Jorge Velasquez grew up across from the Belmont Tunnel and Toluca Yard, the longtime treasured site for graffiti artists in Westlake. The area was "my backyard and my playground," he says. "I'd go down there, crack open the [spray] cans and take the marbles out" to play with. He recalls later walking through the abandoned Pacific Electric Railway underground network and exploring the mural-covered alleys behind Melrose Avenue while a student at Fairfax High School.
It took a while to translate his technical expertise and understanding of street art into a marketable skill. But about five years ago, Velasquez traded in his spray cans for brushes and took up hand-painted lettering and sign making. The rise of digital culture had threatened the trade, but, like other analog mediums, it has experienced a recent renaissance.
Velasquez's introduction to professional sign work came via his friend Jesse "Jail" Gonzalez, who gave Velasquez his first box of brushes; he died last year of diabetes. Velasquez became obsessed with the under-recognized form, which combines art and commerce, and creates beauty in the mundane. He favors the fluid and angled "casual" font style, which incorporates the kinetic, exuberant feel of street art into the discipline and tradition of old-fashioned lettering work. Artists Chaz Bojorquez and Big Sleeps are among his influences.
Like many of his fellow sign painters, Velasquez, 31, points to one particularly instrumental figure: Ralph "Doc" Guthrie at L.A. Trade Tech College's Sign Graphics program. "It's an honor to be under his teaching. He's hella strict," Velasquez says of Guthrie's notoriously rigorous methodology, which is combined with a deep respect for students, many of whom are accomplished graffiti artists.
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Before enrolling at LATTC in fall 2013, Velasquez was already making signs for various Trader Joe's and Home Depot locations, which was a dream gig at first. "I loved that you could be creative and just draw all day," given those businesses' voracious demands for new signage to reflect constantly changing prices and inventory, he says. Enticing customers' interest with hand-drawn images and text within a visually chaotic environment proved to be an exciting challenge, whether it was to direct them to poinsettia plants during the holiday season or bring attention to a sale on electric drills. But after the signs served their fleeting purpose, "Watching my work get destroyed was heartbreaking," he says.
Now a Highland Park resident, Velasquez knows how a sense of place informs the final product. He observes "the environment, the traffic and the location" to settle on the right scale and scheme for the signs he creates for clients. (His company is Chatrbox Signs, named for his loquacious tendencies.) Wall art at a private tattoo studio located in the pedestrian-oriented Historic Core of downtown requires a vastly different approach than wide signs at an auto body store on Pico, for example.
Despite the supportive community of sign makers, the competitive "ego of the graffiti world" still sticks with him, Velasquez says. He typically can't help but keep an eye out for "who's got that stroke down, and who makes that letter a certain way."