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Model-slash-surfer Juan José Heredia takes on the New York art scene

If you have the misfortune to be a surfer who lives in New York City, you probably know Juan José Heredia. He’s hard to miss: Broad-shouldered and tall, with a mouthful of charmingly mismatched teeth, Heredia has the kind of forward-falling hair that requires constant vigilance to stay out of his eyes and a lanky, camera-ready frame that’s landed him in magazines from Details to Vogue. He’s been modeling since he was a teenager, but Heredia’s quick to clarify that he’s a surfer first, an artist second, and, when pressed, a model a distant third.

Born in Argentina, Heredia grew up in Miami and rode his first wave on a body board at 11. Now he powers through the NYC surf commute—a lonely haul to the Rockways known to a small, dedicated tribe of patient, bootie-wearing riders—as often as the waves permit. His first surfboard was a gift from a drug dealer—a friend of his older sister, Juan explains nonchalantly, flashing his toothy grin—but he insists it was a clean exchange. “I didn’t have to do anything!”

Being open to receiving the right things at the right time is part of Heredia’s story. Sketching and drawing—things he’d done before with a throwaway attitude—became a lifeline for him when, as a young model, he was unhappily booking campaigns and runway shows. “The only way I could convey my feelings without writing them was through figurative images. Expressing the way I felt internally—the way I looked at myself—was what I was drawing.” Cold, lonely, and away from the ocean in a place he didn’t want to be, Heredia’s nascent artistic side woke up and started noticing. “In all that badness, I couldn’t help but look around and see how old things were,” he recalls of his firs t impressions of New York. “In Miami everything is so polished. If something’s old, they destroy it. I was so blown away by that.”

Today Heredia has an artist’s fingernails—paint covered and stained with ink—and a personal style that couldn’t be farther from the polished looks he pulls off for Ralph Lauren. The day we met he was wearing paint-stained, ankle-baring pants he’d taken in himself; a girl’s black and silver tank top; and an embroidered Guatemalan work shirt worn inside out that once belonged to his mother.

Heredia’s sartorial miscellany is reflected in his artwork, which is collage-heavy, delicately detailed, abstract, and otherworldly. “I don’t like to keep things precious,” he says. Heredia transports his finished canvasses to and from his apartment by bike—folding them up and stuffing them in his backpack—and treats the found objects he incorporates into his work with the same anti-reverential treatment. His sketchbooks are works of art in themselves; swollen with clippings and mementos torn and pasted to the pages, they are microcosms of his interior world.

Heredia recently created that world in outsize form. The glass-roofed lounge on the bottom level of Delicatessen, SoHo’s latest see-and-be-seen brunch spot, features a wraparound mural he completed this spring. His eerily charming, distorted figures watch over the banquettes below, sharing billing with menu covers courtesy of Terry Richardson and staff uniforms designed by Charlotte Ronson. “Everything I feel is in there,” Heredia says of the space.

Before this commission his designs could be found on hats and surfboards, and his canvasses had made a few appearances around Manhattan. Not one to self-promote, Heredia was content to work on his own in his Williamsburg apartment, reluctant, he says, to ever seriously consider his art worthy of more attention.

As for the future, well, that’s up to fate. “You know what the path is?” Juan asks when pressed about his artistic ambitions. “Honestly, in a sense, the word ‘path’ I don’t believe in. In life, you constantly experience that when you make plans for things, it has nothing to do with those plans, and dates, and times that you choose. It has so much more to do with fate, energy, life. You always have fantasies about doing things. If you keep that alive, that’s how you progress.”