Muralist, Founder of The Community Rejuvenation Project
“Our goal is to manifest the future that we want to see in the community through our art”
The Community Rejuvenation Project Artists is a group of artists who with communities to create murals that are organic to that community and accurately reflect their residents’ stories. CRP describes itself as a “policy to pavement organization that cultivates healthy communities through public art, beautification, education and celebration.” Click here to read more about the work of CRP.
Desi also teaches after school, three days a week. “That’s steady. Because living as a straight-up artist is very inconsistent. Sometimes the teaching kind of feels like it’s slowing you down from your artwork, but I’m happy, especially as a married person and a person who’s got regular bills.”
Why I wanted to talk to Desi:
I have been interested in the tension between artists’ commitment to their work and community and the need to make a living. Lewis Hyde, whom I also interviewed recently, explores this in his books, The Gift and Common As Air. In the former, he says that when he started writing the book, he assumed that “the artist in the modern world must suffer a constant tension between the gift sphere to which his work pertains and the market society which is his context.” He goes on to say that “my position has changed somewhat.” He is seeking reconciliation between the two. In the interview below, you will hear Desi Mundo, a mural artist, in the process of seeking that reconciliation.
A while back, a friend of mine got hired by Pepsi to do five murals in the hood. That is the one time I’ve done anything corporate, and I’ve never done anything since. All I basically did was paint the damn logo. I thought that’s what you did. Because he was a fuckin’ bad-ass artist, and he was a real principled dude, and I thought if he took the gig, I was kind of like, Well shit, I guess that’s what you do.
I’m not in the gallery scene, either. We’re strictly public artists. We’re primarily in low-income communities. Low-income communities, by nature, want it for a lower price. We’re working with a lot of community groups and grassroots organizations, political movements. We do a lot of food justice work. If we’re behind your movement, stuff that really is important to us, we’ll do it. And sometimes we’ll do it for free plus our supplies. But when we talk to like liquor store owners, they always want us to paint logos and signs for them for practically nothing. “I’ll pay you $150.” Get the fuck outta here, you kidding me? My supplies cost more than $150. You want me to work for free, are you fuckin’ retarded? That’s how much they pay regular painters just to paint your wall, and we’re charging for a mural. You know? And it feels like disrespect. It feels like people not valuing you; you know what you cost.
People are always asking me for free artwork and trying to say, “Well you’ll get exposure; look at all the people who will see it.” I don’t care how many people see my work. I got a mural map on my website of hundreds of murals that I’ve done in Oakland. Do you think one more is going to really blow me over the top? Some of these people are downtown. If I can’t get paid in downtown for my work, I’m not going to get paid anywhere for my work.
Do you turn them down?
Oh yeah. I look at them like they’re crazy. There’s a way you’re supposed to treat artists.
Artists have to develop a sense of — I don’t want to say a sense of pride, because it sounds like there’s a little hubris attached to that– but we have to have an understanding of our own value first, before we go out. When I first got to Oakland, I was taking gigs for the price of the supplies because I was trying to get myself out there.
But we have to develop a sense of our worth. A lot of folks don’t understand the process. If you sat down with an executive director, say, or you sat down with a lady that called me recently and thought I was going to work for free, they would say that they value art. They’d say that they’re all about art. But they don’t know anything about it. We have to sustain ourselves. That’s the piece that we’re really focused on, now. We’re trying to create a model of where we can be supported for the work that we do.
But they feel entitled to our artwork; they feel entitled to our labor for free. It’s as if we’re supposed to do all the legwork for them and then they get to decide if they want it or not. It’s completely backwards, and a lot of us artists buy into that.
There’s people that consider themselves to be more community than us, there’s people that are straight up commercial that will only work for compensation, which I also don’t agree with, because I want to do the work for the people. We’re community artists. I won’t paint for Hennessey, Corona, Pepsi, Subway, any of those guys. That was a one time thing when I did Pepsi a long time ago, and it was really just kind of naiveté.
What kind of example is that setting for the kids that I teach our work with? Because I’m going to be this bad-ass artist that does all this fly stuff, revolutionary stuff, but I’m going go off and work for some fucking company, painting advertisements?
I think we’ve chosen like the really difficult, bang-your-head-on-the fuckin’-wall-every-step-of- the-way path by doing it as community artists. [Some artists] are getting flown in to paint a dead rat. I respect that you’re flying in and you’ve made that level of business success, but I don’t respect that you’re going into a place that has a history of rodents and low income and slumlords and violent crime. I mean, there’s also a beautiful rich history of culture. But you go into a low-income community and basically perpetuate that lower income community’s perception in the general public by painting rats. You do that, you’re amplifying it.
We do memorial murals because there is a purpose in letting out that grief, but we don’t do stuff that’s perpetuating violence in violent communities. When Oscar Grant was killed, we had a million and one ideas of how to paint a cop getting murdered by the public and how to get back at those fuckin’ pigs for what they did. But we backed off on that in our dialog because it was like, if we paint the cops getting brutalized by the community, if we paint revenge on the cops in any way, shape or form, especially in neighborhoods that we don’t live in, who’s gonna get targeted by the police? The local kids of color are gonna get targeted by the police and brutalized more and attacked more. It may reflect our sentiments, but it’s also going to antagonize them into doing worse things in that community.
What you’re talking about is the power of art.
Right. We have to be really careful about the images that we paint. Our goal is to manifest the future that we want to see in the community through our art. That’s the bottom line. You paint the world you want to see into existence. So we paint lots of gardens and butterflies and bees. I don’t even like painting bees because they’re kind of difficult to paint, but I paint them because I want to see them. I’m going to really miss them if they’re gone.
Tell me what you think the role of a community artist is then.
I think the first thing is to reflect the people in the community; to create stuff that the community relates to. It’s just a totally different world now. The demographic has changed. The demographic of street artists is more middle class and white. With that has come a sense of entitlement. Particularly to the walls of poor communities of color. These folks are more upwardly mobile, and as a result have less roots in their community.
It sounds like you’re saying they have a very different motivation for working than you do.
Right, totally. It’s not just the street artists. There’s some of the writing guys, too, but with the letter guys, we have a different challenge, a different issue that we face.
And that is what?
[A prejudice] against the stylized era of urban calligraphy. It’s based on the perception that it is done by young, primarily men of color. The erroneous assumption is that those folks are gang members and dangerous. And there’s a toxic fear of people of color, young men of color, from the inner city, and what they will theoretically do to you. That goes back to Jim Crow times and slavery times and is just an inherent fear that white people have of black people.
When people see graffiti, they assume it’s a gang and it’s bad.
Right. We don’t want to be separated from our writ roots, our writing roots, and so we’ve kind of fought against the idea that, oh, we “the good guys” –their words. Taggers are the bad guys. No, we’re the same guys. (Laughs) But in reality, I think that there’s a lot more safety for people in pictures than there is in this illegible writing that people don’t understand.
Do you feel like you’re part of a movement?
Yeah. Oh, definitely. I feel like there’s a huge cultural legacy that’s been passed down for over 40 years at this point. The writing movement can be traced back over 100 years. And it comes from the streets and it comes from poor communities and communities of color. So there’s this long history, and we’re part of a lineage of people that came before us.
Do you have Children?
I have a stepson. 13.
What do you want to teach him about money?
I think how to navigate it. I don’t necessarily want him to reject everything so hard that he ends up making his life 100 times more difficult. I have friends that are like that, that are like so anti-money that they don’t want to make any. I get it, but it’s like, your life just has so many more headaches along the way. I want him to be able to navigate it without being married to it. Know how to work that system, know how to survive in that system without having necessarily blind faith in that system.
I think what we’re really seeking is more equality between people. Right now, we’re living in a capitalist wealth gap. I think that the disparity between rich and poor is just so vast. We’re basically all poor compared to the rich, and the rich have just way too much control. But I think the bottom line for a lot of people is, we want to have more equality in our relations.
These people with more money should not have more ability to decide the way our lives are going to be lived. That the so-called justice system could allow corporations to have that much control over our lives, is just crazy. The idea that we live in a capitalist democracy is inaccurate; we live in a corporate oligarchy disguised as a capitalist democracy; it’s more palatable to the masses.
I’d also like to teach him how to subvert it when you have the opportunity to. This system isn’t going to topple itself over. I mean, it actually might the way it’s going, but. (Laughs) They might knock it over themselves. It’s not sustainable and it’s not going to last, but at the same time, I worry about what happens when it really falls into chaos. Because then it turns into the military state and paramilitary states.
Until it rights itself again.
Right, and that takes a long time, you know? I think I’d rather know how to work with the system and against the system when it’s possible.
Ultimately, the main thing is to do the work that we’re here to do, to create this artwork. Our goal is to manifest a positive future with what we paint on the walls. So if the government will pay us to do it, great, you know? But if they don’t, we’re still going do it. The moment the well runs dry, we’ll go back to stealing it, you know what I mean? We’re not going to stop doing it. Any means necessary. Right now, because we’re more established, we work with it. We work with it.
And because the position that we’re creating right now is, by being legitimate, by not creating illegal works, by kind of working through the system as we build a stronger platform as advocates for better public art policy…so within the system. Public art policy helps promote the opportunity for more public artwork to be created. That makes a lot of sense to me. I also have a long term view of it. We’ll always keep going for as long as walls are still in existence.
Everywhere you go, there’s just people out there that are like, I am going to write on the wall no matter what, by any means necessary. I don’t care what’s going to happen to me, I’m going to do it, you know? And they do. They carry it forward.
We’re always gonna resist, there’s always going to be someone that wants to do that, there’s always going to be that movement no matter what. People are gonna do it. And you know, if we’re gonna do stuff like that, we should put out quality work that will reflect the community. If people go write on the walls, let’s write big and write it beautiful and write it bold and safely.
That’s a wonderful vision.
Yeah. But we have to make it happen. It’s not just some fantasy.