From zig-zag tagging on nearby fences to full-on graffiti and traditional murals, the National Museum of Mexican Art is prefaced by street art. Inside, a retrospective of the L.A.-based graffiti artist Chaz Bojórquez echoes the wall works outside. What the exhibition accomplishes best of all, beyond the typical (and now cliché) graffiti-as-art legitimization, is the public validation of artistic expression, despite the artistic medium.
In a photo from 1973, Chaz (as he’s known) is shown crouching in a cement drainage tunnel pointing a spray can directly at the camera. By the end of the exhibit, there are wine bottles and “Mickey Mouse” written on a belt buckle in “cholo”-style writing—all Chaz brand creations. Did Chaz sell out? Or did mass culture finally catch up with Chicano culture? The latter, obviously. Chaz’s confident signature gesture—a blend of hand-drawn typographies including tagging and calligraphy—speaks a unique language to those who want to listen.
“When I was tagging in the streets,” says Chaz, “I never thought that I would ever be designing products with my graffiti letters. You would think that doesn’t fit the free spirit of graffiti or the artist life, but it does. It puts my work in the context of culture.”
In his forty-plus year career as an artist, Chaz has stenciled on the streets, staged public exhibitions, and designed products for Disney, Vans, and skateboard companies as a graphic artist. Through these venues, Chaz has sought to create a typographic space—a safe place—where audiences could identify with his message. Chaz emerged in the L.A. art scene in the late 1960s at a time when feminist and conceptual art tendencies were also blooming. This was the Chicano art revolution.
In just twelve large-scale paintings and a handful of ephemera, including documentary photographs and the products of his graphic design, Chaz’s artistic career unfolds in the museum’s gallery. Much like Chicago-based artist Carlos “Dzine” Rolon, who developed his childhood tagging into an art form, Chaz mixes Latino and Asian styles with hip hop and kung fu, Baroque and Old English lettering, tribal and celebrity cultures. Chaz moved from being an underground rebel to mainstream success. The retrospective is a testament to an inspired life in the arts.
From the Streets to the Cloud runs through June 30, 2013.
Jason Foumberg is Chicago magazine’s contributing art critic.
Photograph: Keegan Gibbs