Childhood, Art and Imagination

Thoughts on Living

I’ve taught youth for a while. I’ve been a tutor, a mentor, a life coach; I’ve been a lot of things for young people. I’ve even gone so far as to start my own nonprofit organization, DSTL Arts, in order to teach at-risk youth that the arts can foster careers for individuals. It helps to be an artist myself, to have always wanted to be a working artist.

I was five years old when my mom taught me how to make masks out of cardboard. Before then I was used to buying coloring books and pads of paper for entertainment purposes. But when my mom taught me how to make masks, that opened up a whole new world of creativity for me.

My first mask was of a robot/cyborg character from an old Nintendo game I had. I can’t remember the name of the game now, but I remember the mask. The rubber band we used to keep the mask wrapped around my head pulled my hair something fierce, but that didn’t stop me from running around our front and back yard with my swap-meet-brand toy sword. I broke a lot of those plastic swords playing like that, improvising those broken pieces into projectiles in my make-believe games with my younger brother.

Imagination was a real escape for me. It kept me out of trouble, capable of playing indoors all summer when my parents worked and we were on vacation. I could build towers of Legos and develop intricate storylines of deceit and heroism, self-sacrifice and humanity while Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures played out various roles in our universe. My brother followed my lead in these stories with little to no guidance from me. He knew the direction our stories would go in. It was a glorious time. And to think now that it all stemmed from being taught mask making techniques at five years old. Wow.

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As I got older, I sought only how-to-draw books at the school library. The public library in Vista had a very weak selection of art books for kids, but the Scholastic Book Fairs at Bobier Elementary held me down. I remember how eager I was to buy simple kids books that taught how to use basic shapes to form monsters and aliens. I traced a lot of the shapes, but that helped me develop a sense of style. I draw monsters now, without thinking, almost exclusively when not attempting to draw something specific, like a cover design concept for my students’ chapbooks.

Drawing is escape. Art is escape. But I sometimes wonder if I need to escape. There are moments where listening to a love song now makes me melancholy. I love my fiancé. I have no regrets in being with her. But there’s something that bothers me on particular days when I listen to songs by La Arrolladora Banda el Limón. Or Donny Hathaway. Or even a Vicente Fernández song with a lot of soul.

What is art to me? I try to think of it as I dedicate my life to teaching and helping young artists develop a sense of purpose in their work. I tattooed on myself the phrase “El poeta es dios” because I believe in the double meaning of it. The poet is God, and the poet is god. We divine messages through art that are spiritual in meaning. We also act as God, creating new worlds, new identities, new lives for beings that can only exist in our imaginations. If that isn’t being like God, then I don’t know what is. But does that explain the melancholy I feel frequently? Is there regret in creating and destroying worlds in my art? I don’t know how to answer that.

Children, especially in poor communities like mine, grow up thinking that the arts are childish endeavors, not worth exploring beyond elementary school. Our parents teach us to aspire to more, “illustrious” careers, such as doctor, lawyer, engineer. But those jobs don’t always resonate with kids like me. Kids with large imaginations need nurturing, because, ultimately, those will be the innovative adults in society. Not all people deserve to be artists. Just like not all people should be doctors or lawyers. There is a place in this world for everyone, from janitors and handymen, to artists, doctors, and engineers. And I believe that we need to start teaching parents in low-income communities that the labor market is as diverse as our children.

Maybe that’s where my melancholy stems from. There’s a romantic notion I hold onto somewhere deep in my heart. I wish I was a child again, designing intricate Lego towers and playing on the carpet of my apartment with my brother as we go through the motion of storytelling with Transformers as our puppets in melodramas that teach more about being a part of society than simply going to work everyday, answering to others with no appreciation for creativity and play.

I know that listening to love songs connects me with my childhood in many ways. I slept to love songs by Los Felinos, Los Yonics, and Los Bukis often in my childhood as my dad spent hours recording mixtapes for coworkers who paid him for some slamming tunes. I connect cumbia, banda, norteño with being a child. I know that. But nothing calls me to relive my childhood as much as creating art. I want to be carefree, living an adult life with little to no preoccupation other than what will I create today. I guess I just have to keep working as an artist. Only by following my dreams and meeting my goals will I attain that nirvana I seek.

101 FWY #3

Photography

101 FWY #3

101 Fwy #1, #2 and #3 are part of a 3-part series of original photographs, shot using a Holga 120 format camera on Ilford black and white film. All 3 photos in this series are available in limited edition prints at mkt.com/smiley-faze now.

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101 FWY #2

Photography

101 FWY #2

101 Fwy #1, #2 and #3 are part of a 3-part series of original photographs, shot using a Holga 120 format camera on Ilford black and white film. All 3 photos in this series are available in limited edition prints at mkt.com/smiley-faze now.

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Like Smiley Faze Productions on Facebook

Metro

Thoughts on Living

Los Angeles’ Metro Transit Authority, or Metro, recently released a report where they found that the average income of bus riders in the city of Los Angeles is about $15,000 a year, and those who use the Metro Rail system average about $22,000 a year. That’s indicative of the state of public transit riders in our city. The poor ride public transportation. The young, the old. The primarily brown.

I don’t mind riding public transportation in SoCal. It actually gave me a strong sense of identity. It was where I came to connect deeply with Hip-Hop music and culture.

School for urban youth, that code word for brown and black kids, is essentially how we’re introduced to public transit systems in the personal car-centric environment of Southern Cali. Waking up at 5am to get ready for school across town ain’t nothing new for most youth. Wake up at 5am to shower, get geared up, and then run out to catch the bus, which may take you to school in time to miss only the first 15 minutes of your first class. It’s an introduction to blue collar working life.

My high school days certainly fit that description. I rode the 320 line in Vista for a couple of years from home to school, catching it at 6:15am, more or less, and getting to school early enough to sit and draw before class would start. Those bus rides, though. That’s where the lyrics of Black Thought, Common, and Mos Def resonated most.

My first “underground” Hip-Hop album was Black Star by Mos Def and Talib Kweli. The song “Respiration” was my jam. Still is, in fact. But the song conveyed everything I felt at the time. Quietly sitting on the bus, strapped into my over-ear headphones, I soaked in the imagery of city life. The descriptions of smoke and smog vapors tracing the skyline did it for me. I found myself thinking about the promises that poverty held for me and my family. Nothing more than Doritos sandwiches and fruit-punch-flavored Kool-Aid. The fruits of a $15 an hour job for my mom supporting a family of 4.

We had food to eat most nights. I’m sure that those public transit riders I share seats with now do too. Even if it’s the same soup with water added every other day to fill the pot like I did in my youth. Tortillas by the dozen help ease hunger pangs and cost only a dollar when you buy the Romero brand. $1.29 if you spring for the Guerrero tortillas.

$15,000 a year equals $7.21 an hour. For reference, the current minimum wage in the state of California is $9.25 an hour. When I was in high school, minimum wage was $5.75 an hour. I remember getting a “raise” at my job when minimum wage was raised to $6.25 an hour. It made little difference to my family’s living situation. But listening to Mos Def and Common rap about the nobility, the dignity we who lived in poverty had, made me feel a sense of hope.

I found mentors in Hip-Hop. Mentors who valued the work ethic of low-income neighborhoods. Mentors who saw beauty in “doing for self.” In many ways, it’s better to have little in life because we grow to value what we do have. We grow tighter as a family, as a community. Bus riders tend to help each other when one person acts out of line. A mentally-ill passenger gets violent, and fellow bus riders wil help the bus driver push that individual off at the next stop. An abusive boyfriend acts out on his girlfriend, and you better believe train riders will separate the two and possibly kick the guys ass. We’re family in that way. Then we’ll leave it to the security officers.

“Escúchela, la ciudad respirando” is what the intro to “Respiration” says. Listen to it, to the city, breathing. My romantic notion of city life from my youth is only reinforced when I ride the bus and train in L.A. now. I hear the city breathing when I’m on the train, making my way to work with at-risk youth as a mentor. I hear the city breathing when I listen to music, staring out the window of the bus. I hear the city breathing when I watch fellow riders board and exit the bus or train with the signs of hope for a promising new day.

101 FWY #1

Photography

101 FWY #1

101 Fwy #1, #2 and #3 are part of a 3-part series of original photographs, shot using a Holga 120 format camera on Ilford black and white film. All 3 photos in this series are available in limited edition prints at mkt.com/smiley-faze now.

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