Israel Hernández-Llach was an 18-year-old award-winning artist when he was chased by Miami Beach police officers and tasered for tagging a shuttered McDonald’s. He died soon after the electric probes delivered tens of thousands of volts into his chest.
The taser, a supposedly non-lethal tool of the police, has caused over 500 deaths since 2001 across the United States, according to Amnesty International. Hernandez’s tools of choice: paints, pens, cameras, and objects he found.
Frank O’Hare is an art teacher at Miami Beach Senior High School, where he taught Hernández during the teen’s sophomore, junior and senior years. The two formed a powerful bond – O’Hare immediately recognized Hernández’ talent and eagerness to learn, and Hernández realized that he had an insightful teacher who could help him develop his creative skills and thinking.
“Soon after first having him as a student, he walked in and told me, ‘I’m going to be one of your best students,’” O’Hare said. And he was.
Hernández was confident, but it came without arrogance, and he had a caring willingness to share what he knew with others. He was well liked, engaging and popular (voted in by his colleagues as historian of the art club) – yet he was sensitive to outcasts.
He was always reaching out to the underdog and “wasn’t afraid of being seen with the kids who weren’t so popular,” said O'Hare. He had a genuine interest in every individual, no matter what.
This altruism was a thread that ran throughout his life and art.
“He told me that when he was a little boy, he would take broken toys and put them together to create sculptures,” said O’Hare. One time, after having an argument with a fellow student at Miami Beach Senior High, Hernández created a piece of art as an expression of remorse.
Stylistically, Hernández was most interested in minimalism, a movement mainly defined by simple forms, shapes and colors. Hernández was “painting like Rothko before he knew who Rothko was,” O’Hare said, Mark Rothko being a renowned master of that style.
He was using sophisticated and experimental methods in his painting – he altered the viscosity of his paints with brake fluid and added materials such as sand to change the textures of his work.
For his work, Hernández won numerous awards, such as an esteemed Golden Key Award. This national competition allowed him to show his work at the Miami Art Museum; he won several other competitions and his pieces have been shown at numerous other galleries and institutions.
O’Hare didn’t only know Hernández as an artist with immeasurable talent: he saw a fearless youth. Hernández would carry 4 x 6 foot canvases on his bike (“I don’t know how he did it,” O’Hare remembered) and would swim in Miami Beach’s shark-teeming waters at night.
He had the same sort of careless naiveté with his work, until O’Hare urged him to hold onto everything he produced. “He’d make a beautiful work and then just walk away from it,” his former teacher said.
The young artist eventually segued into photography, and was actively engaging highly contemporary issues of the image and the relationship between physical and digital landscapes.
“He was very interested in topography, particularly the architecture of Miami Beach,” O’Hare said.
At the time of his death, Hernández had developed an obsession with photographing people on the bus, capturing moments comedic, tragic, and everything in between.
O’Hare was a critical influence on Hernández. What started as a student-mentor relationship eventually grew into a friendship. A year ago, Hernandez convinced his family to move into the house across the street from O’Hare’s own family.
Dubious at first and wanting to maintain a neutral teacher/student relationship, O’Hare made it a rule that Hernández wasn’t allowed over. So nearly every morning on the way to school, Hernández would be waiting on the sidewalk outside O’Hare’s home, ready to talk about his newest ideas.
Well-known for his street art as well, Hernández had considerable cred with the vibrant graffiti community of Miami – members of which have created a number of public memorials to the late teenager. Hernández had only finished the “R” in his tag “Reefa,” when the cops started pursuing him.
Hernández had a respect for places and people, and he wanted to share his creative visions not only through street art, but also through his painting, photography, and sculpture too.
“In my 20 years of teaching art in Miami-Dade County, I never came across an artist like him,” O’Hare said, “everyone expected him to become a famous artist, he just had that unique quality.”
But rather than wanting a life of fame, O’Hare says that Hernández wanted something else.
“Near the end, he was talking about becoming an art teacher. He loved helping the other kids.”
Now, due to the actions of the Miami Beach Police, we’ll never know how his creativity and thoughtfulness would have an impact.
“Something he said that would really touch me was, ‘Mr. O’Hare, you’re my art-father’”, said his teacher and friend. “It was a pleasure to have him as a student.”