For the charismatic 33-year-old Juan Velazquez, two events in particular transformed the game of a young man’s life.
The first, a meeting with an art teacher in high school.
“He watched over me,” Velazquez says of Haltom’s art teacher, Michael Daniel. “In fact, it was he who taught me to paint. He put me in a lot of art classes.
The other was COVID-19, better known as the pandemic that led to a wave of job losses, which hit Velazquez, a victim of shutdowns and economic downturns. Velazquez is an Army reservist who, after graduating from high school, took the “safe” route to earning a living.
In other words, a job, any job.
“We always do what’s safe…safe work,” he says.
However, the pandemic caused him to reevaluate the wisdom of just doing what was safe. Fortune smiles on the bold and risk takers. A tattoo of a brush was put on his arm to remind him and lead him.
“If there was another time to be an artist, this was it,” Velazquez says of his decision to change careers. “I thought, ‘What do I have to lose?’ So I went there. It worked for me.
“Elaborate” is a way of saying it for Velazquez and the neighborhoods he beautifies and communicates with through his gift of ability and inspiration. Velazquez is the artist of approximately 70 public murals around Fort Worth. With them, he conveys the emotions of joy and sorrow, among others, and he expresses the concepts of Mexican culture and history, as well as consciousness, in an incredibly stunning ultra-realistic style with spray paint .
During our conversation, he was finishing a mural on the north side – at The Original Del Norte, on Central and North Main, the successor to El Rancho Grande – a piece originally done by Jesus Helguera. In a larger-than-life rendition, a man and woman dance in the style of ballet folklorico.
Its mural of Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary, with the words ‘No Se Venda’ on Hemphill Street was designed to oppose the rezoning of the area and gentrification in general. On West Magnolia is perhaps its piece de resistance, paintings by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and legendary actor and singer Vicente Fernandez, “El Idolo de Mexico.”
“I like to paint. I’m just someone who likes to paint,” he says. “Painting just makes me feel like everything is fine.”
He is dedicated to his murals in underserved communities because that is his way of improving them.
He uses what is called the doodle grid, a common technique for muralists, although he believes he was the first to use it in this field. It’s something he was made aware of, “but I didn’t really understand it”. So he did what anyone who doesn’t have some understanding of something at the start of the 21st century: He went on YouTube.
In the doodle grid, artists simply create different and random doodles all over the wall mural. The artist then takes a photo of the doodles and imports the image into an app where he overlays the concept art he has drawn onto the doodles. The doodles serve as a reference point. The painter is constantly looking between the wall and the smartphone or tablet to find out where to paint.
Velazquez used the method to do the Vanessa Guillen mural on the south side at 3604 Hemphill. Portraying Guillen, the US Army soldier murdered at Fort Hood in 2020, is what put Velazquez on the map.
Velazquez felt a connection to her because they were both army soldiers. In the end, they both trained at the same time and in the same battalion, although he didn’t know it at the time. And he didn’t know her at all, since the army separates men and women.
“I was following the story because it was military, I was military. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what,” he says. “I had read the news that they found it dead. So I wanted to paint a mural to raise awareness of his case.
After Guillen’s mural was completed, Velazquez says he went from 500 Instagram followers to 5,000. Velazquez estimates he’s painted about 120 murals in the past two years, including about 70 in public spaces.
He is living his dream as an artist with a studio near his home in the city’s Riverside neighborhood.
He knows his art history and draws inspiration from those who came before him. In addition to Jesus Helguera, Diego Velazquez, the main artist of the court of the King of Spain Philip IV in the 16th century, is one of them. Frenchmen Edgar Degas and Van Gogh are two others, as is Frans Hals, the Dutchman whose “The Rommel-Pot Player” is on display at the Kimbell Art Museum.
“My favorite artist is Edward Hopper,” says Velazquez. “I feel like it beautifully captures an era in American history. It feels like you’re right there.”
Velazquez says he uses some of the “old masters” techniques with his blending, something he learned himself. (The Old Master refers to prominent European painters from around 1300 to 1800 and includes artists from the early Renaissance to the Romantic movement.)
“His work ethic was amazing,” says Mike Daniel, his high school teacher. “I would give him a task and he would usually complete some work to go along with that task or extend the lesson and take it to the next step.”
This muralist is also committed to doing for others what has been done for him: teaching.
“I believe what my art teacher did for me, I want to do for someone,” says Velazquez, who adds that he’s also picky about the projects he takes on. “I try to teach as much as I can to children or anyone who wants to learn.”
He teaches at the Artes de la Rosa Fort Worth Cultural Center for the Arts, a North Side nonprofit. He says he is committed to doing his part not just to pass on the discipline, but because he wants to be an ambassador to painters in underserved communities. The children will paint, he insists, whether in a place like Artes de la Rosa or illegally with graffiti.
Velazquez recently reconnected with his art teacher, Mr. Daniel, who asked him to come talk to his students at Haltom. The teacher wanted his students to see a living, breathing embodiment of one who makes a living as an artist.
“I told them not to focus on money because money won’t make you happy. It’s possible, but you have to do something that you feel you have a purpose for,” he says. ” I am 33 years old. Today, many of my friends are not satisfied with their work. That’s what I find the most is that people hate their jobs. They put more effort into choosing their spouse than their job, but in reality, you probably spend more time at work than with your spouse. Choose a job that you enjoy doing. The money will come no matter how good and passionate you are about what you do.
“I love my work.”