As the world continues to shift and slide into new realities, the art scene parallels these unchartered territories. Along this journey, new perspectives and leaders emerged. I had the pleasure of sitting down with South Central LA-raised artist, fellow curator, and community builder Ozzie Juarez. The rising star took a moment to chat with me after his solo show Por Debajo which recently opened at Ochi Gallery. Together we talked about his upbringing and the experiences that have shaped him, as well as initiatives he is taking to help forge promising outcomes for artists in the community that has shaped him.
AJ Girard: I guess there’s no better way to start this conversation than to look at your personal start. Can you paint a picture of your background for us?
Ozzie Juarez: By personal start, do you mean as an artist or a human?
I’d say both, really. What was the first instance where you felt creative?
Like most artists, I could not resist the urge to draw and write on everything. It was a problem, and during class, I’d practice drawing cartoons, portraits, and letters. Painting graffiti was also an outlet for my creativity. This obsessive habit continued all throughout my early education. However, my artistic creativity was never really nurtured or taken seriously by my teachers or my family. The obstacles and struggles of being raised in poverty in the south and east side of LA made it difficult even to make it out alive. A lot of my friends died at an early age, and that was a common thing for kids in our neighborhood. Gangs and violence made it difficult to focus on bigger goals. Poverty and lack of resources really affected the way I navigated my world and molded my perspective on a lot of things. It taught me survival tactics and how to be resourceful with my surroundings. It taught me how to hustle and how to work for myself. Even as a child, working was a priority.
I am a first-generation Mexican American, born in Compton, California. My parents migrated to South Central in the late ’80s. It was a different time, where gang culture was at its peak and the crack pandemic was still prominent. I started working at a young age and grew up helping my family’s side hustle at the swap meet. We sold at three different locations throughout LA County. We even had a spot at the infamous Alameda Swap Meet. My family worked at the swap meet every weekend, waking up at 5 am ever since I could remember. The hustle of swap meet culture kept me on my toes and prevented me from getting into trouble. As a kid, selling things was so natural and normal, I would even sell objects and drawings to kids at school. Working at the swap meets was a big part of my life, and it reinforces the work I now make. Without that experience, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
You are part of a big and important artist ecosystem in LA, Tlaloc Studios. Can you describe that community and your place in it?
Tlaloc Studios is an artist-run community gallery and studio building in the historic South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles. There are thirteen local emerging artists currently working out of Tlaloc. As a studio, we have been open since October 2020, but due to the pandemic, we didn’t open our first exhibition until March 2021. Our public exhibitions are co-curated by fellow artists of the community. Tlaloc studios evolves with each of its members and we continue to grow. Opening up Tlaloc studios has been life-changing, and it’s been a trip seeing the impact it has made. I wear multiple hats in this ecosystem and it helped me connect with the rest of the Los Angeles art community. The idea came from a place of wanting to belong and wanting to be a part of something bigger. We open our doors to everyone and try to give local emerging artists the same opportunities as the larger recognized artists showing in LA. There is so much talent coming through these doors and I am excited for what’s to come.
There’s no looking at the contemporary art scene coming out of Los Angeles without seeing contributions from community spaces like Tlaloc Studios. I've actually always been so curious as to what the name represents.
Tlaloc is one of the most ancient and widespread deities in all of Mesoamerica. Ruler of the rain and lighting, Tlaloc brought fertility and abundance to the crops and people. He is referred to as “The Provider” and giver of life. I want to spread that same philosophy and provide a sanctuary for artists in my community to thrive. I want to be more like him, to give back, and to water people’s crops to help them get a bigger harvest. It is worthwhile seeing artists progress to further opportunities. Tlaloc provides more than just an exhibition space. Collectors, curators, and galleries continue to take interest in our shows. I know this space is a pivotal place and I love seeing local artists shine.
I love that answer, which is really all about development in this field. Would you share your earliest memory of being aware of your growth as an artist?
I didn’t go to art school or take any art education until way later in the game. I painted graffiti at a young age, but at that time, I didn’t consider it to be a form of fine art. I grew up with an older brother who is a genius and a mathematician at heart. My father was super disappointed that I didn’t have the same skill sets. He was certain that I wouldn’t succeed as an artist. My father was a real hustler and found art to be an unsustainable and unrealistic career, even with natural skills. He was really into formal education and was adamant about me getting an engineering degree. It took a really long time, lots of rebellion, hard work, and dedication, but I was finally able to open my dad's eyes to the possibility of a viable life as an artist. Getting an art degree from UC Berkeley and seeing the success that came with it really changed his perspective. It was during those times that I saw myself grow tremendously.
I remember your work and the bonding experiences we shared, all the reconstructed images of our shared childhoods. What helped you determine how to make it work?
A lot of the imagery that makes it into my paintings references pre-existing murals from South Central. I also look closely at pre-Colombian manuscripts, contemporary cartoons, and graffiti. Blending generational histories, ancient folklore, and pop culture helps me understand the complexities of my identity and how these shared experiences are constructed. For instance, In my work, I reference Goku, the main protagonist of the Dragon Ball manga series. He is a character whose image is so admired in all cultures that he starts to become a God-like figure. While he is fictional, his image works as a point of connection and he adds to the fabric of people’s identities. I chose imagery that has made some kind of positive impact on my life.
That’s so interesting to me because it feels like a metaphor for masculinity and the ways we were expected to be in our neighborhoods growing up.
There is always that pressure of being perfect.
Yeah, and the work speaks to me in a different way that makes it finally feel like it's okay not to be perfect. It's almost like it's finally cool to be where we’re from in the art world.
I think it's because we're so authentic to ourselves.
I agree, and yet there’s something so aspirational at the same time. It’s so impressive to watch you step into such self-empowerment. You have this control over your goals. Can we talk a little about your last solo show?
Yes, my solo show, Por Debajo, meaning “from below” in Spanish, opened last summer at Ochi Projects in Los Angeles. For this exhibition I repurposed objects I found in South Central and in adjacent neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Por Debajo featured painted camper shells, storefront awnings, and construction materials. Through each textured surface, and reclaimed object, I honor the life and legacy of these cultural artifacts. I closely examine the mark-making in pre-Columbian manuscripts and reconfigure the lines and shapes into repeating patterns that resemble DNA sequences. The multiplication and extension of the language honors the Mexican people, culture, and deities.
I initially met Ochi Gallery back in 2018, and when I met them, I wasn’t quite ready. I was still working out of my bedroom and figuring things out. Also, at that time I was focusing my energy on starting a gallery and recording studio called “SOLÁ.” We were open only for a short time, but it helped me find the community I have now. It was located on top of an alternator shop that my business partner's family owned—the perfect place. It was located on Firestone Blvd in South Central, and it became the first art gallery in that neighborhood. I was really proud of what was coming out of there. We were quickly building momentum, but unfortunately, the building was sold due to gentrification and we were forced to leave. It was a huge bummer, and it set me back. But ultimately, I believe that starting up that space prepared me for opening up Tlaloc Studios.
"There weren't many shows happening in our hoods so we had to take control and create our own spaces. A lot of the culture in Los Angeles is being made in the backyards of our grandma's houses..."
Impressive! So, you’ve always had this sort of foresight to help build functional, shared spaces in our communities.
I started playing in bands and putting together backyard shows with my friends when I was sixteen. I would help create the flyers and post them all throughout the neighborhoods. I spent a lot of time in the city and found comfort in going to music shows and connecting with people. There weren't many shows happening in our hoods so we had to take control and create our own spaces. A lot of the culture in Los Angeles is being made in the backyards of our grandma's houses. So much time is spent at backyard parties and shows, it really allows people to connect and grow with each other. In order to grow, it is important to support and be a part of a community.
Who are some of the people you look to for inspiration in your work?
Currently, I’m looking at my immediate community for inspiration. From the artists and people that surround me, to the trade workers that produce our landscapes. I look at a lot of outsider artists and people who think they are not artists. I enjoy the honesty of the mark-making. I enjoy looking at the marks in our neighborhoods made by civilians and gang members. As a curator, I also look at a lot of art, and I think subconsciously it definitely influences the way I think about it. Daily, I surround myself with artists I look up to. The community and energy in my studio feeds my creativity. I am inspired by the efforts of my artistic community and the positive impact it is making on each other's lives. I am lucky to have found a community that gives back.
On the last note, thank you for your time and your efforts in South Central, for redirecting that ongoing energy into a vision for the future. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?
It wouldn’t be possible without the support of people like yourself. I am a product of my culture, friends, and family. I believe we need more brown and black leaders in the art community. It would change the course of the future. It is up to us to take on those positions. I’ve been receiving so much support from so many people lately. It feels good, and knowing I have that support makes me want to try and give back even more.
Ozzie has co-curated an exhibition with Thinkpsace Projects at the Brand Library in Glendale, on view now.
Ozzie has co-curated an exhibition with Thinkpsace Projects at the Brand Library in Glendale, on view now.