Art at the intersection
Raul Mejia: pop artist at the borderlands
Frida Kahlo gazes down the Sacramento street alongside Carlos Santana and other icons of Mexican and Latino culture, as artist Raul Mejia extols the virtues of a Chando’s taco. Mejia, a 38-year-old Sacramento painter, focused on the intersection of American and Latin American culture, painted the mural at Chando’s Cantina, and another at Cantina Alley. With a Cinco de Mayo show on his mind, he pulled out his phone to show a brightly depicted, pop art-style luchadora ripping off an American flag mask. Another punches the president. “I was just so frustrated and angry,” Mejia says. “I can’t physically do that, but I can battle through art.” Mejia talked with SN&R about culture, representation and what it means to create art in the Trump era.
How were you drawn to art? How does politics relate?
It started as a way to relax. It was my therapy before it turned into language. I started drawing my friends as The Simpsons. People started buying sketches and drawings and I never stopped. I was drawing body figures from X-Men, emulating comic book characters, which taught me the bone and muscle structures of human beings. My illustrative style definitely comes from that range. Being Chicano comes with certain stereotypes; I want to obliterate those.
I’m not a one-dimensional character. People dehumanize each other and see you like they do in TV, as a vato, or with an American accent; you rarely see the one who just loves comic books or video games. For me, it’s important to be nerdy, to be free, to be happy. I make art people can consume. Everyone can relate to illustration. I’ve seen one-line drawings that move people more than a fine art piece can.
For me, it’s always been important to weave my artwork in the tapestry of America. It doesn’t need to be expensive to have impact. I recreate paintings sometimes since not everyone has my art. In Mexican or Latin American culture, we don’t have a lot of pop art, so for us, it’s not even Chicano—it’s kind of unheard of. That’s why I thought it was necessary for me to make pop art with Mexican imagery, ingraining us further into American culture.
Is your art about paying bills or passion?
There’s nothing wrong with paying the bills. Biggie says “Mo‘ money, mo‘ problems.” I say “No money, mo‘ problems.” We all have to figure out what works for us individually as artists. We really have one chance at this, though. I feel like Super Mario sometimes, trying to save the princess. We’ve got to make it count, so I say speak from the heart always. There’s nothing wrong with paying the bills. There’s a conflict there. But I always ask myself, “Who am I laboring for?” All artists need an answer to their “why.”
What advice would you give to a young artist?
My advice would be don’t take anyone’s advice. Do what feels right. Don’t be concerned about how people feel about your work. You know how you feel. It’s the kiss of death when you’re super focused on what other people will like.
Enjoy the process and have fun. That resonates to people. When you’re mad at the universe, it gets mad back at you. Don’t miss your opportunity to be honest, especially right now. Take risks. When I don’t take risks, nobody cares; when I do, everyone does.
How does your identity affect your pieces?
I’m not Chicano and I’m not completely Mexican. I was raised with Mexican parents, but can’t deny I was a skateboarder in high school. Since I fall in between, I’ve tried to create a sanctuary for people like me. My art reflects subjects that have to do with neither being here nor there and finding our own.
I decided to create art that is in the middle. It’s really important for me to make this since it doesn’t exist for my people. The Latin American people need to feel like we belong, especially right now. There’s a lot of heinous and awful things that were said and are hurtful. My response to that is creating this art.
My parents migrated here. My father worked the fields and my mother was a seamstress. I was born in Mexico City and raised here, and that creates conflict in me. I’m bordering the two cultures. I want to live up to that by bridging the gap.
This wall at Chando’s was created because of all the things being said against Mexicans in politics. It was necessary to create this, not for myself or the Mexican people per se, but for the youth. They need to know there’s still people fighting for them.
I want to be part of a movement. If I’m not part of one, let me start one. If I have a message, it’s be as free as you want to be. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. When you use rhetoric that our people are “bad,” that’s the way Hitler talked. If DT’s going to do anything good, it will be uniting us to kick his ass out. That’s how I really feel. I would personally feel great shame knowing if I did nothing to help.
We need to normalize Mexican American culture so this city lives and breathes Chicano history. Certain people push back and try to “Make America Great Again.” It’s already great. We just have to make it better. That’s my drive as an artist; being an American, a patriot. Pointing out the lies and deceits and bigotry that stands against the true American code: The pursuit of happiness.