Philadelphia artist Jonny Castro started drawing when he was a child, sketching faces during school that displayed a talent well beyond regular classroom doodles.
The former Philly police officer now uses that talent to memorialize victims of violence and fallen first responders.
“All of these stories are heartbreaking — especially when you hear that they leave behind young children at home — but the local stories resonate with me the most,” Castro told Billy Penn. “I was born and raised in Philly. It’s awful to see how many innocent people are being lost to violence here in the city that I grew up in.”
While Castro mostly focuses on people lost to gun violence in the U.S., he has also memorialized people from Canada, Great Britain, France, and Italy. Over 1,200 portraits have been completed since he began the project eight years ago, he said.
Commemorative portraiture has long been used as a way to help families heal. An exhibit on display last summer at Philadelphia City Hall showcased paintings of co-victims — people left behind when someone close is shot and killed. The Souls Shot Project, a Philly-based nonprofit, has been linking artists with people who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence since at least 2017.
Castro’s day job is forensic artist for the Philadelphia Police Department. With increased use of cameras and DNA-identification technologies, he said, forensic artists aren’t used as often as in the past, which allows him to grow his memorial project
While paper drawing is necessary for the composite sketches he does at work, he said digital tools are used for the portraits because it translates well to social media and makes changes easier.
The 40-year-old artist often gets physical prints made, and ships or delivers them to families of the lost loved ones, free of charge.
One of the families was that of Sayer Evans, an officer with the Wilmington Police Department who died by suicide in November. Castro’s portrait of the 23-year-old former Marine was commissioned by his colleagues, and presented to his family during funeral services.
“It’s an incredible resemblance of Sayer,” said David J. Evans, his father. “It also brings attention to the legacy that he leaves behind. … The manner of death, suicide, for law enforcement officers carries quite a stigma with it,” he added. “Having this portrait out there brings that topic to the front.”
Castro believes he inherited his artistic aptitude from his father, Rick Castro, and that it runs in his family.
“My dad was really good at portrait work, which is something that I picked up from him and my kids picked up from me,” Castro said. “I know his brothers were very good artists. His dad was a really good artist. So I think it’s just something that’s been passed down from generation to generation.”
Also inherited from his father, a Vietnam veteran, was the drive to enter the armed forces. Castro served as a military police officer outside Baghdad. When he returned, he became a patrol officer in his home city.
When the PPD’s previous forensic artist retired after 35 years, the opportunity arose to combine his two passions.
“I had already been a cop out in West Philadelphia in the 18th District for about 9 years when I submitted a transfer to become our department’s forensic composite artist,” Castro said. In 2016 he officially joined the force’s Graphic Arts Unit.
The memorial project began the year prior. The first portrait Castro did was of the late Sgt. Robert Wilson, who was slain while trying to intervene in an armed robbery.
“After him, I just decided that painting fallen officers was something I could do on the side,” Castro said. “It’s something that will live on after I’m gone.”