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Painting Walls, Not Building Them

Carlos Donjuan moved from graffiti art to murals to gallery paintings to making masks

by Jerome Weeks 8 Sep 2016
Carlos Donjuan

He's an Oak Cliff graffiti artist who moved into acrylic paintings and watercolors. Carlos Donjuan's artworks -- with their haunting masked figures -- have been seen in Milan, San Francisco and Barcelona, bought by Cheech Marin (of Cheech and Chong) and they've been printed up in national magazines. But from painting colorful murals to building masks, Donjuan has continued to draw on his Mexican-American background.

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Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we’ll explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.

Video: Dane Walters

These days, graffiti art is mainstream worldwide. Names like Banksy, Retna, Shepard Fairey, David Choe and Mr. Brainwash are well known in galleries, even museums.

But 15-20 years ago? Your standard image of the graffiti artist then was the rebellious, scrounging outlaw, the defiant street artist avoiding arrest to spray-paint in railyards at night.

But with Carlos Donjuan, that whole outlaw artist image — that wasn’t exactly the whole picture.

“Sweet Sixteen: A Sour Grapes Celebration” at the Oak Cliff Cultural Center through Oct. 14th.

“My parents were cool enough,” he says, “to buy me spray paint as a teenager and let us paint on the garage in the backyard. And that’s how I learned.” He and his brothers Arturo and Miguel — future fellow members of Sour Grapes, their collective of Oak Cliff artists — used to practice on boards. They took to painting early, and they weren’t running with gangbangers and climbing up rooftops to do it.

“At that time,” Miguel says, “it was really more like we were trying to get away from what was going on in our neighborhood – gang violence, drugs and all that stuff. So this was really our escape route. We wanted to do something that was cool but wasn’t getting us into so much trouble.”

Then came high school and hip-hop. Carlos admits he was a typically rebellious teen, going out at night. Hip-hop was a huge influence; he hated his parents’ mariachi music.

And it’s not like the Donjuan brothers never got into trouble.

carlos-studio-exterior

The exterior of Carlos Donjuan’s West Dallas studio. All photos: Jerome Weeks

“One night, we were out painting in a train yard,” Carlos recalls. “Someone saw us and they thought we were breaking into boxcars and stealing. So the police helicopter came out and about seven patrol cars came out and they gave us a pretty good scare that day. And I had to change how I was going to approach this thing that I really loved.”

The change was simple enough. They started asking permission from business owners to paint their walls. Especially property owners that had been really hit by taggers.

“And what we would say is we would love to paint this mural for free,” says Carlos, “and your neighbors will like it, and the gang members will probably respect it, not paint on it anymore. And you’d be surprised how much a little color on a wall can change the dialogue in a community.”

Since then, Donjuan and the Sour Grapes crew have put up a lot of color on Dallas walls. At the moment, they have four sizable murals, including a city commission on the Jefferson Street Viaduct and the long wall near the Belmont Hotel, commissioned by the Belmont and the Dallas Contemporary, which they share with a Shepard Fairey mural. Plenty of people, Donjuan says, don’t feel welcome in art museums, don’t feel the institutions were built for them. So, in effect, he’s making Dallas into a public art gallery — for everyone.

“Kinda, yeah,” he says. “And I hope it becomes a public gallery for more muralists. Earlier in my twenties, I had traveled a lot to Los Angeles and San Francisco, and you know those cities felt really vibrant and alive because they had so much public art. I hope this encourages future artists here.”

sour-grapes1-at-the-dallas-contemporary-2011

From ‘Rest in Power’ at the Dallas Contemporary in 2011.

The Sour Grapes’ style is not like the spiky aggressions of New York graffiti. Carlos says he’s been more influenced by West Coast artists. He and his crew use pastel colors, puffy animals and cartoony shapes. The tone is cheerful. It’s not about the artist visually shouting for respect, asserting, “I was here! Look what I can do.” Instead, the crew’s own trademark symbols are giant, grinning paletas — or Mexican popsicles.

“We want to give the kids who walk along there to school something fun to look at,” Donjuan says, “something better than what’s been there.”

Their outdoor murals may get the most eyeballs, but the mural that Donjuan cites as a high point was an indoor one: The Dallas Contemporary commissioned the collective to spray-paint an extensive mural down its central hall for a 2011 show. Called “Rest in Power,” the mural featured Sour Grapes artists painting in different styles to honor dead graffiti artists.

“Bentleys were rolling at the Contemporary,” Donjuan says, “and here were kids being dropped off by their parents, kids who’d never been inside a museum before.”

He says he’s never seen that kind of mix in a North Texas art museum since then. In Dallas, Donjuan is represented by Kirk Hopper Fine Art — he just had a show there last year, “Everything Means Nothing” — so graffiti has made it into North Texas galleries. But not in museum shows.

Murals and street art, though, are not what’s gotten Donjuan’s own works into galleries in Milan, Miami, San Francisco and Barcelona. Or into Juxtapoz magazine and on the cover of New American Paintings magazine. Or bought up by Cheech Marin of Cheech and Chong, who owns the finest private collection of Chicano art in the U.S.

It’s Donjuan’s acrylic and watercolor paintings that have gotten all this attention. Painted on paper or wood, these almost always feature human figures, sometimes animals, and the human figures are always masked.

“Using masks in my paintings,” Carlos says, “all started when a lot of my friends that are graffiti artists, when I would take photos of them in front of their murals, they would always cover their face because graffiti carries the sense of anonymity, and so they didn’t want to be recognized.”

carlos-in-the-studio-small

Carlos Donjuan hanging new artworks in his studio. His new masks are on the table. Some of his latest photos of people wearing this masks are on the right.

In these paintings, Donjuan’s masked figures can be eerie and mythic or just a goof. They can look like serious fugitives, people in disguise. Or they’re hybrid human-creatures — humans half-transformed into something else. Or they’re just like kids enjoying Halloween, dressing up as Iron Man. Donjuan says watching his son play with his toys — and the joy he gets from that — have inspired some of these playful images of a kid happily taking on another self, another sense of being.

The artist has even begun building real masks of fabric and fake fur — sewing and hot-gluing them together — and then photographing people wearing them. The results sometimes resemble mutant Coneheads or animated characters from ‘Rem and Stimpy’ or ‘Rick and Morty” come to life. Donjuan hopes to have a show of the photographs later this year.

But Donjuan’s masks also draw on the fact that both of his parents were undocumented when they came here from Mexico nearly 30 years ago. As a kid, Carlos heard a term and didn’t know what it meant. The term was ‘illegal alien.’

“I thought that there was really aliens out there, you know,” he says, “I thought they were these weird creatures. And so as an adult now, I’m revisiting that idea of an illegal alien.”

You want to call struggling people ‘aliens’? I’ll show you aliens.

Donjuan is 32 now, married with a son. He’s both the senior lecturer in drawing at UT-Arlington and an adjunct professor at El Centro — which means he’s a very busy man, trying to earn a living. At one point, Donjuan says, he even was teaching at three colleges. (Adjunct professors are the cheap labor of academia.)  All this means he has little time to work on his latest projects in his West Dallas studio.

“I think that the work right now is more an exploration of my culture,” he says, “and the way people from other countries, you know, how they exist in a society that doesn’t really accept them.”

Donjuan helped bring Mexican colors and popsicles and lowrider styles to graffiti art and murals. For his masked paintings, he’s drawn on Native American and Mexican folk art. And in his studio, Donjuan still plays hiphop for inspiration.

But that mariachi music he once hated and his parents loved? These days, Donjuane says he’s even found time to  appreciate that.

How did the name Sour Grapes get chosen?

One day, my two younger brothers Miguel and Arturo and also our two best friends who are twin brothers, Isaias and Elias Torez, we were just hanging out after high school, and we were trying to figure out a name for our crew. And that was just the name that got thrown out there, and we were like ‘Wow, that’s kinda cool.’ And it just kinda stuck really.

I think one of the reasons we kept it is because our friend Elias, who was the one that mentioned it, was preparing to leave for the Navy, and we knew that we were going to be missing our best friend and so we kept it as a name. He served eight years in the Navy and has returned and he’s a firefighter for the city of Dallas; we’re really proud of him. And part of it was an honor to him — that he would feel like he was part of this even though he was far away from us.

When did you decide you were going to a professional artist?

I think when I first decided to call myself an artist was probably when I was in college [the University of Texas at San Antonio]. Going into college, I was interested in studying graphic design, and I changed my major a few times from that to business and I even considered pharmacy school.

One day, I had to take a painting class [it was required as part of his curriculum], and it was in that painting class that everything just kinda clicked. I was always interested in painting and drawing; it wasn’t until I took that class that my mind was opened to how to explore color and how to approach painting in a more traditional manner. It was a beginning painting class, just learning how to use oil paints. I was not very familiar with oil painting and just learning how to mix colors and how to prepare a painting surface correctly. It all was just amazing and I was blown away by all the information there.

That class was taught by a professor named Loraine Tady, she’s at UT Dallas now. The way she taught the class was really incredible, and it just opened my eyes to a lot of new things.

carlos-in-hat-and-mask

Carlos Donjuan wearing a Cowboys cap and one of his self-made masks.

What have you given up, if anything, to be an artist?

I guess what was kind of difficult at times was when people compared me to my friends or people that I graduated with from high school.

By the time I was 27, a lot of my friends were having kids, they already had a house, they already had a car, and at 27, I was just getting out of graduate school, and I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have a job, and I sacrificed a lot of those things that are common for everyday households to pursue my education and to pursue my passion in the arts.

Luckily, I was the first one in all of my family to go to college, so my parents were real supportive, so I didn’t have to deal with the stress of having parents that were already successful academically, where they were wanting me to be a doctor or be a lawyer or study something that was gonna be more financially stable. So for me, just being in graduate school or just being in college was such a big deal to them that they supported me no matter what I studied or what I majored in.

Do you have any rituals you follow while you work or before you start to paint?

I think my work is really inspired by my family and friends. So when I’m trying to figure out what I want to paint next, I just start going through photos I’ve taken of family and friends in the past and even in the present.

I’m really interested in photography, and I’m constantly documenting the people around me. Whether I’m going to use those photos for a painting or not, I just feel like I need to preserve those ideas and those moments in time. And when it’s time for me to start thinking about a new painting, I already have all that resource material.

For me, it’s something about revisiting those moments that I have lived through and having my family and friends around me that just brings me joy. And it’s a way for me to tap back into that energy, just by looking through a lot of those photographs that I’ve taken in the past.

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