OZZIE JUAREZ AND THE RISE OF CHICANO ARTISTS
Ozzie Juarez’s path has taken the multi-hyphenate creative to parts unknown, immersing himself in a cultural cornucopia along a continuous journey of self-discovery and kickback of free game to his South Central LA community. An advocate for education and elevation of la gente, Juarez’ Tlaloc Studios serves as a platform for a new wave of Chicano artists to embrace their roots and plant seeds of inspiration and greater expectations, for themselves and the ones who follow closely behind. The road to creating a new gallery following the gentrification of his first space hasn’t been easy. Juarez shares the good and the bad that comes with being a community leader and business owner in the art world.
LUIS RUANO: I had a conversation with a friend who’s half black, half white. He spoke about feeling like he was sort of stuck in this cultural ‘in-between’ growing up. I often feel like I’m in the middle myself, being a Latino that spent half his childhood in the inner city and the rest in the suburbs. It's tough to identify with just one group of people. Did you ever feel insulated growing up in South Central, like you needed to venture out and navigate the world?
OZZIE JUAREZ: Of course, but for me it was kind of the opposite. I was surrounded by my community, which was primarily Mexican, Black and a little Cambodian. It was mainly all people of color and I always wanted to escape from that because of wanting to assimilate and not wanting to be a part of something that you don't necessarily feel is the best. Growing up my father was always like, "Oh, you got to be the best. You got to do this. You got to go to school." He was always pushing school and education for my dad was key. So having someone like him forcefully put this in my mind it got me thinking, "Oh, I can't be here. I can't be part of these people."
I remember growing up in middle school and even in high school, I would pretend that I didn't know how to speak Spanish. I'm a super fluent Spanish speaker, but I was always like, "Well I'm not going to speak this language because it's a dumb language, that's the poor people's language here."
I didn’t have white friends until I was 19, 20 years-old when I took my ass from South Central off to Santa Monica College. I would commute almost every single day, six, seven-hour commute just to go to school. I met people whose parents weren't gang bangers or drug addicts. They weren't farmers. They were artists, they were lawyers, they were engineers. It was a whole different ball game getting introduced to all these people. It was just something that was not accessible to any of us in the hood. That's one of the main reasons why I do what I do and why I provide for my community, because I never had any of that. I know how far I had to travel and all I had to do and I wouldn't want anybody to go through that. I did all that because, again, my dad always embedded in me to be this hard, hard worker.
Did you start working at an early age?
I started working literally since I could remember. Every Saturday and Sunday me and my parents would go to swap meets, just selling things and being a part of that hustle culture. If we weren’t selling stuff, then it was all business talk. Me and my dad were always talking about business, even with small things, like guessing the price of something, where whoever guesses the right price gets a little prize or whatever. Business and money in general was a fun thing that me and my dad bonded over, which transitioned really well when it came to becoming an artist.
Photo courtesy of OCHI Gallery for Ozzie's solo show POR DEBAJO.
Was that always the goal, to become a professional artist? How’d your dad take that?
It wasn't something that my dad was like, "Oh yeah, do it." He was like, "What the hell are you doing? This is dumb. This is stupid. Why are you in your room locked up for hours doing this shit? Are you on drugs? What the fuck's up?" He was just really concerned about my career choices to the point where he'd threaten to kick me out for not responding to what he wanted me to do. It took a really long time for me to convince my father that I could actually do this and make a serious living out of it.
When did you realize you were a natural at putting things together? What drives you personally as a curator?
I've been putting things together since I could remember. When I was in sixth grade I used to put fake shows together. I used to make flyers of things that I thought would look cool. I was really into music when I was a kid. Music, art, fashion, all that stuff was part of the theme growing up. I realized that in my neighborhood, there wasn't really anything happening for us, in terms of that. So my friends and I were the originators of doing a lot of backyard events in that region. We blew up just putting all these cool events together. Then we got close to our local skateboard shop and started throwing shows there – just being actively involved with the community.
I was really into activism when I was a young child so I would join youth groups and get other people involved with things like protests – speaking our minds and sharing our hearts through public works. It's crazy because it only takes one person to say they want to do something for a lot of things to happen and to allow people to realize the power they have and what they could do with it.
It only takes one person, but they have to have a lot of courage and confidence. Sometimes that’s hard to find. Like when my brothers give me shit for my sneaker choices. I’m not an avant-garde dude, but I like kicks that people often dismiss, so I wear them, because why not.
I feel that. When I go to flea markets, it's always like, "I don't care. I'm going to go get the stuff that I like that no one gives a fuck about." The shit no one's even going to touch.
I guess that’s what makes people an ‘authority’ on certain things?
Mm-hmm (affirmative), we tell people what's hyped.
Having your own vision and thoughts on things is important and being like, "yo, you guys should look at this or you guys should look at this and not necessarily go with the trend that's going on." That's one thing that I tend to do within my stuff too. To not do your normal, typical things that people are accustomed to seeing when putting shows together. It's always kind of like what can I hit them with that’s something new and have them be, "Oh, okay. I didn't think about that." Figuring out ways to make things tasteful and not just thrown out there.
Coatlique Lupe, 2022 (Left) and Ikniutli Yowali, 2022. Photo courtesy of OCHI Gallery.
How important has it been for you to be a multi-skilled creative, especially during a time where it seems like it’s almost a necessity for survival in this space?
After going to school at CAL Berkeley, I started a gallery called SoLA in South Central. I was putting up insane artists who’ve gone on to blow up. It was a little too ahead of its time back then and I didn’t have the resources I have now. I had this person from Disney come through once and saw some art that I was doing. He offered me a job and I was like, "Oh, I'm not going to take it." But gentrification was really heavy around that area during that time and soon after someone bought the building that I had leased for my gallery.
They kicked me out and it kind of fucked me up a little bit because I invested all my money in this. It also doubled as a recording studio and a film studio, so it was a big thing. The community was really starting to get used to it and get familiar with it. We were literally up for not even a year and we had to leave right away.
I was banking on this to propel me into whatever I needed to do as an artist and the rug just got pulled out from under me. I was like, 'Damn, I have to start from scratch right now." So I hit up those people from Disney and I got this job as a painter and I just put all my skills that I had into it. I laid them on the table and pretty quickly got promoted all the way up to being an imagineer with all these people that had crazy skills. Through them I was learning and understood that the more skills you have the more chance you're going to be the person that gets the job. Everyone's replaceable. Somebody could be working for you for 10 years and they could just be like, "Oh, we're just going to get this other fresh person who's got more energy, let’s just switch you over there real quick."
It's like, "Why are we going to hire these seven other people, when we got this person that could do it all?,” so that's where my mentality was like, "If I'm running anything, then I have to have the skill to do this. If I need to hang the paintings, I have the skill to hang the paintings. If I need to do the marketing, I can do that. If I want to do graphic design, I have the skills to do graphic design.” It works out really well because you start hanging out with other people that have those same skills and create a bigger community to provide resources for others.
You mentioned putting on shows with your friends growing up. Seeing as many of them are artists in their own right, how rewarding has it been to be able to give them a platform to show their work?
All my friends after high school took a sign graphics class, like a trade tech, so they were just coming back geeked out. I was taking general Ed classes, like English and Math and shit, while my friends were taking this sign graphics class, but I was learning from them because I would go do my homework and then go to my friend's house and they'd be practicing their sign graphics. They'd teach me everything that they learned that day and I would do the same thing. I would go to Santa Monica College and get taught by these crazy ass figure-drawing instructors and contemporary instructors and conceptual instructors and go back and tell my friends exactly what I learned.
I was never about gatekeeping what I was learning and what they could do with it. I was always just like, "Yo do this. You should do that, or you should do this." Really encouraging them and even right now with all the studios that I have – these are their first studios and the only reason why they are in there right now making work is because I forced them to go in.
It just takes a push sometimes, because it's scary. It's a scary thing to do. And most of my friends are not full-time artists. Of the friends that I grew up with in the hood, everyone has a day job and wants to become an artist, and they are artists, but they have to go through other things to make it work. Without the studio, they wouldn't have otherwise. So it's really important to give and spread.
It must be hard separating friendship and business though?
It's hard, man. Dealing with money, politics, friends and art. It gets really tricky.
I think that oftentimes people don’t realize the hoops you have to jump through to be able to open any kind of doors for others. It’s easy to be an armchair critic when you don't have to carry the weight or deal with the consequences.
It's a macho mentality in the hood where it's like, "Oh, you think you're better than me? "Oh, you went over here so now you're cool? Oh, now you're whitewashed, you hang with all these white people and now you're too cool?" It's like, "Nah, dude, I'm trying to tell you something, man." Sometimes people are too caught up in that hood mentality.
We’ve got to realize that we do work in this corporate world. We do work in this super capitalistic environment and we have to play the game and people don't understand that. I've been dealing with a lot of new artists with my gallery, people who it's the first time they're showing at a gallery, and they're not familiar with the 50/50 split. And then you tell them the 50/50, or I do a 60/40, so they get 60, I get 40 in the gallery. Even then they're like, "What the hell?" And it's like, "What do you mean? You got to realize what we're doing." It just can't be showing stuff and doing everything for free. That’s not the real world. Everyone's got to eat.
Recently we had set a new lease and the landlord increased the cost by 20% on my land. I had to pick up the prices at the studios and not even that much. People who had been there from almost the beginning had to leave and they felt a certain kind of animosity towards me for raising the price. It's like, "Dude, like I'm not raising up the price because I want to fuck you over" They don't get it or they're not used to this kind of stuff, but its sad because I want to keep them here, but I can't do while charging them the same price.
Portal de Tlaloc, 2022. Photo courtesy of OCHI Gallery.
It's hard to please everyone, but what’s encouraging is that it really feels like the Chicano market is turning over a new page into an exciting chapter. How’s the reception been for you at Tlaloc?
We're bringing up a lot of artists who are being sought after. Mexican art collectors are going crazy right now. Everyone just wants a piece of the action and people are coming in literally hours before the shows to try to cop or the DMs blowing up with people asking for the PDFs and coming in and actually supporting and being like, "Yo, let's get this, let's get this, let's get this." More than half of our last show sold.
It's just super exciting to see that because when I was starting all this stuff, there wasn't any of the financial support. There was a lot of support from just coming in and checking out the show and all the moral support in the world, but there was no financial support. Seeing the financial support from people who are genuinely invested in these artists and in the studio, too, is great. I'm starting to have consistent collectors that are really just seeking the stuff that we're bringing out, and are trusting our eyes and what we're putting out.
It's exciting to see these young artists coming up. There were six artists from this last show that we sold that had never shown or sold anything before. That just fucks them up so much. It's just like, "Wow, that happened. Whoa, I need to start doing more. I need to make more, I need to do this, I need to do that." The next couple of days looking through their Instagrams, they're all super active and being out there and trying to do this thing. And it's just so, so important.
This almost feels like a new beginning, of sorts. Like you had to go through your first gallery being swept out from under you for you to grow as a curator and business person and approach your new studio with a more experienced eye. The Tlaloc name seems fitting.
When I first started to come up with names I realized that I was going to take on this big endeavor and I just didn't want it to be the same thing. There was a history with the space we’re in so I was going to give it another life, a rebirth. I was thinking about a lot of things – my culture specifically – and how to embed education into the name that I'm putting out, because it's not just a name. It's a name that has deep-rooted meaning and history. Most people that say the name don't even know what it is. And then they start looking it up or find interest in it and hit me up and they're like, "Hey, what is Tlaloc?" Or, "Hey what does that mean? Why did you guys choose that?"
That alone sparks people's interests. Spreading knowledge is key and having other people know this kind of history – especially in these regions, because there's a lot of people that come from that descent, that lineage around those neighborhoods – it's refreshing for the community to see that name there because they're not used to seeing these kind of names around.
So I was excited to bring our culture into the space and knowing that we are in Los Angeles more people are going to be at least intrigued or interested by it. Tlaloc is the reign of God and he gives abundance and fertility. He wants to be fruitful and give back. It's what we want to stand for – to be this giving tree for the community. It just fit perfectly.
Keep up with the latest from Tlaloc Studios on Instagram (@tlalocstudios).
447 E 32nd St.
Los Angeles, CA 90011
This story was originally published in the first issue of BEYOND CONTROL and has been condensed for online reading. BEYOND CONTROL is available, free of charge, at CONTROL Gallery and BEYOND THE STREETS Flagship Los Angeles.