Carlos Callejo has been painting murals for over 40 years, beginning with his first mural in 1970. Since then he has painted murals all over the world, including Italy, El Salvador and Texas. But the world renowned artist got his start in East Los Angeles.
“I had a speech impediment, I couldn’t express myself, so my outlet was art," Callejos said. "It was almost a natural manifestation. I couldn’t express vocally, so I did it by art.”
He says his experience growing up in the area fueled his desire to paint and gave him something to paint about.
“For me, growing up in an East Los Angeles school district, I saw the discrimination, not just race but class related,” Callejo said. “Students were ridiculing Mexicans [students].”
In 1997, Callejo painted a mural in South Los Angeles’ Braden Milken Center that signifies black and brown unity, a topic of importance in South L.A., says Callejo.
"There is a common thread," Callejo said, of the two races. "Both have rich ancestry, there is a common ground that we tend to be oblivious about."
Part of that common ground is the area they live in — South L.A.
"You can't separate South Los Angeles from inner city struggles in any impoverished people, they need to see their culture, aspirations," he said. "South Los Angeles in the last 20 years there has been an influx of different races and we to fill the gap and bridge to become one viable community with different cultural flavors."
Callejo said he believes murals can be used to express issues that get ignored by traditional mass media. He first did work through a gang and youth diversion project where he would team up gang rivals on positive projects.
"With murals, its important to involve kids in the entire process involved in hit up city council, businesses, how to prepare [the] wall," he said. "The whole objective is to have them get a sense of ownership."
While he and other muralists use public art such as murals to create art and unite communities, he sees a flaw in public art.
“Los Angeles City has gone on the wrong path of public art,” Callejo said. "They are preventing mural making... like fining people for then they make it in their own property."
Callejo said there is a difference between public art and community art. With public art, people are shown what is art, meaning city officials decide what will go on the murals, he says. Community art however, allows people to be a part of the decision making-process all the way through.
Essentially, public art is supposed to be community art.
“What you see in South Central is community art," he said. "The quality is minimal because of budget and there is less support.”
Callejo says he would like to paint a mural for the Ross Snyder Recreation Center in Vernon Central. During the summer he held art workshops for youth at the park as part of the Summer Night Lights program. Murals, he says, could help South LA residents come together.
"I would like to see more unification, working relationships," Callejos said. "By unifiying both [Black and Latino residents] we would be empowering them to change their own community."