Street Art and Cholo Style
The term “cholo” generally carries a negative connotation. It refers to a Mexican American gangster. But the fashion, the tattoos, the Old English graffiti writing style, the lowriders, and the music of “cholo culture” is popular beyond the negative stigma and stereotypes. In this episode Luis, Xris, and Jorge discuss what cholo culture means from a “Utahno” perspective.
Ross Chambless: Some artists work with paints, acrylics, watercolors, or woodblock printing to express themselves. Some use brushes or pencils or charcoal on canvas to convey ideas or capture truths about the world around them. Some paint murals on walls or ceilings or the sides of buildings. But in Los Angeles today, there’s a Chicano artist who labors on a unique canvas. This is from the 2006 documentary series, “The Run Up,” about cutting edge underground art from across the U.S.
Mister Cartoon - from the "Run Up" series
Mister Cartoon: “Skin is the most hardcore canvas of all. There is nothing like it. It’s the only canvas that bleeds, shits, talks back, art directs you, shows up late, is cheap, tips you, compliments you, gets insecure, gets faded, moves… there’s nothing like it man.”
Ross: That’s the voice of Mister Cartoon. He’s an internationally renowned Chicano tattoo artist in Los Angeles.
Luis: Mr. Cartoon, it’s hard to know where to start.
Ross: Here’s Luis Lopez, one of our resident Chicano voices, originally from Santa Anna, California.
Luis: There is a unique culture in California, in the LA area. And he embodies it. He embodies the feeling of Chicanismo down there and Cholo culture. It’s not necessarily a negative thing. But there is certain street art. He has impacted everything from low rider culture, hip hop culture, tattoo culture, muralism. He has done it all.
Delinquent Habits "Tres Delincuentes"
Ross: So, you’re listening to Nuevas Voces – a podcast about Mexican art and history, as well as Mexican-American art and history, from a uniquely Utahno perspective. In this podcast we, of course, explore works of art from different perspectives – from a Mexican national perspective, a Chicano perspective, and from white American perspective too. This is episode 19. And in this one, we’re going to be asking – what is exactly is Cholo culture? The tattoo culture, the lowriders, the fashion, the music and Hip Hop culture… all of that. We’ll talk more about Mister Cartoon in a little bit, but first, where does the concept of Cholo come from? And how does it relate to, or influence Chicano and modern Mexican-American culture and art today?
Here’s Luis Lopez again.
Luis: Well, my personal experience growing up, it was viewed negatively. The way Cholo was used was to describe a gang banger. So, it wasn’t positive. But there were certain cultural aspects, like fashion. A popular shoe when I was a kid was the Nike Cortez. For many years I did not wear Nike Cortez’s because of the affiliation with the streets. But over time I’ve realized that style and fashion, does speak to me. It is a representation of who I am a little bit, and the culture I grew up around. I know the actual origins of it are not the way we use it now. But it does tend to have a negative connotation for sure.
According to the website mitú, the word "cholo" originates from a Peruvian text dating back to 1609. "The writer, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, wrote the book in Spanish and it was called Comentarios Reales de los Incas. 'The child of a Black male and an Indian female, or of an Indian male and Black female, they call mulato and mulata. The children of these they call cholos. Cholo is a word from the Windward Islands; it means dog, not of the purebred variety, but of very disreputable origin; and the Spaniards use it for insult and vituperation.'" It is believed that later in Colonial Mexico the terms cholo and coyote were used interchangeably to describe Mestizo and Amerindian ancestry.
Ross: Here’s Xris Macias.
Xris Macias: A common theme we’re hearing is that there is a lot of reclaiming and inverting of terms. I think that’s still the case with Cholos and Cholas, and everything between there. Like Luis said, Cholo culture always seems geared towards those in the streets, behave a certain way, act a certain way, talk a certain way. But a lot of times, that culture is just how we survive in the streets, you know. A lot of times, we as a community who identify that way might look a certain way in one community but change somewhere else. We’re doing this code-switching all the time. A lot of times when you see someone look different in a certain setting you might say that person looks like a Cholo but I can’t pinpoint it. It looks like someone is out of place. But there is a location where they do fit. Being a student and working at the University of Utah I don’t see that particular view or vision of someone a lot. But there are a few people who dress that way, the hats and bandanas, the baggy pants, the Cortezes, chucks, etc, etc… When you see that it stands out. And I’m guilty of doing this even myself, thinking what is that person doing at the University of Utah? But I’m curious, and I’ll ask what’s going on, what’s up, because I have dressed that way. I don’t call myself that necessarily. But people do say Xris is the Cholo on campus. I really don’t know what that means. Because again, it feels like an individual who may not fit in that setting, but here we are.
From the website mitú: Cholos Try VEGAN Food: KALE CHIPS and KOMBUCHA | mitú
Ross: Here’s Jorge Rodriguez. He hosts the show Cada Domingo on KPCW in Park City.
Jorge: I also think it has a lot to do with the type of music we listen to. Music has always been a way to talk about our history and culture. The Cholo culture, especially with hip hop and rap is very much a part of this. On my show, I play a lot of hip hop and rap. A lot of the music I play has a protest tone, a social movement tone. You now, pointing out social inequities and injustices. And I’ve had Hispanic callers saying oh, you’re going to play that Cholo music. Yeah, but have you heard the lyrics? Do you know what they’re saying, or do you just assume they’re gang bangers? This is something that still permeates and has a ways to go, but it is changing because people are asking questions. Is your interpretation accurate, or are you going with what you’ve been told all your life?
Luis: I think one of the common misconceptions is a lot of Chicano music, especially if they’re rapping or MC’s will fall under Chicano rap. With that a lot of people claim hoods and colors, they assume it must be associated with some gang. But then you have gangs like Cypress Hill. You have groups like Psycho Realm, Lighter Shade of Brown. These groups aren’t claiming sets, and it’s very much hip hop. But they get thrown into that umbrella term.
Chicano fashion has become popular in Japan. Here's a video by Refinery29 exploring this phenomenon. The New York Times also examined this fascinating trend in Japan.
Luis: Going back to Mr. Cartoon. The impact of the culture is so big, Mr. Cartoon created the logo for Cypress Hill for the record label. Same thing for M & M and Shady Records. He has tattooed M&M, B-Real, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog. So the Cholo aspect is one tiny sliver of the spectrum of Chicanismo, in my opinion. But that’s what people focus on to make it a negative, instead of focusing on the beauty of hip hop and Chicano rap.
"If Only Tattoos Could Talk." A look into the mind of Mister Cartoon,
Ross: But there’s definitely a part of the community that sees this kind of music, often pulsating out from the lowriding cars in urban neighborhoods as menacing. Some see street art as graffiti, even as vandalism. And some see the tattoos as scary. I’m interested in that tension – that tension between art and graffiti. Between beauty and intimidation.
Luis: One of the things we see with Mr. Cartoon is with skulls. There is a certain way he’ll draw skulls. If you don’t understand it it’s kind of scary. Like a lot of people who don’t understand Dios Los Muertos, it’s a scary thing. But when you truly understand it, it’s a reflection of what people are living and seeing. And one of the greatest things Mr. Cartoon has done is take that style and put it on cars. His impact on the lowrider culture is huge.
Lowriders featuring Mister Cartoon & Estevan Oriol, by SuperFly Autos MagazineTM
Ross: Here’s Mister Cartoon again, from a 2016 Superfly Autos Magazine interview.
Mister Cartoon: “Lowriding is a way we express ourselves. It’s movement, motion. You know, dragging bumper. It’s our way of showboating. You know, of celebrating our Chicano heritage. In Southern California, it’s our style mixes with music. We listen to certain types of music when we drive our lowriders. We listen to old school funk. Funkadelic, to old school classic soul oldies. Motown sound. Or sometimes we throw on Flock of Seagulls or Duran Duran, ‘cause we don’t give a fuck.”
Ross: Xris Macias again.
Xris: Yea, lowriders is a good way to make your own art bigger, because it’s mobile art. We have a lot of visual art we call fine art. But in this case, Mr. Cartoon is a promoter of “car fine” art. Because it stays in place on a vehicle or some form of the culture, but then it’s mobile. So it gets to other communities. And that follows the tradition of graffiti in the sense that people would put it on trains, put it on other ways to get it out of the city or the hood if they could not metaphorically leave. This is a continuation of that. I think Mr. Cartoon’s style, and he does everything by hand. He doesn’t really keep sketchbooks, you know, to make things bigger. He does things on the spot. He does things in collaboration with other artists. I’ve heard it is hard to work with him because he does things on the fly without preparation. But also, people get inspired by that. And in these days of technology and of the Internet he’s able to spread himself without much exposure. If you look online, there are some pages about him. He’s got some videos, but it’s not a rich network of things to choose from. But we all know who he is, because of the influence he’s had.
Ross: But as it turns out, much of the inspiration and origins of this old English script writing style that became associated with urban street art and graffiti, was perfected by an earlier L.A. artist, known as the “godfather of cholo style” street art. Chaz Bojórquez. This is from a 2012 Acclaim Magazine video interview with Chaz.
Interview with Chaz Bojórquez, from a 2012 Acclaim Magazine video.
Chaz Bojórquez: “My tag name was Chaz. The cholo style is really taking the most prestigious letters people know. That’s old English, German gothic, folkner. It’s the typeface we get for our birth certificate, or death certificate. When we were inducted into the military it would be in Old English. Our constitution of the United States is that old English. So, that was the foundation of my style. It was developed throughout the years where I have more control. It’s become more pointy. It’s become more expressive in the lines. I’ve learned to make longer lines, whereas before it was more blocky, and it was more about me, me, me, intense. But now I have a sense of inclusiveness. It’s about us.”
Chaz Bojórquez, Placa/Rollcall, 1980, acrylic on canvas.
Bojórquez is recognized for bringing Chicano graffiti (or Cholo graffiti) into the established art world.
Ross: You can see images of Chaz Bojórquez’s work on our website for this podcast. Here’s Luis.
Luis: So, this image is called Placa/Rollcall. The style of writing is a hand style. When it comes to graffiti there is different types. Some are pieces that are intricate with different colors. Some are quick throw-ups that people do. So, this is more of a quick handwriting. But the rollcall is naming everybody, whether your crew, your set, your hood or whatever it is. It tells you who is there. You do see these in different neighborhoods depending on where you go. A lot of times it won’t be their government name, it’ll be whatever hood moniker they’ve been given. So, if you see it says “sad boy” that’s not their real name. But people in that neighborhood know who that is. It’s another representation thing. And they’re not afraid to put it out there.
Ross: Here’s Fanny Blauer, who has our native Mexican perspective.
A picture of graffiti in Mexico City. This comes from the website graffiti.com.
Fanny: I grew up in Mexico City in a very urban area. And my mom, where she lives. One day they painted, and the next day graffiti was there. I didn’t know anything about Mr. Cartoon or Chaz. But I can tell you that the graffiti on my mom’s building is that. So, now I understand that there is definitely a message. Is it a type of language? I’m curious when I go back to Mexico City to see what they are trying to say and the influence that these groups have in Mexico City or in other communities, maybe from immigrants in the city. I think is fascinating now that I've learned about it.
Xris: I used to also see this in the streets in my neighborhoods. It’s a certain kind of font. It’s very shorthand. You don’t have to write out everyone’s names. Because we are passing through. So, you have to quickly know who is there and who is representing. So, this idea of having an apartment painted, and then being tagged up the next week might seem at first glance like vandalism. Some people who have this concept of private property might see it as a direct attack. But for the communities that don’t have the places to do that, they put this font, or sort of style in the streets to show their own representation and communicate back and forth. So, it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, we have to show it because we are STILL not represented. We’re still not having our voices accurately portrayed. There are more and more doing it, and I want to give credit, such as Chaz or Mr. Cartoon, etc, But I think that culture still continues.
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Thanks to our commentators Xris Macias, Luis Lopez, and Jorge Rodriguez, and Fanny Blauer. Episode produced and edited by Ross Chambless; Thanks to KPCW in Park City for the studio space; The music you heard in this episode comes from Cypress Hill; Delinquent Habits; Lil’ Rob; Mbeatz; Ms. Krazie; Stomper, Spanky Loco, Sleepy Loks; Lighter Shade of Brown; War; Locos; Royal T Beat; and Kid Frost.
Engage with Us:
From an artistic perspective, what is your impression of Southern California Chicanismo or Cholo style, that we can see in tattoos, on lowrider cars, or spray painted on walls? Have you had personal experience with this art form or culture? Do you think it’s become mainstream, or changed – for better or for worse?