More than 40 students and off-campus guests gathered at 6:30 p.m. April 18 in Choi Auditorium for the CSP 99 event, “Calligraffiti: From the Streets to the Cloud,” during which renowned Cholo graffiti artist Chaz Bojorquez’s presented his work. According to art historian Isabel Rojas-Williams — who attended the event and serves as the executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles — Bojorquez is considered the godfather of graffiti art. He currently has permanent exhibits in Smithsonian National Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA).
Sociology Professor Richard Mora, a fan of Bojorquez’s work who teaches youth culture classes featuring Bojorquez’s art, worked with OxyArts and the Remsen Bird Fund to bring him to Occidental. After seeing Bojorquez exit an art show on York Boulevard in early March, Mora approached him and asked if he would be willing to come to Occidental to speak. Mora grew up in East Los Angeles where Bojorquez created graffiti and was already familiar with Bojorquez’s work. He features Bojorquez’s works in his classes that examine Los Angeles youth and pop culture. Growing up surrounded by other graffiti writers, Mora regarded Bojorquez as a kind of mythical figure in the community.
“Chaz is a graffiti legend. More people know of him than knew him. You’d see his work and think, ‘oh that’s Chaz.’ He had the sort of stature among people who knew the graffiti world,” Mora said.
Bojorquez has been painting the streets of East Los Angeles since the 1960s. During the day, he designed billboards, but by night he was advertising his own work. He noticed the lack of Chicano representation in fine art and created his own art style with graffiti. In contrast to the colorful bubble letters of New York style graffiti, Bojorquez adopted the West coast style that uses Old English or Gothic typeface with strong lines in black and white paint. Instead of using spray paint, Bojorquez prefers brush and acrylic paint. He cites Asian calligraphy training under master calligrapher Yun Chung Chiang, trained by Mr. Pu Ju — the brother of the last emperor of China — as helping to shape his particular style of Cholo graffiti.
“I wanted to learn the history of calligraphy and to learn more about cholo graffiti, which I didn’t know anything about its history or structure, so I studied other calligraphy. He taught me to respect the line and use your whole body,” Bojorquez said.
Bojorquez’s most famous tag, “Señor Suerte,” created in 1969, depicts a skull wearing a fedora with inspiration from Mexican folklore. Local gangs have since adopted the symbol as a protection against death, often tattooing it on their bodies, according to Bojorquez. Mora, who saw a “Señor Suerte” in the 1980s where Interstate 5 and Interstate 110 meet, noted that his neighborhood gang’s rival, the Avenues, adopted the symbol. Bojorquez considers graffiti as a political act as it occupies a public space. Rojas-Williams, who specializes in murals, emphasized that from the late 1960s to the 1990s, public artwork carried socio-political messages.
“In those years, artists created artworks clamoring for equality and social justice and inspired viewers to make changes; most of the time, these artists created their artworks for free. The artworks told the stories of the communities where the murals stood,” Rojas-Williams said.
Bojorquez noted that since he has been creating artwork, graffiti and Chicano art has grown into a form a fine art. He has since collaborated with brands such as Converse, Vans, Nike and Tribal clothing. Graffiti, for Bojorquez, is known for its applicability and versatility.
“Graffiti is an art form which I don’t need permission to do. With graffiti you don’t have to fit in, you just have to do it and defend it,” Bojorquez said.
Anna Palmer (sophomore) designed the poster for the event which depicts Bojorquez in front of one of his pieces. She highlighted the relevance of bringing Bojorquez to campus this year. Like Mora, she explained the wealth of artists surrounding Occidental who do not receive enough attention on campus.
“As a member of the local community, specifically Highland Park, Chaz’s work is often overlooked within our community. As a nationally and internationally renowned artist, bringing Chaz to Oxy fit perfectly with ‘Re-envisioning Metropolis: Los Angeles and the Urban Arts’ — the 2016–2017 theme,” Palmer said.
Mora also approached Bojorquez about creating a graffiti-style logo for Occidental merchandise sold in the student store. Bojorquez agreed and Mora hopes that the merchandise will be available for purchase by next fall, with proceeds going toward helping the local community.