Welcome back to the Art Force Academy podcast! This week, we spoke with Juan Lucero, a ceramicist and graffiti writer, who is also a part of our production team here at Art Force. Originally from New Mexico, Juan is now based in Northeast Minneapolis.
In our conversation with Juan, we discuss his background, interests, and diverse artistic practice. A portion of the interview is also transcribed below. Enjoy!
So why art?
Yeah, why art? What made you get into art?
I guess I’ve been into art since I was a kid. I always drew, but I really got into it when I was probably about 12. I started doing graffiti when I was 12. That was when I really got into expressing myself and exploring everything.
Were you in Santa Fe then?
No, I grew up on a reservation in New Mexico. I lived by the railroad tracks, like 50 yards away from the railroad tracks so I got to see trains all the time. That was kind of how I got into graffiti – just watching the trains go by. I would see the trains and all the graffiti on them, and eventually I wanted to do it.
Did you have anyone showing you, like older kids, or did you just go for it yourself?
Well I went to school in a little bit of a rough neighborhood, so there were some people who would go around and do a lot of graffiti, but they wouldn’t do anything really artistic. I was more of the artistic person, so I would go and do stuff for them and write stuff for them.
Were you doing more tags or did you have certain characters that you would do?
I was drawing out names. I picked up my first paint can when I was 12, and I kept writing until I was 20. It wasn’t until I was about 15 that there was a point that my parents said “we can’t stop him anymore.” It was a relief that my mom decided that she would just support me. She would buy me paint and do stuff like that. I was able to actually explore it and really make time to go out and paint. She would even drop me off at a wall so I could go and paint.
Did she support just you painting and doing graffiti, or did she set limitations like “you can only graffiti in these areas.”
To a certain extent. She would try, but she knew she couldn’t stop me from just going out. High school was mostly just going out and doing graffiti all the time – and not going to school. Eventually, I kind of stopped because it was getting to crazy, as far as laws go. I still do it today, here and there. I’ll go out and teach classes. I think it’s a very primitive form of art because there’s no real recognition in it. I mean, you’re recognized by other graffiti writers.
That’s what I was going to say – it’s more internal within the graffiti community.
Yeah, there’s no structure for it. I don’t really believe that graffiti belongs in a gallery. I think it belongs in the street, which is why I call it primitive. It’s just a bunch of random people going out and doing art for free. It’s like doing cave art.
It serves a different purpose. What do you see as the purpose of graffiti? I view it as art for the community. It’s this democratic thing that anyone can enjoy, anyone can see.
Yes, to a certain extent. One of the funniest quotes I’ve heard about graffiti writers was that a lot of them are very manic depressive and very self-centered. So everything they do is basically for themselves, which is kind of the set that I come out of. I do graffiti more for myself. I don’t really care if anyone sees it or what they think about it because I just want to go out there and do it. That’s how I was growing up and doing graffiti on the street. Depending on where I did it, I didn’t really care. If people saw it, cool. If they didn’t, no big deal. There are a lot of graffiti writers that do stuff that is just so bizarre that they want people to see it. It’s for the ego, the big head. A lot of graffiti writers have a huge ego.
What do you think of the graffiti scene in Minneapolis? How does that compare to other places that you’ve been?
Minneapolis is still pretty strong. I know a couple writers here, and they say that it’s not what it used to be. I think in the past 20 years that the laws have gotten so strict that it really limits graffiti writers from going out and doing graffiti. I think that’s why you see a lot more of the posters and wheatpasters. You see a lot more of that than of graffiti anymore. But I love the trains. I’m stuck by trains every day, and I get to see trains all the time. It’s really cool because it’s very continental because I see New Mexico writers.
Oh cool. Right, because the trains are traveling across the country.
I see some of my friends’ piece out here. I see some of my brother’s trains go by.
So your brother is into graffiti too?
Yeah, he started after I did. My brother is 6 years younger than me, and when he was growing up, I would always try to get him to do graffiti with me, but he never would. He was a teenager when he finally started. I think he made up for time in the little amount of time that he started painting. I did 6 years of just being out and writing my name everywhere. He came out when he was 18 and was able to do the same amount of work that I did in like 2 years.
When you go out now, do you write your name still?
Yeah, I write the same thing. I’ve been writing the same thing since pretty much day 1.
Do you do it by yourself?
I have always done it by myself. I have friends that do it, and I know some graffiti crews, but I have always stuck by myself because it is safer that way.
Have you had any run-ins with the law?
I am one of the few that hasn’t.
That’s pretty lucky.
That’s kind of why I stopped. My friends were starting to get busted a lot, and it gets to a point that you don’t want to have to pay $200,000 in fine.
What? That’s how much a fine would be if they catch you?
One of my buddies got busted, and it was a $200,000 fine. They found his name and tracked it wherever it was at.
They keep very detailed logs of everyone’s name.
That’s a bit extreme.
Yeah, it’s kind of sad that they’re so hard on it. They think it’s gang-related, but it’s really not. It’s not even one genre of people that is doing it. They say it’s strictly hip hop, but it’s not really. It’s punk rock, it’s hip hop, it’s a lot of things.