Coffee, Nicotine, Germs

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Born on the Cancer/Leo cusp (making him super creative and romantic) to Mexican-born parents, 27-year-old Chicano artist Jaime Zacarias is most popularly known on the streets as Germs, a nickname coined by the kids he used to skate with as a youngster growing up in Watts.

Influenced by Basquiat, Frida Kahlo, Keith Haring, and Tom Waits, Zacarias paints Chicano iconsMarcos, La Virgen, Lucha Libre, the Pope, and Cheech Marin—living in creature-like bodies with tentacles for hands and feet.

Deeper messages are found in darker images of the devil, Hitler, and a dig at LACMA’s past Phantom Sightings exhibit. His theme of choice, though, is the luchador because it “masks identity and represents toughness and culture.”

Seated on the back patio of Tropico de Nopal art gallery, where inside owner and fellow Chicano artist Reyes Rodriguez strategically places 17 of Germs’ paintings on the walls in preparation of opening night, Zacarias lights up a cancer stick, takes a sip of Tecate and opens up to about his first solo exhibit So Low Brown.

ЯE: What does the name So Low Brown mean?

: Lowbrow is a pop surrealism movement that started with Mark Ryden, Gary Baseman, and others. It’s been going on for a while now, but when I started painting, I knew more about the Chicanos—Rudolfo, Romero, Carlos Almarez—so after showing in both circles, I wanted to merge both worlds. I started Low Brown, the marriage between Chicano and Lowbrow; a kinda humorous twist.

ЯE:What was it like growing up in Watts?

JZ: It was a very strict, religious upbringing. I used to go to church, but I wouldn’t go in. My parents would give me a couple dollars for the limosna, and I was a little shady kid and [would] go buy candy with my friends. My dad was really strict so he kept us away from all the street life. I had a lot of friends who did graffiti. I never did graffiti, but I would do piece books, designs and motifs for writers and they’d go out there and piece them. My dad would beat my ass, so I was really careful of what I did.

ЯE: Did you ever get into any trouble?

: At 18 I was locked up. I was working at Sears, giving away free TVs and having a little Christmas job to make money, but I got caught up with some friends.  With priors, trespassing, skating and stuff, I had to go to jail for 30 days. That opened up my eyes to get my stuff together. After that it was hard for me to get a job. No one would hire me because once you have a criminal record, they think twice. I had a job at Pep Boys, but they fired me as soon as they found out. That forced me to find a means to make a living.

ЯE: Is that when you turned to art?

: Well, I never really focused in school. I was always doodling, drawing teachers, and getting in trouble. I liked going to school though and hanging out with friends.  I excelled in art classes.

ЯE: Was art healing for you?

: I was in a really bad skating accident when I was 17. I was grabbing onto a car, slammed into a wall, and dislocated my shoulder and busted my face. I kinda went into a phase where I was detached from society. At that time I was drawing a lot, painting, and coloring. My mom passed when I was 19.

ЯE: When did you start painting seriously?

: In high school, they entered me into some congressional art show. I got second place and the prize was a box of oil paints. That was all I needed. I never messed with oils before, so as soon as I got that box I took it to my backyard and started painting. I took [the painting] to class and my teacher liked it. From that point on, I painted.

ЯE: What were you painting back then?

: Typical high school stuff: skulls, fire, hell, devils, guns, marijuana plants, the environment at the time. I was going through a dark phase, I guess.

ЯE: Is your work a direct reflection of who you are, or is it a fantasy?

: I went through a phase where I was really into Keith Harring. I liked a lot of geometric shapes, colors, and I really had no direction of the painting. Little by little it would start to take form into its own thing.

ЯE: How did your work evolve?

: I accumulated so much art that I wasn’t selling and submitted it to Pasadena Art Center. I got some scholarships so I studied there for about two years off and on, taking figure drawing, illustration, and calligraphy. It was fun, but at the same time, I had a really beat up car so it was hard for me to get there from my house. Art Center has this really big hill so I had to go early just to pull over and let my engine cool down. I’d read a book, draw, wait like 30 minutes, and add more water just to get there, so it was a hassle. I liked it because it took me away from some of the problems at home.

ЯE: Where do you live?

: I share a studio with Daniel Gonzalez (a printmaker) in downtown, across the street from the corn fields and rent a room in Bell with my brother.  He’s married with two kids. I’m hardly ever home. I go there to sleep, so it’s just a TV, desk, bed, and nothing else. All the chaos and crap is at the studio. So when I’m at home, I’m just resting, not even thinking about art.

ЯE: How did the solo gig come about?

JZ: I got tired of doing group shows. People kept asking me when the solo show was gunna happen. I had a little cash in my pocket at the time, so I lived off the money to pay for rent and gas, and built a body of work. It was pretty tough and took about six or seven months to get all the work together. I find ways to feed myself. Not by leaching off my friends, but since they know I’m an artist… I have a friend who owns a store by my house in Huntington Park, so I have coffee there in the mornings and find ways to hustle. I treat them well, do them favors, give them painting and drawings. I go through times when I feel antisocial. I can be by myself smoking a cigarette and feel comfortable.  I’m not really nervous because the work’s aready done. I just let it speak for itself. I don’t try to push it on people. If anything, I’ll just make a dumb joke and create awkward moments. The collector’s kinda confused, but if they understand it…whatever.

ЯE: What’s the most you’ve made off a piece?

JZ: $5,000 to $6,000.

ЯE: JZ: When I was going to art school I started learning about the Chicano Movement. I identified with it a lot because my dad was going through the struggle. He was a day laborer and worked in fields a lot, so he would tell me stories about how he’d be working one week and the owner would call immigration just so he wouldn’t have to pay them.

ЯE: What inspires you to paint?

JZ: It’s more of a routine. I wake up in the morning, have coffee and know I got to be in the studio no matter what. The images just kind of appear. It’s all spontaneous. I don’t really plan it. I just work until it starts evolving into its own thing. It’s more of a repetitive, compulsive thing to create. I can’t stop doing it until I feel the piece is done. Then I move onto the next, which is a direct rip-off, but more evolved. I go through phases where I paint a lot and once I’m burnt out, I’ll take a little break and hang out with friends.

ЯE: What are some of your other rituals?

: Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine—the teens—they do it for me. There’s something about coffee. When I was a kid, my mom (RIP) would put a lot of milk in and let us drink it, so it takes me back to that time.

ЯE: What do you like to paint on?

: I went through a phase where I painted everything on wood. Now I like canvas and use acrylics. I gotta have really nice brushes—that’s what motivate me too. When I have shitty brushes, it takes away from my work because I don’t get the proper strokes and line work. So if I want to get a body of work together, I get a lot of new brushes. It’s like having new shoes; you like showing ’em off.

ЯE: Is this something you see yourself doing forever?

: Most likely. I don’t really see myself holding down a job. It’s not like I’m a bum or anything, but for the last 6, 7 years I’ve been painting full-time. It’s a struggle, but it’s fun. I know how to save money and stretch out a dollar.

How do you promote your shows?

: I guess you can say I’m a business man. When I was a kid I used to sell baseball cards to my neighbors and me and my brother would find little hustles, selling cans and bottles. I apply that to the arts. I don’t know how I find my collectors. They find me. Just people I meet. They own businesses.

ЯE: Do you have a community of artists who support each other?

JZ: My first show was 13 y 13 = El Futuro at Self Help Graphics and focused on emerging Chicano artists from Los Angeles. I met Retna, Melissa Trochez, Luis Huffington, and some other artists. We developed a little network where we’d get shows and include each other in them.  Now we’re doing our own thing and booking our own shows.

ЯE: Where do you kick it?

JZ: I’m more of a backyard hangout kind of guy.  I’m not the type who wants to go to these cool events. Most of my friends aren’t artists, they’re friends from high school, who have their own careers. I have friends who are artists, but usually it’s at art shows that I’ll see them. Being an artist, you meet a lot of different people. I have a photographer friend named Gil Ortiz and a graphic designer friend names Timothy Kumuro. These guys are as old as my dad and I like hanging out with them; they’re a lot more mellow. They share their wisdom with me and I learn a lot. Sometimes I feel like I’m an old soul.

Are you voting for Obama?

JZ: Yeah, of course. I’m gunna Barack the vote. [Laughs]

So Low Brown is currently on view at Tropico de Nopal Gallery & Art Space, 1665 Beverly Blvd., LA, 90026.

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