Recovering Artists Hit the Street

Cybin artwork / Minneapolis

Two active artists in recent protests tell of mixing painting with addiction recovery.

For years, Cybin was deep into heroin and coke. He felt all their effects. On a wintry day, he was on the verge of suicide. He imagined his body slamming onto the ice below the Lake Street bridge.

Eventually Cybin got clean, then relapsed, and relapsed again multiple times. When he first walked into a recovery meeting with the help of his girlfriend, he was awestruck by how people cheered and hugged him as a newcomer.

“I’m was, like, what the hell? I don’t know you people, but this feels great,” Cybin recalls. He also remembers thinking, “I want that same feeling…so I kept coming back.”

An artist from childhood, Cybin says that making art helps to keep him from using drugs. In 2006, he immersed himself in the graffiti culture, especially enjoying the beauty of typography. He would happily hang out for long hours under bridges and in other public settings shaping words into dynamic, flowing, bold designs. It made him feel good, he says.

But Cybin’s break-up with his girlfriend in the early part of 2020 felt unbearable, and once again he got on the using and withdrawal cycle. “I overdosed a handful of times, ended up in the hospital once,” he says, “because the stuff that I was doing was heavily laced with fentanyl.”

Off drugs and into the streets

Cybin / “Justice for George” art

Just over a month before George Floyd was killed, Cybin latched onto sobriety once again, after his sponsor drove him to detox. The days in withdrawal, he says, “were the worst days of my life.”

He was just getting his bearings again at the time of Floyd’s death, and then he watched as protests arose and fires were set, destroying buildings on Lake Street near where he lived. Before long, he found himself creating art for reasons that went beyond self-calming and self-expression.

“I remember sitting at home being so depressed because of the riots,” says Cybin. A friend called and mentioned all the windows getting boarded up and asked, “Can you come over and write ‘Justice for George Floyd’ in cool letters?”

“I said, ‘Sure.’ So, I grabbed my spray paint and I rushed over there, and I did it, and everybody loved it.” Cybin was quickly invited back and he was painting four to six window boards a day.

“I was covering up profanity,” Cybin says. He didn’t want the kids in the community to have to see that.”

Cybin was paid for some of his work, although he also did plenty of paintings for free after sending out an offer to do so on his Facebook page.

“It was really cool. Everybody was taking pictures of me. They would come shake my hand, and they’d say thank you for doing it.”

Cybin was still feeling the aftereffects from his withdrawal, barely sleeping only an hour or two per night. “I used to wake up and not want to live,” he recalls, but the messages kept showing up on his phone inviting him to paint. Those messages gave him a reason to get out of bed.

Painting for a cause

“It was a great feeling,” he says. “I felt like I was doing something positive for the community.” And, he adds, “I wanted to keep painting to stay off heroin.”“I would paint from maybe 10:00 a.m. until the sun went down,” he says. At the end of the day, the depression returned. But knowing he had a purpose revived his spirits. “It was a great feeling,” he says. “I felt like I was doing something positive for the community.” And, he adds, “I wanted to keep painting to stay off heroin.”

The pains of life still bring Cybin down and put him at risk for relapse. “I wake up every morning still heartbroken pretty much,” he says. But he’s continuing to do art to help keep himself on track and off heroin.

“Art made me happy as a kid and it makes me happy now,” he says.

From fighting food to creating designs

For Rick, another artist with a passion for doing good, food was his drug of choice. Back in high school, he pushed himself to gain weight in hopes of playing football. Over the years, the push to eat got him to where, he says, “I’d inhale a blueberry pie in a minute.” Yo-yo diets didn’t work, and he finally found his way to Overeaters Anonymous (OA).

What Rick noticed at his first OA meeting, he says, was that “people were happy. They had glistening eyes and were very vibrant. They were taking weight off and happy about it. I walked away with a sponsor.” Though he’s had a few slips over the years, he says, “I’m always committed to getting back on the wagon.” Rick talks to his sponsor every day, stays off sugar and wheat, and measures and weighs whatever he consumes to avoid overeating.

Making art that gets attention

Rick got encouragement for drawing as a kid and eventually found his most passionate interest to be designing – especially designing protest signs. Like Cybin, he likes the power of making words stand out in attention-grabbing shapes and colors. His massive-sized, often reusable signs have appeared around the world and have showed up in The Washington Post and in a Michael Moore movie. You can spot them often at major demonstrations. Sometimes he creates the signs completely on his own. Other times he does the lettering designs and other people come in to paint them.

At one point, Rick traveled around Minnesota with Vets for Peace in a bus carrying a large sign he had made decrying the use of military spending. The sign was mounted on the rear of the bus with magnets.

These days he hangs out a lot at the Activist Center on 42nd and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis. There he finds good company with other social activists for a variety of causes. “Being in a group, I don’t feel powerless,” says Rick. “I come back home fired up.” He’s also taken part in several recent protests in the Twin Cities.

The satisfaction of serenity and purpose

Rick says he does the protest art “because I have empathy for other people. That’s how I show it.”

“These things can be very emotional,” he says, “and we have to be careful to not get too high or low. Art is a good way to settle down. It helps a lot in recovery, gives me something to do, keeps me on an even keel.” When doing protest art, he says, “I feel like I’m being useful, serving humanity. Expressing how I feel.” It’s easy to get depressed in the face of injustice, he says, and art “gets me out of negativity.”

Art is a recovery anchor for Rick. So is optimism. “There are so many more good people out there than bad ones,” he says. “We outnumber them.”


Pat Samples is a Twin Cities writer, writing coach, and champion of creative aging. Her website is patsamples.com

Last Updated on July 16, 2020

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