘illegals’ anymore.” During the days of graffiti, street artists might not always ask for permission before deciding to apply their paint. Today, this aerosol artist works throughout the Southeast and many times is brought in by business owners of his generation who want to revitalize a neighborhood or generate some foot traffic. One way to do that is with a mural that covers an entire inside or outside wall.

Victor’s work is so detailed and his passion so pure, he’s now someone who others specifically bring to their parts of town to spruce-up their buildings. His biggest payoff? “Now I get a better wall,” he says while preparing to spend an upcoming month painting in a Miami neighborhood seeking a turnaround.

With that better wall comes additional freedom and that’s what this artist cherishes most.

On James Island, his work is featured on a wall at The Pour House. In North Charleston, it’s brightly on view in the Olde Village at Patch Whiskey’s studio. In West Ashley, his personal favorite is a mural he calls The Wheat Girl, on a building in Avondale.

The work is distinctive, it’s personal, it’s thought-provoking — it’s Ishmael.

He believes his kind of art indicates the area has life and that people are thinking for themselves. Not too long ago, some considered this kind of art vandalism.

There’s a big difference now, he’s being invited to be creative. For Victor Palenque, that’s extremely liberating.

Spray-painting nomad

Palenque spends most of his time between Asheville and Charleston these days. He’s lived in Florida, Mississippi and Arkansas along the way. He was born in Spain and often describes himself as “… a Spanish kid who speaks with a Southern accent.”

His parents escaped Cuba and remembers their frustrations at never feeling free to speak. Victor now believes his voice is quietly being heard.

He gets excited when talking about the variety of colors now available and how the quick-drying paint can be applied to any surface. It’s hard to know who the next mural might affect. He’s not a crusader, but believes his art might build a bridge to those who often don’t take the time to understand what he’s doing.

You never know, another 9-year-old might be looking out the window at one of those creations, right now.

I’m just sayin’….