Lucien Lewis, making art in Rittenhouse.
“Cali was where I first seen the stone,” says The Sandman, explaining how he got his start carving and selling small sandstone sculptures around Philadelphia. “I was out there with my sister, and she thought the dude was cool, so she started talking to him and seeing what he was doing with the stone. And he said (to me), ‘You should try your graffiti in the sandstone.’ I came back out here and found the stone, and…’” He smiles and laughs as he thinks back on the moment that changed his life.
The Sandman was born in New Jersey with the name Lucien Lewis. After moving to California at age 17 in 1989, he acquired the name Rebel. “I was kind of on my positive thing, and they was out in Cali gangbangin’, and I was kind of against that. So they was like, ‘You rebellin. You a rebel.’ And they didn’t even know my name was Lucien. And I was like, ‘Hold up, Rebel? Rebel-lucien. I’m with that.’”
He started out as a graffiti artist and beatmaker (you can listen to some of his music here), but quickly moved into T-shirts. Then after seeing his first sandstone artist in California, he found his true love.
Sandstone, found almost entirely in deserts and in America almost exclusively in the southwest, is made primarily of quartz and feldspar, and has the consistency of sandpaper. Lucien slices through it with a dull blade that looks like across between a handsaw and a nail file.
Lucien, who also calls himself The Sandman, got started in sandstone by just writing people’s names, then saw it evolve. “It started with doing names and words. Then it elevated into doing hearts on the stone. ‘Can you dot the ‘I’ with a heart?’ and I did it. Then someone is like, ‘Can you carve the Sphinx?’ And I did it. And doing that, the Sphinx, brought the carving out. And then I just got into mad carving. And now I tell people, ‘If I can see it, I can carve it.’ And cats challenge that. I had a dude pull his Harley up, and say, ‘Carve that. And I want detail too.’”
As he speaks, quietly enunciating every word, he works on his latest piece, recently commissioned by a woman he met in Rittenhouse Park. She asked him to make a picture of a mud flap lady in roller skates. He talks as he moves the blade back and forth like a saw against the block of sand. He carves his “tag”, a small “RL”, on the back of the piece.
“I used to do graffiti. And I’d use this tag right here. This is my way of putting my tag in people’s houses without them knowing it. People on Second Street, because I be down there, be like, ‘I’m taking this home to Italy’, and I’m like, ‘I got tags in Italy.’”
As well as being his chief form of income and what he calls his “therapy”, the sandstone has also made him a quasi-celebrity of the city’s street scene. It’s both gotten him into and out of trouble. “One time I was carving on the block, L&I gave me a ticket. The judge was like, ‘What? That’s the sand dude!’ This thing almost gives you a get out of jail free card. The judge looked at the officer like, ‘Come on? This dude?’”
When he doesn’t carve at Second and Market, he does so out in West Philly, in neighborhoods quite a bit tougher than Old City. But his reception is surprisingly similar. “Even when I’m in the hood, like I be having cats lookin’ like I’m about to get robbed on the block, and they roll up and be like, ‘Aw man, my girl would love this!’ and I’m like ‘Whew! I thought y’all was about to get me.’ I like to go to the harshest spot on the block and just show cats that I just do art. You might be out there with your guns, you might be out here with the coke, you out here with your gang, I’m out here doing art.’ But it gets love. I don’t never have nobody being like, ‘Ehhh.’ It’s always like, ‘Yo, old head, what you doing? Dang, when I come back with my girl I’m gonna get my kids carved up.’“
So what’s next for Philly’s only real sandman, a man equally comfortable carving sandstone for thugs and Italian tourists? He wants to do some “stone parties” and get his artwork into a local gallery.
And just where does he get the sandstone he uses to create his miniature masterpieces?
Lucien smiles. “Top secret.”