Four miles east of downtown Los Angeles is a real neighbourhood, something that’s not so easy to come across in this yawning sprawl of a city. Telenovelas blast out of storefronts as women ferry babies and folded laundry back to pastel stucco houses stacked three deep in a lot. Taco trucks serve the blocks as faithfully as mailmen, the smell of frying onions lingering in their wake. There’s a barber shop on every block, their perimeters actually striped in red and blue. Every single sign is handpainted.
On a corner of a street named after the farm labour activist Cesar E Chavez, the already overwhelming sensory experience begins to heighten. The lettering on the signs reaches museum-quality and is quickly complemented by murals, like the stunner on the side of Brooklyn Hardware: A dazzling Aztec eagle, inverted, with ‘Brown unity!’ splayed beneath its beak. Opposite, a single building takes up most of the city block, unremarkable except for its one defining feature: it is wrapped in chicken wire, frosted in cement and layered with smashed glass, glazed tiles, dinner plates, flower pots, coffee cups with handles still attached and the head of a ceramic goose. It is quite obviously a landmark; built from fragments of the community, applied carefully by hand. One small sign identifies it as Self Help Graphics in rather retro drop-shadow type (& Art was added, sans shadow, later). But high atop the building is another, newer sign that people pay more attention to these days. A realty sign that reads: ‘Available’.
Inside, artist Roberto Gutiérrez, known for his vibrant imagery of the barrio, has captured Self Help Graphics in a painting, its mosaic exteriors a pattern of dots that dribbles down into the street, colouring the entire neighbourhood in the building’s rainbow pointillism. “All roads lead through Self Help,” he says as he uses a blue Sharpie to autograph a print. Gutiérrez learned etching and woodblock printing at Self Help starting when he was 15 years old; in turn, his art career was launched after he was featured in a few Self Help shows. Today, at the centre’s annual holiday craft fair, his prints are being sold to bolster the very organisation that trained him. As Gutiérrez signs his prints, every person who walks into his corner of the fair is an old collaborator, a neighbour, a friend. A former city councilman wanders over, hugs Gutiérrez, admires his painting and looks at a lucite box asking for donations. “It’s too bad they can’t reconcile with the Archdiocese,” he laments. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
In 1970 Franciscan nun Karen Boccalero began printmaking with several Mexican and Chicano artists in an East Los Angeles garage. “Sister Karen had the idea that Latino artists didn’t have a venue,” says Gutiérrez. After holding a few shows they moved into a small location down the street, and in 1979, they moved to their current location, a building owned by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who negotiated a rent of $1 a year. “We didn’t just get free rent,” cautions Armando Duron, a former president of the board of directors. “We got it because it was empty and it was better to have us here.” The neighbourhood was gamier back then, and Self Help provided a sort of gang-diversion programme for kids, giving them a place to go after school. But earlier this year, the Archdiocese sold the building out from under them to a private developer who stars on a reality show named Flip This House.
Poking through the flat files of the archives is like getting a private tour of the Chicano and Latino art movements. Some critics would say this is where the visibility of that movement began, a movement that has now been exhibited all over the world, collected in museums and coveted by collectors. It begins with Los Four, the collective of local artists (Frank Romero, Carlos Almaraz, Gilbert Luján, Roberto de la Rocha and, later, Judithe Hernández) who are widely credited with creating the Chicano visual vocabulary during the 1970s: Mexican and Aztec imagery, blended with the street art of the neighbourhood. Today it’s artists like Shiza Saldamando, Vincent Valdez, Germ: a raucous remix of Cholo, punk and graffiti. “They nod to tradition,” says Duron, holding up an image by Germ, who has rendered the Virgin de la Guadalupe as a fluorescent, anime-reminiscent squid. “They come up with imagery that the Catholic Church might not agree with,” he laughs. “But we give them the freedom to do what they want.”
“Self Help Graphics is a vital example of the kinds of initiatives that seem to define, explain and exemplify what’s distinct about Californian graphic design,” says Louise Sandhaus, a professor at California Institute of the Arts and editor of the forthcoming Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires and Riots: California and Graphic Design. “What sets us apart from other places is that California represents a convergence of social consciousness with liberty from tradition and convention. This sense of freedom and possibility confronted with a need for social change is what Self Help represents in the same lineage as the work from Sister Corita Kent and Immaculate Heart College, Sheila de Bretteville and the Women’s Graphic Center, and now Carol Wells’ Center for the Study of Political Graphics. Interestingly, all started by women.”
Sister Karen died in 1997 but her vision of art as activism has been honoured in historic proportions. Hundreds of artists and students from all over the world interact with the centre every month. Self Help produces 40–50 curated group editions a year, called ateliers. Artists can pay a small monthly set-up fee to work in some media, like etching; more sophisticated serigraph studios are invite-only, but demand is so high, there’s a long waiting list. Last November marked the centre’s 35th annual Day of the Dead celebration, when a print fair, altar-making, food and music attracted over 4000 people. “They don’t have those crowds at moca,” Duron says, knocking the city’s major contemporary art museum.
“So, you want to see my dungeon?” laughs Jose Alpuche, with a smile that’s missing more than a few teeth. Self Help’s master printer – who everyone just calls ‘Joe’– removes a paint-spattered apron to reveal a paint-spattered T-shirt. “I go into the bars and they think I’m a transvestite,” he says, pointing to the dabs that inevitably make it onto his face. “It’s my eye-shadow.”
In the basement print room, where his son, Ivan, the assistant master printer, sprays off screens in the corner, every surface is covered in Mexican tchotchkes, vinyl toys, candles, and a thick layer of paint. By way of a tour, Alpuche points out a few highlights in the main room: opening the door to the room where the screens are burned, weaving around tables stacked high with paper and huge drying racks showing works-in-progress. A photo of a Spanish prince during his visit to the studio is framed alongside Alpuche’s rare stamps.
Through a door marked Cholo Lounge, Alpuche’s office looks like a college dorm room. There is an enormous entertainment centre taking up one wall of the room; the other three walls are decorated like a comic book convention. He sits on a couch under a line-up of Kiss action figures still in the packages, an acetate drawing of Barney from The Simpsons, and a photo of himself taken at a 1978 Rolling Stones concert.
Alpuche is 100% self-taught, from his English – which is exceptionally good – to his printmaking. In 1976 he moved from Mexico City to LA and took an entry level job at a printmaking studio, where he worked his way up, learning everything from embossing to framing. In 1983, he pulled two print editions for Salvator Dali. “I didn’t know much about art history,” he says. “But I learned to troubleshoot problems as I went.”
He came to Self Help in 1991, just in time to pry a new generation of artists away from Photoshop. “I say, ‘we can try it your way, but you also have to do it my way. And my way will be better’,” he laughs. Alpuche’s way is by hand. Which means he can look at an inkjet printout, break the colours down into the right cmyk values in his head, and instruct the artists how to inscribe them onto separate layers of acetate to burn screens from. “This way it’s almost perfect, but it has life, it breathes,” he says. Artists flock here just to make the legendary monoserigraphs, a technique blending the monoprint and serigraph that’s all but patented by Alpuche.
Artists have changed the tack of their careers by printing with him, but Alpuche has also altered the lives of kids who wandered in one day after school, learned etching, and stuck around for a decade. He makes no differentiation between them. “You’ll get the best work out of them if you give them a mentor and treat them like they’re an artist,” he says. “You have to take them seriously to keep them off the street.” It makes perfect sense to redirect their anger into Chicano art, which he says is, by definition, well, angry. “We’re activists, and art is such a wonderful medium,” he says, ticking off a list of issues addressed by recent editions: aids awareness, obesity, veterans’ rights. A recent atelier curated by Alpuche focused on immigration and was – of course – comic book-themed.
He shrugs off the possibility that he’ll be sad if Self Help has to move: “Wherever we go, I’ll make it my home.” But then he looks up. “I’ve lived 30 years where I live, nobody knows me,” he says, his eyes wide with earnestness. “But I walk down the street around here, and here, I know everyone.”
Self Help’s new president of its board of directors, Stephen Saiz, could say the same thing. His wife, a graphic designer, grew up a few blocks away from Self Help; he started coming here in the 90s. Saiz is as lanky as a teenager, wearing hoop earrings in both ears and squared-off indie-rock glasses. He looks a good 20 years younger than anyone else in the office, and ready to breathe new life into Self Help. He works in the marketing department for video games at Disney. “Technically,” he says, “I’m a youth expert.”
“There are seven values for Self Help, but the one I attach myself to is accessibility,” says Saiz. “We’re open for everyone and you can get everything for free.” But to keep the studio free and open, Self Help has to start capitalising on some opportunities that are obvious to Saiz, like a presence at fairs like Miami and Basel and an e-commerce system to sell prints. It would be natural for the silkscreening studio to launch a clothing company, he says. He dreams of a computer lab where students can learn Flash, or even ProTools: Self Help’s events have traditionally nurtured the local punk scene and big players like Ozomatli and Rage Against the Machine have long been intertwined with its legacy. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a record label,” he says. He also wants to be able to give Self Help’s artists necessary professional skills, like help putting together portfolios, self-promotion, maybe even giving them representation.
All of this needs money, but perhaps more importantly, a shared direction by everyone in Self Help’s orbit. “It’s more of a grass-roots community, really,” he says. “There are too many stakeholders.” Community meetings can digress into “half the room screaming at the other half,” he says, yet when it comes to the time to take action, some are less passionate about sticking around. “Sister Karen would say, ‘if you show up you’ll be invited to do an edition’. Well, you can’t be involved if you’re not here,” he says, frowning. “It’s called Self Help for a reason.”
What Saiz calls the “biggest unknown brand in the world”, has recently experienced a surge of well-timed exposure. A massive show of Chicano art featured many Self Help alumni at the Los Angeles Contemporary Art Museum in 2008. Last summer, a series of events kept local parks open until midnight with live screenprinting by Self Help, where kids were lined up around the block to print their own T-shirts and skateboard decks. And a high-visibility collaboration called Chora Prints recently raised Self Help’s profile within the international art world even more: Los Angeles’ Metabolic Studio, Self Help and Tijuana cultural centre Casa del Tunel invited artists from both sides of the border to create posters just before the US presidential election. Half the posters were printed at Self Help, half at Casa del Tunel, a former watchtower located a few yards from the border in Tijuana. The Mexican artists were beside themselves collaborating with Alpuche and his team, says co-curator Al Nodal, surveying the 22 prints in Metabolic Studio’s gallery in downtown LA. “They all knew what Self Help was.”
As president of Los Angeles’ Cultural Affairs Commission, Nodal has been a loyal supporter of Self Help since its inception. But in the last 30 years Chicano art has changed, he says. “It’s not so insular, it’s part of the wider community now. They need to reach out to these other scenes of artists that are outside of East LA.” He’d like to see them put more emphasis on training for competitive fields in gaming and motion graphics. “I think this is a positive thing,” he says of Self Help’s recent shake-ups. “It gets them to reinvent themselves.”
For now, a soft California real estate market has worked in Self Help’s favour, and the building’s new owners haven’t secured a new tenant. Shortly before going to press, we learned that the new owner had given Self Help permission to stay for one more year, cr.] But the building is essentially falling apart. The pipes are old. The paint is peeling. The ceiling leaks.
Just before Christmas, Vincent Valdez sat alone in the printing studio. The Self Help regular recently got attention after his collaboration with musician Ry Cooder on a custom-painted ice cream truck depicting Chavéz Ravine, a Latino community that was displaced to make way for Dodger Stadium. Valdez attended the Rhode Island School of Design and lived in San Antonio, Texas before moving to LA, in part because of Self Help’s influence. “The city doesn’t realise the significance of this place,” he says. “It’s the last of a dying breed.” He’s in the midst of printing Self Help’s holiday card, which, of course, has him tracing tiny black lines onto layers of acetate by hand.
Outside, as the day starts to bend into twilight, it looks a lot like the East LA street in Valdez’s print. The soft pink-to-purple gradient of a winter sunset, silhouettes of palm trees and power lines, the red glow of distant McDonald’s signage. The peaked roofs of Craftsman houses are strung with twinkle lights, making glowing arrows that point towards the sky. And in the foreground, Valdez adds the wrinkles to the skin of a pit bull, its neck thick, its shoulders squared. Like most pit bulls, it looks unapproachably defiant, a little dangerous. But there’s something else that Valdez has added to its eyes, the angle at which its head is cocked. It is a look that is unmistakably optimistic.
Alissa Walker is a Los Angeles-based writer and ex-editor of UnBeige. Her blog is at gelatobaby.com