Painter Ivan Vazquez Works to Leave His Mark on Chicago
Written by Vocalo Radio on December 29, 2022
Chicago visual artist Ivan Vazquez creates murals and paintings inspired by Mexican and indigenous Aztec characters and stories from his youth.
Chicago Mexican American visual artist Ivan Vazquez began his painting journey by growing up a b-boy in the city. He recalls a time when traveling through Chicago it was normal to see b-boys dancing at train stations, bus stops and public parks. Through his connection to b-boy culture he got connected to music, hip-hop specifically. His paintings channel the passion of hip-hop while also serving as a lesson to those who are interacting with it.
“Growing up in the hip-hop community, everybody does something, and everybody inspires you,” explained Vazquez. “I always liked to draw and paint and just something I tried. And just really was grateful for everybody that liked what I was doing at the time.”
Vazquez’s work is influenced by indigenous Aztec art, which he feels connects him to his roots. Several of the characters that he paints don traditional Aztec masks. His characters allow him to uplift his community by showcasing stories of his youth as cautionary tales.
“Art and painting was sort of something to reconnect to my culture,” Vazquez said. “Hip-hop was that community that made me feel American, that welcomed me, open arms. That’s sort of why I, in turn, try to give back these days.”
While his art might center around some of the good memories, there are also traumatic ones that have shaped who Vazquez is today. When he was younger he lost a close friend of his, and now he uses his art to heal the 17-year-old boy within him. He says that he is now able to deal with that trauma through painting, which helps free him of it.
“Art became what healed me, what allowed me to face it,” Vazquez said. “Ever since then, every painting I do is for him.”
For this segment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Ivan Vazquez discussed his work, one of his favorite paintings, his love for Nigerian British Grammy award-winning singer Sade and his upcoming art showcase in the new year.
¿De dónde eres? Where are you from?
Soy de Chicago, Northside. Born and raised in Chicago, my family landed, lived just about everywhere. But if I had to claim a neighborhood, it would be Uptown. I guess I love the fact that it still has that old-school Chicago feel, even today, compared to a lot of the neighborhoods that don’t feel or look the same like they used to 20 years ago. Back then, you could be walking down the street and see people dancing, breakdancing in front of the Western Brown Line. But today, it’s not like that.
How did you get into painting?
I started out as a B-boy in Chicago when I was like 10 years old. And ever since then, I just fell in love with music and the community in general in Chicago, from break dancers, to poets, to musicians and graffiti writers. Ever since then, I just keep trying to learn and that’s how I really got into painting. Wasn’t something, really, I believed in until later in life.
Growing up in the hip-hop community, everybody does something, and everybody inspires you. I guess I had some friends that… I always liked to draw and paint and just something I tried. And just really was grateful for everybody that liked what I was doing at the time.
For me, I guess art and painting was sort of something to reconnect to my culture. Because, growing up in Chicago, it was a little hard, identity issues and stuff. Latinos, we don’t really conform, our culture stays true to our culture. In my house, literally everybody’d speak Spanish… and when you step out of that, and you go to school, and even on TV back then, we had no representation. I think I was watching… I looked up to Zack Morris as a kid… These days… it’s different. That’s why it’s important for us to have representation, someone that looks like us, so I think that was hard that made me fit in. And hip-hop was that community that made me feel American, that welcomed me, open arms. That’s sort of why I, in turn, try to give back these days. I really loved Aztec art as a kid… it’s like our mythological superheroes. I tried to paint characters that resemble modern day descendants, and, at the same time, pay tribute to our ancestors. My character is sort of like an Aztec face mask that sort of represents me, in a way, since I always had that feeling like, “Oh, I don’t look American… but I am.”
Mi arte representa la cultura indigena de Mexico. Mi familia son de Neza y me gusta pintar las obras artes Azteca para que representa estos días. For me, art brought me back to my culture, that’s sort of how I look at it. Being authentic really pays off for me.
Ivan Vazquez unwrapping his piece ‘We’re all in the same boat.’ Photo by Joshua X. Miller, Vocalo Radio / Chicago Public
What kind of imagery and themes are in your work?
When I was like 17, one of my best friends was killed in Belmont Cragin. And that was something that I sort of didn’t deal with. So that was like, 30 years old… trauma that I just didn’t deal with. And, I guess, art became what healed me, what allowed me to face it. Ever since then, every painting I do is for him. His name was Luis Trouba. And he was my best friend.
Unfortunately, a lot of us have that one thing in common. In a way, I like to see my paintings as a guide, to “do’s” and “don’t do’s,” because I’ve made those mistakes of things I should have done and… should not have done. The invisible lines… I mean, these days, it isn’t as bad as it used to be, but it is in certain neighborhoods. You know, street stuff, like that guy that’s trying to recruit you to sell drugs… don’t do it. And I guess, I try to paint those kinds of feelings and things in my paintings. My character… he’s on the edge. He’s on the edge of doing something really bad or doing something really good. That’s sort of what I mean.
I have a painting here, actually, that I brought and it’s like a character with a spear dressed in a B-boy jacket and a hoodie standing underneath the bridge over by the Aragon, on Lawrence. And it represents strength, who we are as a people. It represents that we’re gonna be here, and we’re gonna be here to stay. It really sort of also touches on immigration and people being deported here in Chicago. That representation, like we’re here to say, that’s sort of the message in this particular painting.
I saw on your social media a lot of Sade representation, what’s that about?
People know me as a Sade lover, ever since I was young. Back when I was younger, my friends would tease me about it. But… now they see why she’s so dope. To me, I love that connection between her music and hip-hop culture in general. A lot of rappers mention her for a reason. I think it’s her beats, they’re really lo-fi and there’s something about her and she sort of inspires me to explore my own femininity in my art and just me in general, because growing up in the hip-hop community, that wasn’t always something seen as a strength. But now it’s obvious that it is. My favorite song is “Your Love is King.”
The original Sade logo from the Diamond Life, the lettering, I have a neon sign in my living room. Right now, what I’m really into, what I’ve really been listening to is a lot of DJs that play a lot of funk, soul, boogie. That’s why I love Vocalo.
Do you primarily paint murals?
I would consider myself more of a canvas painter. But I’ve done murals, I try to do a little bit of everything. Murals, I tried to do some clothes, this is one of my sweaters. I try to do mostly paintings, and these days, I’m getting into a lot of design work, people want just files, these days, a digital file to use for an ad or something. But it’s been a lot of fun, just learning and continuing to evolve. Because you got to, these days. It’s hard to compete with these young guys.
Chicago is so full of talent, and it’s just an inspiring place to be, amongst them. I love it here… It feels like home. I feel responsibility here, to stay and to represent who we are. So that doesn’t change, because Chicago is changing so much to the point where a lot of us that are from here can’t afford to live here anymore. So I think it’s important for us to work hard and leave our footprint, represent, especially people that are from here. The teachers need to be balanced, whether in life or through my art. And I think it’s taught me some hard lessons and some good lessons.
Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.
Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia
Introduction written by Joshua X. Miller
Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca
Photography by Joshua X. Miller
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