Urban hidden literature

From graffiti to the wheat-paste art of Banksy, street art takes on many iterations. Urban art brings color to the gray concrete of a place while providing a broader sense of identity. Most municipalities don't know how to handle these urban expressions of public art in their communities - but the expressions persist nonetheless.

The town of Taos is no stranger to public art, with the iconic George Chacon mural centered at the crossroads of Taos to smaller "guerilla art" pieces popping up all over town. Crosswalk murals have come and gone too (and we're all recovering from that unfortunate incident!). For a community so steeped in art and culture, it's inevitable that the creative juices would seep out of the artist studio and into the streets. Street art communicates who lives here, and it could help save lives.

They call him Heaven. Since the early 1980s, Juan Carlos Muñoz Hernandez has used the streets as his canvas.

"It caught my attention," Hernandez shared with me during a recent Zoom call. "The colors and everything else that graffiti expresses. I was surrounded by the local tagging, which was a lot of gang tagging, territorial tagging, elaborate writing around my neighborhood."

Hernandez was part of one of the oldest graffiti crews in Los Angeles. He says it was a small group that worked pure to the style, utilizing aerosol cans and nothing else. He calls it Urban Hidden Literature.

"You can call it street art, or urban hidden literature. When we used to do tagging, you'd have to decode it. It reminds me of nature. Trees and plants, what are they trying to tell us? It's like a hidden message. We walk through nature every day without acknowledging it."

Hernandez will be in Taos for 10 days starting July 19 to share his lifetime of work in urban hidden literature as the Paseo Project's 2020 artist in residence, rescheduled from last year due to COVID-19. "We're looking forward to the 'rural' hidden literature for Taos."

For Hernandez's stay, he will be working with the DreamTree Project on a series of wall and window murals. Together with collaborator and educator Felipe Gabriel Beltran (Gabe), they will be sharing their knowledge of graffiti art. Together they have been making murals together for over 15 years in the alleys of Los Angeles. During their stay, they'll share how street art saved their lives.

"I feel that art has always protected me," Hernandez shares. "Graffiti art, but also fine art, created a creative bubble around me. But like a flower has thorns, if you get too close it will bite you back. I like to look at art like that."

In collaboration with residents at DreamTree, the artists will be creating a mural on the "grow container" on their property. "The work I'm doing now requires a lot of discipline and I like to use a lot of colors." The artists will be using a set of colors selected by DreamTree.

"The colors are speaking to each other, even though sometimes they don't get along. But once they're on the wall, they have to live together forever, neighborly. I call them angle angels, because I believe there are hidden angels. As we wake in the morning, we walk down the street, they help us make the right decisions, connecting us again to Mother Earth. Like guardian angels."

Through street art, Hernandez met several guardian angels. "In 1992 I was hired by Robert Graham. He reached out to us after the LA riots. He hired seven of us, and I have been here ever since - almost 30 years now."

And there is always a connection to Taos.

"One day I was coming out of work, and I went into this building, and it ended up being Larry Bell's studio. Later, I find out that Larry Bell is a big fan of graffiti art. He loves the explosion of colors."

During Hernandez and Beltran's stay, the two will make their way over to the Private Label Select factory, the former Cottam Walker Ford Dealership. Painting on the inside of the large showroom windows, the two plan their largest mural to date, assisted by local DreamTree residents. "We're going to fill that up with color. Creating a welcome mat to the city of Taos. We'll be playing with light at night, so the colors pop out like a lantern."

Hernandez will be using his familiar line work for this piece, a series of vertical lines in 15 different colors.

"Lately I've been making a lot of vertical lines, and I think that speaks to the universal language of reaching to the heavens. They interlock--it's very symmetrical, very clean. I like to call it hard edges. And these hard edges need protection, they need discipline."

Seems fitting that this work is to be displayed on a former car dealership. Pinstriping had a huge influence on Hernandez. He remembers as a kid the filming of Boulevard Nights in his neighborhood, where they brought in 15 lowrider cars for a scene. "I think that's when it struck me; it was mind-blowing. It went into my unconscious mind. I'm very influenced by lowriders and the urban landscape of Los Angeles."

Hernandez will be giving an artist talk at The Harwood Museum of Art on Sunday (July 25), at 2 p.m., concurrent with the Santo Lowride exhibition on display all summer.

A pop-up exhibition of Hernandez and Beltran's work will be on display at Revolt Gallery. Check out paseoproject.org for more information.

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