Don’t call Victor Gastelum a stencil artist. Yes he wields an X-Acto blade like the Master of the Flying Guillotine, but long before Bansky was spraying 2-D cliches onto London walls, Victor was creating images that resonated like stills from an unknown film noir. It’s hard to remember now that there was a time when low riders and Mexican wrestlers were not in rap videos and beer commercials, but it was during those late 80’s and 90’s that Victor took the stuff of his childhood visual culture and created images that contain both literal and figurative depth. We sat in his studio in Long Beach and talked about his journey from making Punk flyers to working at SST Records and navigating the art world like Mr. Magoo.
PANCHO LIPSCHITZ: So where did you grow up?
VICTOR GASTELUM: I was born in Torrance. I lived in Torrance until I was 12. It was a little neighborhood that turned into a gang; Tortilla Flats. When I first lived there it was really clean and neat and there wasn’t any gang, but then gangsters from other neighborhoods moved into the neighborhood and those people made up a gang. Then we moved to Carson. I was there until I was in my 20’s.
LIPSCHITZ: Is anyone in your family an artist?
GASTELUM: My dad could draw, but he would always draw the same thing; the side view of a horse and a tree. Maybe the horse tied to the tree, and a pig. The profile of a pig. And that was pretty much it. When he was younger he could draw. He mentioned that he would draw things for school. You know when you stop drawing for a while you still have those doodles that you keep doing and I think that that must have been what it was for my dad. My brother could draw but then he stopped. He was just as good as I was but then he just stopped.
LIPSCHITZ: Do you remember being impressed by anything aesthetically when you were young?
GASTELUM: The first thing I remember were cars. My dad always had a lot of cars. In the 70’s it was really cheap to buy cars. You could buy a car for $50, $75. Good American cars with V-8 engines, perfectly running. And there were low-rider cars in the neighborhood too. Probably the first car that really stood out to me was my dad’s ’59 Impala. I was probably 3 or something. I think the car was originally white and he painted it candy apple red.
LIPSCHITZ: When did you get into Mexican Wrestling?
GASTELUM: The wrestling in the 70’s at the Olympic Auditorium was really cool. We didn’t go but we watched it on tv and Mexican wrestlers would come and wrestle once in a while. Mil Mascaras would come in and wrestle with the Americans. My brother was more into it than I was. He would buy the wrestling magazines. There was a guy who came around the neighborhood and he would sell tortillas and bread and stuff he would bring from TJ. One time he brought some wrestling magazines. My brother bought the wrestling magazines so he would bring them to him regularly. They were really cool. So we were aware of that stuff. Then my grandma brought us Mexican wrestler masks once because we were into them.
Where my family was from, Sinaloa, they didn’t have that. I remember going over there and trying to find stuff and there wasn’t any of that. That stuff isn’t just everywhere in Mexico. It’s at the border, TJ, D.F. of course, Guadalajara. It’s the same with Day of the Dead. It isn’t just everywhere. So we were all into them when I was young and we would draw them.
When I started becoming aware of art galleries and other artists I would think, well if I made art what would my subject matter be? When you don’t have that, it’s a big black hole. It could be anything. When I discovered the old Soap Plant (Wacko) on Melrose it was like Billy Shire reminded me, ‘Don’t you remember these guys?’
That stuff (Mexican Wrestlers) was part of my history, but it wasn’t something I had thought of. I related to all that, like, this is my stuff. Andy Warhol had his stuff. This is my stuff. From there I was already into Punk Rock that showed me I have the right to that. I’m not a cholo, I grew up in those neighborhoods, I never did graffiti, but I lived it and I have access to it. I feel I have the right to it. So all of that became my stuff.
LIPSCHITZ: You went to L.A. Trade Tech?
GASTELUM: I went to the commercial art program.I ended up there by chance. I graduated high school, I didn’t have any direction. I didn’t know anything I might do. Where I grew up the options were the refinery. That’s where my dad worked. My dad tried to get me in there. I had cousins that were welders. I went to a welders school. I got my license and I started looking around for work. I probably didn’t look that hard.
I was working in a warehouse and around that time I started doing punk rock fliers around ’84, ’85. I didn’t think that would be a job. I was doing it because that’s the way I was participating with Punk Rock. I would get into shows for free and I was good at it and at the time you’re young you just do things quickly, overnight. That’s how I made those flyers, mostly in one night. You’ve got your vision. It comes easy.
So I was just doing punk rock flyers and working shitty jobs and then I got laid off from a shitty job in a big paint warehouse. My manager liked me. His brother was a commercial artist. He told me his brother had done album covers for the Stones and at the time I couldn’t even imagine something that complicated. I was doing flyers; one drawing and band names.
When I couldn’t pass the physical to work in the warehouse permanently, he told me, I’m going to have to lay you off but what you should do is you should go to school for commercial art. He took me to their in-house art department. Back then in the 80’s there were in-house art departments everywhere. He took me into the art department and there were all these old guys hand lettering signage for the warehouse. I imagine they all went to L.A. Trade Tech.
So I got in (LATTC). It was really cheap. I wasn’t working. I didn’t have any direction from my parents but I didn’t have any pressure either. While I was going there I started hanging out with friends who turned me on to museums and galleries. That’s when I found out those places even existed. I didn’t know anything about the art world. And I applied what I was learning to my flyers, so my graphics got better and my typesetting got better.
LIPSCHITZ: Do you remember what turned you on to stencils.
GASTELUM: The first stencil I noticed was in a High Times magazine. Iranian revolutionary students had put stencils of Khomeini and then Americans evacuating from Iran had stenciled Zig Zag underneath. I realized the Zig Zag image was a stencil. Also the Sandanistas made stencils. I just decided I’m going to make one. Some of the drawings I had done for the flyers were high contrast. So I started making those into stencils. Going to school I was also inspired by the Russian Constructivist posters.
LIPSCHITZ: How did you get the job at SST?
GASTELUM: I was always into music and I knew about SST because I grew up in the South Bay in the Harbor area. I was living in Carson at my parents house and I saw an article on Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski in the San Diego weekly that said they were still in the area so I just cold called them. I go down there and show them my book. I was doing flyers for bands that were on SST like Firehose, Saccharine Trust, but if you’re not working for a record label you’re not really aware of record labels you’re just thinking about the band.
Artwork for El Bad, by Victor Gastelum. SST Records.
I got hired as a designer. It was a little building that was probably a dentist office. There was a little waiting area and then there’s two offices. Everything was makeshift. It was all ragamuffin, plywood walls, extension cords going everywhere. It was a total firetrap. They just made that little building into their headquarters. I opened up the door and there was a guy sitting at the reception desk with a leather jacket and it was Craig Ibarra. I recognized him immediately. We had exchanged information a couple years before because he was working on a zine. He ends up being the other designer there. I ended up working at SST for nine years.
LIPSCHITZ: Do you remember a project that you thought came out well?
GASTELUM: I think when you’re young and naive you imagine you would just be making album covers, like when you walk into a record store, and some designers do it like that. But what is more common is that you’re in this art department and the artist (band) would bring in their art sometimes all done. All we would have to do is add a bar code. Some artists wouldn’t have anything. Then you’d have to give them a couple of ideas. And then everything in between. Maybe they would have a photo and then you would expand on that. Do the typography and everything else.
I ended up doing an album cover not for SST for an independent label for a band called Nothing Painted Blue. And a friend of mine that worked at SST asked me if I wanted to do it. I did it. I don’t even think that I got paid. A lot of times back then you wouldn’t even bother to ask if you were going to get paid. That was the first album cover where I did everything. My art on the front, my art on the back, I chose the type. I barely knew what I was doing. But I knew how to put it together. It wasn’t until I was working on Greg Ginn’s solo projects at the label, where I was doing everything.
The other thing is we didn’t get art director credit. Almost any label you look in the credits and you look for the art director, you look for the illustrator. Greg would only give that credit if you didn’t work full-time for him. Only if you were a free-lancer. At the time I didn’t care at all. I didn’t even think about it. I was making art, I was doing stuff for other labels, I was still making Punk Rock flyers, working on graphics outside of SST.
I had my first solo show in Long Beach and all my friends from SST came to the show. It was at this little Jazz club restaurant called System M. I showed there a few times. Greg came to the show and he bought my most sophisticated piece at that time. It was a Virgin Mary/Madonna but the girl in it is a little chola girl. It was the centerpiece of the show. I sold a bunch of stuff in the show. He bought it and he never told me that he bought it. I didn’t find out until years later.
He had a project called El Bad, kind of a heavy metal almost like Misfits project but this was in the 90’s. He bought a couple of my pieces and those were the cover art and because he bought them from me, outside of SST, then I got credit.
LIPSCHITZ: When did you meet Pettibon?
Collaborations between Victor Gastelum and Raymond Pettibon
GASTELUM: Right around the same time that I started working at SST (1989). Back then there weren’t very many published photos of him so I didn’t know what he looked like. My brother and I were at Al’s Bar and I saw Mike Watt come in with some guy. They come in, Al’s Bar gets all full and I lose track of my brother. I’m walking around and I see my brother hanging out with them. And I’m thinking Oh shit, what is my brother telling Mike Watt. So I went over there and my brother is like, Hey I want you to meet these guys, Mike Watt and this is Raymond Pettibon.
LIPSCHITZ: What was the project you did with Pettibon?
GASTELUM: I did a couple collaborations with him. We did a drawing together that I have. He did a book with an aluminum cover, it ended up being all lithographs inside with 10 artists. He asked me to make the cover. So I designed the cover and I designed the typography. He did a few pages and all the other artists got one page. I made a jacket for it to slide into.
LIPSCHITZ: How did you hook up with Calexico?
GASTELUM: Joey (Burns) started working at SST records. He started answering the phones; receptionist. While he was there he hooked up with Giant Sand and that’s where he met John Convertino. While we were as SST we would hang out and have lunch together and Joey was all excited about music. He would tell me I want to start a band and record and you’re going to do all our album covers. So that was the plan, you know. They played and toured with Giant Sand, then also joined Friends of Dean Martinez. They got kicked out of Friends of Dean Martinez and that’s when they started Calexico.
They had a release I don’t even think they had a name for the band. Then they put out a Calexico 7” and I did that cover. I helped them create their visual identity. But they were going so fast putting out so much music I could barley keep up with them.
LIPSCHITZ: What was your experience of making the jump from a Long Beach Jazz club to the fine art world?
GASTELUM: I almost feel like Mr. Magoo learning that whole art world. I just got lucky. The connection to Self Help Graphics, Punk Rock, a lot of underground stuff. I was in a show, curated by my friend Toast, with Raymond Pettibon and Dirk Vermin at Daniel J. Martinez’s Big Sail Gallery downtown. I met Rolo and Becca when Rolo had his gallery Fifty Bucks. Becca got us a show at Merry Karnowsky on La Brea. From there I ended up showing at Overtones Gallery and collaborating with Pettibon and Chaz Bojorquez.
I always felt pretty confident about what I was doing. There was always someone wanting to show it. Even right now.
LIPSCHITZ: Do you take a certain pride in coming from outside the traditional art world.
GASTELUM: I don’t think I ever thought I’m better than the art school kids but when I started showing and selling art I thought I was at least as good. I was making art, showing it, selling it, making published prints at Self Help Graphics, Modern Multiples and Hamilton Press, learning as I went along.
You always hear that there are no rules in art but there are lots of unwritten rules. You don’t have to follow them but you have to be good. You have to be making a quality product.
Some art school kids came to my shows. Then they graduated school and started showing in art galleries and showing in museums. I think that’s when they passed me up.
I often tell friends I’m like a Pit Bull with no papers. Not a fine registered blue nose, show and breeding quality. Maybe a fine brindle short hair one step up from junkyard.
Victor Gastelum lives and works in Long Beach. Follow him on Instagram @victorgastelumthreedots. Check out his latest comic book at http://www.endfwy.bigcartel.com/product/victor-gastelum-velveteen-angel-zine-preorder-now. Contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pancho Lipschitz is on Instagram @pancho_lipschitz.