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Master, Trickster, Artist – The Curandero Raul Baltazar

The name of Raúl Baltazar has been rolling off my tongue for the past few weeks. Ever since Oliver Shipley sent me the first tapes of the artist and himself having an initial conversation, I’ve been trying to understand everything that comes out of Raúl, from the way he drinks cinnamon coffee to post-colonialism and appreciation for silly kids who think he’s full of it. I went from being amazed by this artist’s rhetorical questions, to laughing at his jokes, to eating Oaxacan mole next to him. Before meeting Raúl, I was struck by the ease, intimacy, and eloquence with which he spoke about prisons, post-colonialism, and art as a political tool. After meeting Raúl Baltazar, I realized that he exemplifies the type of artist who is deeply committed to theory through practice. It would be wrong to say that he takes himself too seriously. He doesn’t, he’s easy going, cheerful and quick to smile. But he sees the role of the artist as one that is fundamental to social change.

Baltazar is out of his politics from the start. “We have to be careful about the ways we are used as artists. Artists are powerful, we design the dollar bills. It’s important to recognize the ways we can serve the community as storytellers and teachers.” When asked about his most memorable project, he recalls his experience working with juvenile inmates in Los Angeles. Baltazar facilitated art classes at the largest juvenile detention center in the US, right here in Los Angeles. The artist delves deeper, rhetorically probing the ways in which criminalization is linked to our (post)colonial foundations. He seems genuinely concerned about living in a city that incarcerates more youth than any other city in the United States. Baltazar suggests that he too could easily have been locked up if he hadn’t found some direction as being creative. However, where there is conflict, this artist finds possibilities. Baltazar himself reminds me of the artist who works to heal society; the one who somehow embraces chaos and gives it a beautiful meaning. Consequently, Baltazar’s murals have intentionally transformed the prison-like architecture of Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. High School into what now looks like a colorful Aztec temple. Where once the middle school was a stage for architectural containment, it now seems more like a site of intellectual and spiritual learning.

Baltazar was in the Navy. He grew up in Los Angeles in the late ’70s and ’80s and found a way to escape. But if you’re from LA, even if you hate LA, you find ways to come back. LA, he muses, is the kind of place that even when you get so tired of its freeways, its snobs and its smog, you come back and the city surprises you with its well-hidden secrets and exciting hotbeds of arts and culture. Los Angeles is undeniably dynamic. It is a city that seeps into your flesh and bones. It becomes a part of you that you can’t shake, continually opening up new stories.

LA for Baltazar as a child was magical. The murals on the walls of his neighborhood poured into his psyche and his bloodstream. They became part of his cultural environment and his identity as an artist. The images created by LA artists have had a lasting effect on Raúl. He has been inspired by the (Chicano) movement to reclaim public space through murals. He remembers being awed as a child by the East LA Streetscapers murals on Daily and Broadway, and also by a painted Tweety Bird in a hat. His politically minded parents were also an influence. He has blossomed from these seeds. His Los Angeles roots remain central to the way he works in the community as a politically conscious artist.

Raúl Baltazar will tell you that he is influenced by the popular stories that were transmitted to him from his grandfather in Chihuahua, Mexico. He imbues his art with cultural and spiritual symbols from around the world. In his work you can find Buddhist allegories as easily as you could find something typically Aztec. In his murals we see dragons, monkeys, elephants and trees of life, all archetypal figures that tell stories of knowledge, deceit, falsehood and spiritual truth. He uses the idea of ​​acting and the “stage” of life in one of his murals on the grounds of JLC Middle School, filled with gloomy Angelenos in the dark night. Water somehow drips or flows through his work, referencing the unconscious nature of knowledge and stories that are passed down from generation to generation. Much of his work reinvents popular tradition. In fact, one of JLC’s murals of him is literally infused with “good luck” magic. Raúl told the JLC children that if they touched the mural, they would have good luck. The mural itself became an interactive performance piece in which part of its meaning became the magical luck that would come from touching it. Baltazar does not create flat and lifeless objects. He creates art that is alive and breathing, interactive and transformative. The Good Luck Mural is a great example of the ways in which art can take on spiritual qualities or, as Raúl says, can become a “sanctuary or a place that is going to revitalize you in some way.”

A curandero/a is a community healer. What is compelling about Baltazar is that he is aware of the ways an artist can work as a community healer, stitching up or speaking to the wounds, losses and possibilities in our communities in powerful ways. The mere fact that Baltazar feels connected to the Los Angeles community is telling. He says that he doesn’t just work for himself; he tells us how he wants to use his medium as an artist to repair the spirit of the community and pass on the tradition of storytelling. The murals speak aloud, reflecting the stories that resonate for the communities that live vibrantly within the margins. Even more than telling/painting political stories of struggle and survival, Baltazar’s murals function as temples and gathering spaces for the Los Angeles community. I am also sure that hundreds and even thousands of children will be influenced by Raúl’s murals, just as he was influenced by the murals he saw as a child in Los Angeles.

The figure of the trickster often comes into play in Baltazar’s work. Says Raúl, “The Trickster makes you question what you believe and whether or not you really believe it, and he does it in an imaginative way that’s part of folklore. Those are the stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. And nobody had to pay to get it printed or go through a lot of hoops. It just happened. They kept getting reinvigorated because they had agency, because they taught something, because they were relevant to people’s lives. Relevant today.”

In many ways, Raúl Baltazar’s role as artist and trickster breaks and defies categories. He works radically to resist being labeled as any type of artist. Baltazar is a performer, painter, filmmaker, sculptor, muralist and illustrator at the same time. Focusing on his wall art here is a choice I made primarily to demonstrate the ways in which he interacts with the community. Certainly, though, Baltazar is a tradition-defying artist who seeks to identify art and artists as “Chicano” or “postmodern” or “conceptual” or “painters.” In fact, more than anything else, Raúl Baltazar is a teacher, cultural worker, and healer in the form of an artist.

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