CHAZ BOJORQUEZ

The Art of Chaz Bojorquez
interview / liz rice mccray

We welcome the living legend, the pioneering “Godfather” of modern Los Angeles “cholo-style” graffiti, Charles “Chaz” Bojórquez to this months’ cover. Bojórquez has been speaking the visual language and artistry of Chicano graffiti since 1969 and is acknowledged for taking his art form from the streets and transitioning it into the established art world. Thus succeeding in creating art that is both influential and impactful on multiple social levels, while forever staying true to his graffiti roots. Bojórquez was born in 1949 in East Los Angeles where he grew up and started writing, developing and cultivating the aesthetics of his distinctive graffiti style and signature lettering. In the ’60’s, Bojórquez started preferring the use of brushes and paint and markers over spray paint. In 1969 Bojórquez created his most famed tag, Señor Suerte, inspired by Mexican folklore, an extremely iconic and important image of the Chicano urban art movement. Bojórquez attended Chouinard Art School (known today as Cal Arts) where he studied figure painting and ceramics and independently studied Asian calligraphy from Master Yun Chung Chiang (Master Chiang studied under Pu Ju, brother of the last Emperor of China). This is where he credits learning the fundamentals of what art is – “a foundation structuring ideas within your mind.” Bojórquez worked as a commercial artist in advertising and film, including logos for movies The Warriors and Turk 182 and master inking for The Empire Strikes Back, the Muppet movies, and James Bond. Chaz Bojórquez paintings are in numerous permanent museum collections including, The Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of American Art, LACMA, MOCA, National Hispanic Cultural Center and Laguna Art Museum.

We’re honored to receive some images of a few of Chaz’s plein air drawings, never previously released for public viewing. He usually reserves these pieces for gifting to family and friends. We hope you enjoy! See More Of Chaz Bojórquez’s work on Instagram, @ Chaz_Bojorquez, at Facebook, @ChazBojorquez.

Will you describe where you are right now?
There’s a soft rain in the hills of Los Angeles and I’m sitting in front of my computer. A wall of glass gives me an unobstructed 190-degree view of mountains and city, inspiring.

Sounds beautiful. How would you introduce yourself to our readers, a little synopsis if you would?
My graffiti is unique, with a West Coast life-style aesthetic. My style and culture comes from a Mexican-American existence living in Los Angeles. My culture is the bases of my graffiti and comes from a history of L.A. street writing since the 1940’s. They would write their names on the wall like today but using a paintbrush or soft tar and a stick. I was inspired to write when I first saw “Cholo” gang-style graffiti in my neighborhood in the 1950’s. The New York style of tagging was about themselves, a “me” style, but our style was writing a roll call to include everyone. It was about “Us” and we wrote it in black and all capital letters. My first tag was in 1969 on the L.A. freeways, making me one of the very first graffiti writers in the world, but when the others stopped early I kept writing and still continue today.

So then when someone asks, “What do you do?” how do you answer?
It’s been a life process to answer. I first started as a “tagger” by writing my name on walls. In the 1970’s I called myself a “graffiti writer” because I was using a spray can with a stencil and brush to write roll call names on the walls. Everything changed by the 1980’s when I started to paint on canvas. I called myself a “graffiti artist” for a long time. I’m still a graffiti artist and still paint on murals and paintings but I now also design shoes, skate decks and clothing lines for companies. I’m doing a lot of street culture designing and I feel more like a “culture artist” today. Truthfully, it’s all of the above, but I call myself a “painter” first because that’s my job.

The scope of your work is so impressive, spanning decades. We already touched on it, but will you elaborate and tell us a little bit about your early beginnings as an artist. At what age did you actually start writing? Do you remember your first tag? The memory of the first time and the feelings you felt?
An artist is born. I was drawing at two years old and most serious artist start young; I always knew that I wanted to be an artist. My twin brother and I would spend our summers with our grandparents in Tijuana, Mexico. They lived next to the downtown bullring where I learned to love the bullfights, the music, colors and pageantry. My grandmother would also take us to the movie palaces of Tijuana to see the golden age of movies and if you look at my paintings there’s a lot of drama and theater in my compositions. Most important was seeing the Mexican political parties (PRI and PAN) spraying their names with stencils on the street corners, that left and impression on me to also use a stencil to write my tag, mine was the first stencil in L.A. graffiti history.

My uncle was a Zoot-Suiter in the 1940’s and my mother witnessed the L.A. riots in 1943, I heard their stories and experienced myself the injustice of one group of people can impose on another during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s. When I started to write in 1969 it was because of anger and trying to find my own Mexican-American identity as a young man. I was living alone in a small basement apartment and was so broke I would split a can of mackerel with the cat and myself. The price of a spray can was unaffordable so I would mix red ink and water in a plastic spray bottle; it had a hand pump and made the worst drippy letters. I saved up my money to buy my first can of Krylon paint and was terribly disappointed by the lack of pressure and thin pigment; it would drip down my arm.

Since then, I’ve avoided the cans and went to the “chisel brush” that could give me a thick and thin line like a calligraphy marker. Even though spray paint has improved I still use the brush and marker over the can.

You are legend. The Godfather of modern Los Angeles graffiti, will you tell us about your legacy? And what you think that might be?
A legend is nothing but hard work everyday for 50 years! You have to want a life with art and you have to live it everyday to be an artist. I challenge myself with new projects that come my way, like tattoo, fashion and logo designs. I meet incredible new, young artist who are also doing calligraphy graffiti, it just makes me want to make mine better and continue to always improve. I don’t feel like a legend because the race isn’t over and legends are about the past.

I should have said living legend. How has your style changed and your attitude changed over the years?
When I started there was only one style, “Cholo gang style.” It had been on the streets since the early 1940’s and that’s the style I grew up with. My first tags had a New York mentality to write only my name and street but throughout the decades I gradually started to include the names of my friends, then my community and city. Now, it’s about the “reasons” why we write that are my topics.

In 1969, there were no other graffiti “artist” like myself. No crews, magazines, fashion, Hip-Hop, nothing… only gangs. I didn’t want to be a gang member like some of my cousins in prison… also, Cholo’s don’t paint! Going to the streets late at night was my own idea and personal journey; I loved it and enjoyed the solitude by the riverbed. The freeway was next to the river so the many headlights would flicker on and off, making the walls like an old black and white movie projector. The river had so many broken bottles in it that the shards would glisten like a diamond highway in the moonlight. I had an endless gallery to write on, only I did it alone. Once a tagger always a tagger. I still carry a marker with me for a quick tag or to sign a black book. I’m still tagging, I’m tagging now, I’m writing my name on the inside of your skull, by you reading this story.

The difference of writing a tag to impress my friends or designing a women’s handbag for Fendi has its own challenges of elegance and street cred. Culture has become “High Art” and graffiti is finally accepted and exhibited in museums. Today an artist must have a big following in the social media, because you are now not only competing in your streets but with every Street Artist in the world.

In art school you studied calligraphy, Asian brush techniques, typography… will you tell us about philosophy behind the aesthetics of your visual language and tag? 
In middle and high school, plus one year in college, I studied architecture but didn’t like the work atmosphere so I changed to Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles plus a summer at the Universidad de Artes Plasticas in Guadalajara, Mexico. At Chouinard I studied fine art figure painting and my major was ceramics. In Mexico, I built a few kilns and dug my own clay from the ground. My interest with graffiti and art school started about the same time. During the day I would draw naked people and at night I would paint my graffiti, never to tell anyone about the other. Once leaving school creating ceramics was too expensive and required a lot of equipment, it was so much easier just to draw and paint in my little apartment. I developed my own style using the “muscle” of Cholo and the “sprit” used in writing Asian calligraphy. At nineteen I took a Chinese calligraphy class with Master Yun Chung Chiang who studied under Pu Ju, brother to the last Emperor of China. He taught me to take the line serious and always use your entire body when pulling a line, standing or sitting. I taught myself how to read Cholo and all of its symbols. In turn, it taught me the grammar and how I could use it to write my own message, Cholo became the teacher. I learned how to write the feeling of “pride” of my community in my tags, by writing the letters straight and perfect every time. For ten years I did graffiti in the streets and painted landscapes on canvas and didn’t combine the two because I felt that graffiti was graffiti, not art worthy. I changed my mind returning from a round the world trip and painted my very first “Graffiti Painting” on canvas in 1980 but it took another ten years to convince the galleries and museums to exhibit my work. In the mid-80’s I visited New York and met Dondi White and Keith Haring but no one thought my letters meant much and were confused by the gang writing, so I came home and painted harder. This rejection made me self-reliant and self-validating; I didn’t need anyone’s permission or space to paint because I believed in myself and my own graffiti.

Will you give some words of wisdom about life, the environment, politics, creativity, etc.?
My philosophy about my art is when I finish a painting that sometimes took me a year to finish, its value is zero. My artwork is not worth anything when it leaves my studio. I exhibit the artwork and when someone writes a review or wants to buy it, that’s when it has value. The true value of art is when someone “believes” in the artwork, that’s when it becomes valuable and worthy. The more I exhibit that piece it starts to have a life of its own by being photographed in newspapers and magazines, sometimes the artwork goes on vacation to foreign countries and returns with more reviews, the value goes up more. The graffiti writers still compete with each other but now it’s on other gallery walls and the borders of my neighborhood have now expanded to countries.

What artists are you really into right now? And do you collect art?
Some of my favorite artist are Frank Lloyd Wright, M.C. Escher and Vermeer, not very contemporary but all spiritual to me and they influenced my work. I have a small collection of artwork by Chicanos and a black velvet painting by Edgar Leeteg. When I travel around the world, I’ve collected wooden spears and arrows from the South Pacific Islands and Papua New Guinea and ancient swords from Nepal, all primitive beautiful artworks.

Maybe a depressing question, but when it’s all said and done how would you like to be remembered?
All of my photographs, lectures, drawings and paintings will out live me because they are now in permanent collections at LACMA, MOCA, Laguna and three museums of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., plus Universities and others.

My legacy is about the artwork, not about me. The power or magic of art is that its vision is eternal. We still awe at Greek Bronzes and the Renaissance Masters and many names are lost but the art endures. Art is the reason we appreciate life and I would like my artwork to be remembered because you believed in it, like I did.

Tell us about your plein air paintings, ceramics, and architecture plans?
Graffiti art is what I’m known for but I have many varied interest. The world and its people are the most fascinating to me. I always wanted to travel like Marco Polo and Ferdinand Magellan, circumnavigating the globe by reading their books as a child. The artwork of the ancient Sumerians (whom wrote the first words) and Egyptians building the first temple pyramids just added more interest when I found out they also wrote graffiti. I own a ring that has a coin with the face of Alexander the Great from 327 B.C. because I love his story of conquest and the art of Greek culture. I taught myself the names of all of the birds in my neighborhood and even taxidermied an English sparrow when I was 13 because I saw a book that Michelangelo did the same to human bodies. I wanted to know everything about nature, even the names of clouds and their altitudes because when I looked at them I could predict the weather and know the distance and perspective of miles around me. I still have these interests and they are built into my painting – I use scale of mountains, turbulence of air, minerals from ceramics and colors from birds and lipsticks.

When I travel, I always take a small pad and a couple of pencils to draw my surroundings. I started to paint plein-air landscapes very young and still do today but I have never exhibited them, personal drawings of beautiful moments. At home I have some bird paintings and drawings of ocean scenes on the walls that brings joy to my wife and I.

In art school a teacher told me that drawing was the most important fundamental foundation to be an artist. He said, “If you can draw it, you can build it” by being able to draw isometric perspective drawings of buildings and interiors. It helped me become a building contractor and remodel my five homes. Being an artist is more than just painting, you have to “be that person and live the life of an artist.” Graffiti taught me that “you don’t need permission,” all it took was to believe in yourself.

Very last question, any last words of wisdom for our readers, shout-outs, declaration of love or hate.
Nope.

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, you are extremely inspiring and influential.