Meet the Godfather of East LA’s Self Help Graphics & Art

Dewey Tafoya wasn’t meant to be an artist. At least he never thought so until fate/destiny/wonderful coincidence made it so. He was a Chicano Studies major at UCLA and had to work at a non-profit in order to complete his degree. The Boyle Heights native decided to work somewhere close to home: Self-Help Graphics & Art.

Tafoya has been a staple at the iconic Chicano arts non-profit for many years and is always involved with the preparations for the organization’s annual Dia de los Muertos event. It’s at one of these events at Hollenbeck Park, made open to and specifically for the public, that I met Tafoya for an interview. He answered my questions while showing other volunteers how to create flowers using sheets of colored tissue paper.

It was at an event much like that one where he developed a love for the artist’s life, creating the collective The Social Machine and eventually becoming a screen-printer. He has a few prints that have become his trademarks (the Aztec calendar + Millennium Falcon and a Mexico ’68 print) and also had a print exhibited at LACMA as part of the Fútbol: The Beautiful Game exhibit.

Let’s start with The Social Machine. Is that a name you work under?
The Social Machine is a moniker for me and my partner Becky. I met her 11 years ago here. We haven’t done this in a while but it was part of an art/music/performance group that we had. We had an artist friend that would always want bands to play at the shows. So we were like ‘let’s make this band and whatever theme they want, we’ll make songs for that theme.’ We wouldn’t necessarily have a band name because we didn’t want to limit ourselves to just one name but we do need this umbrella name to fall under so the idea was The Social Machine.

When did you start printing?
About seven or eight years ago and that started with some drawings of some skulls that I did. My friend Rico was one of the organizers for the Day of the Dead event in Santa Ana, the Noche de Altares…he had used some of my drawings for some of the banners and he said ‘I’m going to have a booth. I’m going to sell some stuff. You should make some shirts.’ I had a screen-printing kit that I had for a long time and I didn’t know how to do it. It was an impetus for me to learn it and figure it out.

So I do these drawings and printed out some random shirts. I had them all over the place with different, random skulls. We did the event and I sold a bunch of shirts. That was enough incentive for me to learn about it and make money. It’s something I learned by ‘I’m gonna try it and I’m gonna do it and I’m gonna mess up a lot’…I didn’t have anybody show me it.

One of my favorite prints is that of the Aztec calendar blended onto the Millennium Falcon. How did you come up with that design?
The way that came about wasn’t too genius. I was at Target one day looking at the Star Wars shirts they had. There’s one that’s really cool and it has a blueprint of the Millennium Falcon. I thought ‘aww cool!’ but I didn’t want to buy it. I could probably go home, look for the root file and just make it. So that’s what I did. I went home and got the file of the Millennium Falcon but, as I was looking at it, all of a sudden BOOP! I thought ‘I should mix it with that.’ I think I already had an image of the Aztec calendar that I wanted to use but I never wanted to use it by itself.

What’s funny is I remember googling it to see if it was already out there and not seeing it. Like a year after I had made it, my Social Machine facebook page got facebook trolled and all these people were on there going ‘hey, you stole artwork!’ I didn’t even know any of these people at all and they’re saying I’m a thief, that I stole artwork, and that I’m doing this-and-that. That was in the morning…as the day went by, they got deleted. This guy was like ‘uh, I’m sorry dude. We thought you stole some artwork but it turns out you’re legit.’ I was like, I’m gonna send a strongly worded message’ that basically just said ‘my ethics aren’t stealing from anybody and I definitely wouldn’t bully people on their facebook page and tell their friends to come in and claim all this stuff about me when it’s not true. Obviously, you guys must have looked at some of the pictures on the page and the dates and therefore went away.’ This was around the time when kids on facebook were getting bullied. This was a dude from Maine!

What’s the story on your other popular design, the Mexico ’68 shirt?
That one came about from working with a group of kids in Watts and working out the idea of coming up with a representation that combines both cultures. They couldn’t think of anything and I couldn’t think of any positive representations that combines both cultures that wasn’t a coming together for a protest or something. They mentioned the Watts riots and I thought about the Olympics in Mexico City but the whole Tlatelolco thing isn’t really a positive thing. From talking with them, I came up with the idea of combining everything.

When I was in college, I went to the Plaza de las Tres Culturas and just feeling the heaviness of walking amongst the ruins and knowing the story beforehand. During that time, I was writing poems and I wanted to write a poem or create an image or something about it but it got stored in a data file in my mind. Working with these kids helped me to really think about it and layer something together for them.

What have you worked on recently? Any new designs or ideas?
I recently had a print at LACMA for the Fútbol exhibit. It was an Olmec head and I’ve been using that a lot in my imagery. I have a self-portrait as a Olmec head. The idea of the Olmec head is I did a Mt. Rushmore with an Olmec head and I took a bunch of photos at a May Day march of all the cops so I did a police line with Olmec heads. The idea of it was I was looking for a symbol and I didn’t want to use the obvious Fridas and Zapatas. Why even put that out there? It’s already out there enough. I wanted to use something that people know is iconic but is not overly used.

I’ve always been into Meso-American history especially the Olmec heads. So I was like ‘okay, I’m gonna try and mess around with these’ and placing them in places where they don’t belong but maybe they could! A lot of my artwork deconstructs history and creaties it my own vision. My Olmec head print is my recreation of a soccer poster but from 1370 BC. I’ve collected a bunch of photos of Olmec heads as much as I can…and post them with like a location like Hollenbeck Park 1970. I’m just trying to create this whole world where maybe that was there before it was built over. The Mt. Rushmore piece was that maybe those were the heads before they carved all these dead white guys.

It has lots of meaning for different people. What is that big Olmec head mean? The one I did with the police was ‘who was here first?’ I collect tons of old photos of L.A. and the construction of L.A. I have one of the 101 freeway with City Hall in the background and the freeway was all dirt…with a moving crane. I was like ‘perfect spot for an Olmec head!’ It looks like the crane is moving an Olmec head out during the construction of L.A.

I was having lots of fun with it but I was getting these reactions like ‘where did you find that?’ or, which I love even more, ‘oh my god, is that real?!,’ which is more of what I wanted. It plays to, unfortunately, what the media does. It plays with people’s knowledge of history which is not enough because they can tell you that something is brand new and no, it’s not! Even movies or music, nothing’s really brand new anymore.

That’s what those pieces do. Mexico ’68 was a straight-up historical piece. When I first made it, it was for the kids in Watts it was that image [of soccer] minus the Tlatelolco because I didn’t want to push that on the kids. All the Latino kids would say ‘Mexico! Soccer! Yeah!’ The black kids didn’t know what the image was at first until the older dudes were like ‘yo that’s cool!’ All of a sudden, because all the older guys thought it was cool, the younger dudes started thinking it was cool too. It’s the kind of stuff they had to look at first. I like that effect of it especially with Tlatelolco in the background. It has the layer effect.