As a young child growing up in Mexico, Jose López had been interested in art, but never thought too much about it. It wasn’t until a shooting left him paralyzed at the age of 15 that he became passionate about the subject. As he learned to live with a wheelchair, López spent much of his free time drawing with crayons, trying to replicate the art of José Guadelupe Posada, Jesús Helguera, and others. From pencil drawing, he moved on to black and gray tattooing, eventually establishing himself as one of the leading artists working in this style. But even as tattooing paid the bills, López continued to explore other artistic mediums. We spoke with him about his fine art, the powerful influence art had on his life and more.
What sparked your interest in art?
It happened when I was living in Mexico. I was walking to school one day and saw a pencil drawing of Day of the Dead. It was a La Catrina, an image of a laughing skull representing a woman made famous by an artist named José Guadalupe Posada. I was so amazed that I copied it, and it was pretty close to the original. Turns out a teacher had drawn the picture, and when he saw the one I made, he said I should dig deeper into the drawing.
This motivation quickly disappeared. I lived with my grandmother, who raised me with my two siblings while our parents were in the United States, and I was only 6 years old. I remember going to a papelería – a store where they sold school supplies – and I was looking at all the possibilities right in front of me, yet so far from being reached. It was impossible for my grandmother to afford these things.
I finally came back to the United States to find my parents. When I was 15, I was shot while at a Halloween party and ended up in a wheelchair. I remember going through rehab, which lasted three long months, possibly the worst time of my life. In the hospital, I started drawing a little when they made us do something special for our family for the Christmas holidays. When I got out, I had to face the reality of what the rest of my life was going to be like.
The next few months were really bad, and that’s when I picked up a magazine and found a drawing contest. I won it the same year. I have submitted so many drawings. Many of them were old calendar pictures that were often found in Mexican homes.
What were your first artistic influences?
José Guadalupe Posada was the first influence, the artist who created the image of La Catrina that I drew when I was 6 years old. We used to see a lot of Diego Rivera paintings, which didn’t appeal to me that much. Later in life I came to know the work of Jesús Helguera, who made me not only draw, but make entire drawings. I never took drawing seriously until I saw his work. Before that, I used to draw typical Chicano pictures of men in prison or girls with long, pretty hair. The piece I’m doing right now is Helguera’s greatest masterpiece, “La Leyenda de los Volcanes”. I consider it my final exam before I can move on to making my own large-scale artwork. I like a lot of different artists and they continue to influence my work. Matisse, Mondrian, Vermeer, Pollock and Warhol are some of my favourites.
Can you explain your artistic approach to us?
With the tattoo, I do whatever motivates me at that moment. I love interacting with my customers and I love feedback, the more the better. When I draw at home, I have full control over what I’m going to paint or draw. Lately, I’ve been planning my next drawings, which will be original ideas, many of which I photograph myself. I want to create original content. I’d love to do the same for tattoos, but not everyone wants to trust you with some crazy idea they can’t imagine in their head. With drawing, there are no limits. Eventually, when people see the finished designs, I’m sure they’ll want to get tattooed, and if they don’t, the fun of getting them will stay with me.
Tell us a bit about your preference for using pencils, as many people can be quick to dismiss the medium.
Pencil was the very first medium that caught my interest. I started when I was 15. It’s the simplest art form and something you have to master before anything else. There’s something magical about it, or so I think. I started translating oil painting into gray tones early on and saw myself progressing very quickly. It got me addicted to doing whole drawings non-stop. I remember the sun was coming out and I didn’t want to stop drawing because I wanted all the white areas of the paper covered in lead. I kept drawing and realized that it also helped me with my tattoo. Eventually, I was so busy tattooing that there was no time to draw, so I neglected drawing for a long time. This is perhaps the thing I regret the most. But there is always tomorrow. For me, that tomorrow happened two years ago when the pandemic started and I decided to start drawing again. It’s hard to sit down and draw when you can make money. I had to retrain myself not to expect the tattoo to provide instant compensation. It’s a bad habit to get used to making money because it keeps you from doing other things you love just because you could be making money doing something else. Drawing makes me feel alive, it stops time, it’s my place of happiness. Drawing saved my life.
Does being in a wheelchair change your process in any noticeable way, especially when working on a large canvas?
Being in a wheelchair has advantages and disadvantages. On one side, the wheelchair immobilizes me. If I could walk, God knows what I would do. I see that as a good thing – the chair keeps me in place. I’m very adventurous and being in a wheelchair keeps me from doing crazy shit, although I still manage to get myself into some sticky situations here and there. When I draw, it’s difficult because it stops me from doing certain things, but I managed to find inventive ways to get things done. For example, when I do large canvases, I rotate them just to access certain areas I’m working on, often painting and drawing upside down. Other times I attach pencils or paintbrushes to long wooden sticks.
Sometimes heavy canvases fall on me, which is especially bad when I paint in oils. I find myself painting alone most of the time late at night so when I fall down and don’t have my phone around to call my wife, I have to find a way to sit back down on my own. It’s a fun scene trying to push this huge canvas off with wet paint all over my face and body and then having to focus deeply just to push myself off the floor to get back in my chair. Man, just being in a wheelchair is hard, there are times when I question everything I do. It is really easy to fall into a depressive state. I keep fighting day after day and art definitely helps. I also have a very supportive wife and children who are always there for me, not to mention my parents and my little brother Steven who helps me in so many ways. I feel like we’re creating all this art together.
How does it feel to see Chicano-style art spread across the world, with artists as far apart as Korea and Japan beginning to specialize in this field?
Seeing the advancement and influence of Chicano culture is amazing to me. It’s a sign that what we’ve been doing for 30 years has become something positive. To say that is a little ironic, because living in the neighborhood as a kid got me shot and in that wheelchair. I am one of those flowers that grew out of concrete. But those same circumstances put me on a different life path that ultimately led me to find my artistic expression, connect with beautiful people, tattoo, and meet so many other kids who also had experiences unpleasant in the same environment in which I grew up. helps me overcome my own difficulties, I don’t think it would have been possible without drawing and tattooing. Over time, being shot and becoming paralyzed transformed from a horrific, life-changing experience into an opportunity that would later impact not just me and those I mentored, but the entire community. tattoo community around the world. It makes me feel so accomplished and grateful to all the people I’ve met who have helped me. This is a fine example of a silver lining.