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Chaz Bojórquez - El Padrino

Words:

Edd Norval
April 20, 2020

Many are known as the ‘king of’ or ‘godfather of’ - epithets applicable to a variety of art movements like punk, rap and graffiti. Few have as legitimate a claim as Bojórquez whose background in calligraphy and street sensibilities ushered in the advent of Chicano art in Los Angeles.

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Not just a pioneer, in that he was the first to do it, he also created a movement with meaning straight off the bat, inadvertently ensuring its place in the annals of history. Having studied Asian calligraphy at the Chouinard Art Institute under Master Yun Chung Chiang, Bojórquez has also visited over 30 countries as a lifelong student of graphic forms and their influence in national and cultural identity.


Chicano style is notable, at its most rudimentary, for the stylised lettering that embodies the performative flamboyance and inherent aggression of the underlining characteristics of the artistic movements. These characteristics, more specifically, are the shared heritage of its members whose assimilation from Mexican to American culture embodies the Chicano culture as neither one nor the other.


The Cholo style didn’t begin with Bojórquez, as walls had been daubed by street gangs since the 1940s in LA. What the artist did do, though, was give it uniformity and a tangible presence as an enmeshed part of Chicano cultural expression. The common territorial markings - or ‘roll calls’ - were essentially a list of the gang members who controlled the area and through the artist's interpretation became invaluable to the development of the scene.

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Scrawled in a typeface akin to the Gothic or Olde English style, the lettering became ubiquitous around Los Angeles and, as well as being used between gangs, it was also a part of an individual’s distinguishing identity within them. Bojórquez developed his ‘Señor Suerte’ skull stencil - one of the first stencilled icons in street art - that acted as a protective symbol against the death of himself and fellow members before taking on a life of its own as a tattoo for those looking to fight off death.


Both the typeface and icon has deep symbolic value. The typeface, firstly, originated from the earliest printing press in Germany, used in documents with legal value - a show of authority and control. His icon was more personal, tying him to his Mexican heritage by developing Señor Suerte around the cult of Santa Muerte - a folkloric icon who offers protection against death - belonging to Mexican popular interpretation of Catholicism (although not recognised by the Church).


What Chicano artwork amounted to was a representation of life for Mexican-American’s who would often be treated as an underclass, facing racism from the bodies tasked with upholding justice in America. It was this treatment that led many into choosing a life of crime over the perceived uphill struggle of pursuing an honest career or further education. Bojórquez managed to encapsulate these sentiments through his art, becoming a sort of spokesperson for the community.

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Sustained artistic success allowed Bojórquez to transfer from street to mainstream art, without damaging his credibility too much - a risky move many did and do view simply as ‘selling out’. For Bojórquez though, it wasn’t so much about cashing in on his success as it was about subverting prejudice. Having represented a minority group in LA - making the step up into professional galleries was his own way of pushing back.


The artist’s definition of success is simple - “Success is being influential”. No one could deny his impact on the art and imagery that helped shape the development of the Chicano sub-cultural movement. Beyond that though, his presence in the art world and the obstacles he overcame, showed the true spirit of his people and helped pave the way for future artists whose struggle would be their own artistic one, rather than the institutional walls that Bojórquez first painted on, then broke down.

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