As a young child growing up in Mexico, Jose López had been interested in art, but never thought too much about it. It wasn’t until a shooting left him paralyzed at the age of 15 that he became passionate about the subject. As he was learning to live with a wheelchair, López spent much of his free time drawing with pencils, attempting to replicate the art of José Guadelupe Posada, Jesús Helguera and others. From pencil drawing he moved to black-and-grey tattooing, eventually establishing himself as one of the premier artists working in the style. But even as tattooing paid the bills, López continued to explore other mediums of art. We spoke with him about his fine art, the powerful influence art has had on his life and more.
What sparked your interest in art?
It happened when I lived in Mexico. One day I was walking to school and saw a Day of the Dead pencil drawing. It was a La Catrina, an image of a laughing skull representation of a woman made famous by an artist named José Guadalupe Posada. I was so amazed that I copied it, and it was pretty close to the original. Turns out a teacher had drawn the image, and when he saw the one I did he said I should look deeper into drawing.
That motivation soon vanished. I lived with my grandma, who raised me and my two brothers and sisters while our parents were in the States, and I was only 6. I remember going to a papelería—a shop where they sell school supplies—and I would look at all the possibilities right in front of me, yet so far from reach. It was impossible for my grandma to afford those things.
I eventually came back to the States to be reunited with my parents. When I turned 15, I got shot while I was at a Halloween party and ended up in a wheelchair. I remember going through rehab, which lasted three long months, perhaps the worst time of my life. At the hospital I started to draw a little bit when they made us do something special for our family for the Christmas holiday. When I got out, I had to face the reality of what the rest of my life was going to be like.
The months that followed were really bad, and that’s when I picked up a magazine and found a drawing contest. I won it the very same year. I submitted so many drawings. Many of them were old calendar images which you would often find in Mexican homes.
Who were some of your earliest artistic influences?
José Guadalupe Posada was the first influence, the artist who created the La Catrina image I drew when I was 6. We used to see lots of Diego Rivera paintings, which did not appeal to me as much. Later on in life I would come to know Jesús Helguera’s work, which made me not only draw, but complete entire drawings. I never took drawing seriously until I saw his work. Before that I would draw typical Chicano images depicting men in prison or girls with long pretty hair. The piece I’m doing right now is Helguera’s greatest masterpiece, “La Leyenda de los Volcanes.” I see it as my final exam before I can move on to doing my own large-scale works of art. I like a lot of different artists, and they keep influencing the work I do—Matisse, Mondrian, Vermeer, Pollock and Warhol are some of my favorites.
Can you walk us through your artistic process?
With tattooing, I do whatever gets me going at that moment. I love to interact with my customers and I like input, the more the better. When I’m drawing at home, I have full control over what I will paint or draw. Lately, I have been planning out my next drawings, which will be original ideas, many of which I’m photographing myself. I want to create original content. I would like to do the same for tattoos, but not everyone wants to trust you with some crazy idea they can’t imagine in their heads. With drawing there are no limits. Eventually when people see the finished drawings I know for sure they will want to get them tattooed, and if they don’t, the pleasure of doing them will still stay with me.
Tell us a little about your preference for using pencils, as many people may be quick to dismiss the medium.
Pencil was the very first medium that caught my interest. I started when I was 15. It is the simplest form of art and something one should master before anything else. There is something magical about it, at least I think so. I started translating oil painting to grey tones from the very beginning and very quickly saw myself making progress. This got me addicted to doing entire drawings nonstop. I remember the sun coming out and not wanting to stop drawing because I wanted all white areas of the paper to be covered with lead. I kept on drawing and realized it was helping me with my tattooing as well. Eventually I got so busy tattooing that there was no more time to draw anymore, so I neglected drawing for a long time. This is perhaps the thing I regret the most. But there is always tomorrow. For me, that tomorrow came two years ago when the pandemic started and I decided I would start to draw again. It’s hard to sit down and draw when you can be making money. I had to retrain myself not to expect that instant compensation tattooing brings. It’s a bad habit to get used to making money because it causes you to not want to do other things you love just because you could be making money doing something else. Drawing makes me feel alive, it makes time stand still, it is my happy place. Drawing saved my life.
Does being in a wheelchair alter your process in any noticeable ways, particularly when working on a large canvas?
Being in a wheelchair has both pros and cons. On one hand, the wheelchair grounds me. If I could walk, god knows what I would be doing. I see this as a good thing—the chair keeps me in place. I’m very adventurous and being in the wheelchair keeps me from doing crazy shit, even though I still manage to get into difficult situations here and there. When I’m drawing it is difficult because it keeps me from doing certain things, but I have managed to come up with inventive ways to get things done. For example, when I’m doing large canvases, I rotate them just to get to certain areas that I’m working on, many times painting and drawing upside down. Other times I attach pencils or brushes to long wooden sticks.
Sometimes heavy canvases fall on top of me, which is particularly bad when I’m doing oil painting. I find myself painting alone most of the time late at night so when I fall and I don’t have my phone around me to call my wife, I have to find a way to get back into my chair by myself. It’s a funny scene trying to push this huge canvas off myself with wet paint all over my face and body, then having to concentrate deeply just to push myself off the floor to get back into my chair. Man, just being in a wheelchair is difficult, there are moments I question everything I do. It is really easy to fall into a depressed state. I keep fighting day after day and art definitely helps. I also have a very supportive wife and kids who are always there for me, not to mention my parents and little brother Steven who helps me in so many ways. I feel like we’re creating all this art together.
How does it feel to see Chicano-style art spread across the world, with artists as far away as Korea and Japan starting to specialize in it?
To see the advancement and influence of Chicano culture is something amazing to me. It is a sign that what we have been doing for the last 30 years has become something positive. Saying this is a bit ironic, because living in the hood as a kid got me shot and in this wheelchair. I am one of those flowers that grew from the concrete. But those very same circumstances put me on a different life path that ultimately led me to finding my artistic expression, connecting with beautiful people, tattooing and meeting so many other kids who also went through unpleasant experiences in the same environment I grew up in. That helps me get over my own struggles, I don’t think it could have been possible if it wasn’t for drawing and tattooing. In time, getting shot and becoming paralyzed transformed from a horrible life-changing experience to an opportunity that would later impact not only me and those I have mentored but the entire tattoo community across the world. This makes me feel so accomplished and thankful for all the people I have come across who have helped me. It is a beautiful example of a silver lining.