A quick shake of the paint can and its distinctive rattle. The hiss of paint leaving the nozzle and the pungent odor that fills the air. These are the sounds and smell of art in the making. What comes next is the color: brilliant hues that form dramatic shapes and textures, transforming a blank wall into an inspiring neighborhood centerpiece.
That's always the goal for Carlos Donjuan, an alumnus and now a senior lecturer at The University of Texas at Arlington, who developed an interest in graffiti art in middle school.
"As a kid I was already really into drawing cartoons, video game characters, and imagery from lowrider culture," he says. "In middle school, I became enamored with graffiti art and the idea of abstracting letters and using vibrant colors. I dedicated my teen years to learning everything I could about it."
Back then, Donjuan, his two younger brothers, and two of their best friends started a graffiti crew they called Sour Grapes. The crew was envisioned as a solid group of artists that would go out into the community, paint graffiti, and look out for one another. They'd ask permission to paint walls for local businesses, particularly those that had already been tagged by local gangs.
"I like to think my work has a positive impact on the community because mural work shows an appreciation for the neighborhood," Donjuan says. "Communities usually feel appreciated when someone takes the time to add a little color to their surroundings."
Sour Grapes is still going strong today—17 years later—and though the core mission is the same, things have changed a bit. Today, the group still paints murals, but they are also creative directors, graphic designers, illustrators, educators, community advocates, and more. They focus on community work, but they also enjoy working with corporate clients.
Donjuan's art, too, has evolved over the years—though strong shapes and vivid colors remain a consistent element. He credits UTA for helping him discover a true passion for art.
"It was great to be at a university where the faculty really cared about my ideas and worked to help me develop my art," he says. "My professors helped me realize that there was a purpose to what I was doing and how it was important to my community and me."
He now focuses his time in the studio. His "Illegal Aliens" series has been exhibited at major museums and galleries all over the world. The paintings feature masked individuals, often surrounded by surreal characters or unusual landscapes.
"As a child, I remembered hearing the term ‘illegal alien,' and I always wondered what these aliens looked like," he says. "I soon figured out that ‘illegal alien' was a term used to label people like me. I was heartbroken."
Several years ago, as he started to explore some of his childhood experiences through his art, that memory came to the surface. Inspiration struck.
"I created masks and costumes for my figures that were inspired by cultures from all over the world," he says. "The masks represent the many personalities that we must take on to blend in to a place where we feel like we don't belong. My goal is to empower people who feel like outsiders and show the beauty of their uniqueness."
Through Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings’ Rising Star Council, Sour Grapes worked with students at four Dallas high schools on how to create social change through art. After discussions about the history and community impact of mural and graffiti art, students created mural concepts for their schools, and Sour Grapes helped bring those concepts to life. “It was exciting to see all of the ideas and energy that these students brought to their community,” Donjuan says.
Find Carlos Donjuan’s art in the wild.
Spot his graffiti in Oak Cliff, where he has created three of his largest murals thanks to a grant through the Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs. A new body of work will debut at a show in November 2017 at Kirk Hopper Fine Art in Dallas.
Benz, mixed media
Inside Look: Behind the Artist
Donjuan shares some of the inspirations that shape his art today
"My work now is an exploration of my Mexican-American history and how it's become a hybrid mindset and lifestyle. I'm working on trying to understand my history and culture and how it's made me the person that I am today.
Graffiti art taught me how to work large scale and introduced me to the elements of art without being aware of that as a teen. When I first started making paintings, I found that I had an easy time understanding the use of color, form, line, shape, space, texture, and value. Graffiti also instilled in me a sense of street smarts and energy—these things have become interwoven with my academic background. This is something that I think has set me apart from many of my peers.
Cartoon imagery constantly appears in my work in many ways or forms. I'm inspired by the playfulness that I find in cartoon imagery now more than ever. This is because of my 6-year-old son Ari and how he has changed my life. Seeing his interests are just as important to me, and it's hard not to include them in my work. I like to know what he thinks about my work, so I keep it colorful and playful. We talk about cartoons, toys, and video games daily, and that to me is one of my greatest inspirations."