When Lowrider Magazine hit stands in 1977, David De Baca was a seventh-grader coming up in San Diego's Chicano community, working on bikes and cars with his brothers. "All of a sudden there was an actual magazine dedicated to this lifestyle that I'm so addicted to," he recalls wistfully. Before that, Latino car culture had little to no place in the mainstream. "You know, lowriders were kind of looked down upon, like gangbangers," he explains. The magazine's popularity proved there was a demand for that type of publication.
Meanwhile, an artist calling himself Teen Angel began working as a writer and illustrator for Lowrider, honing a style that shares DNA with Chicano prison art and tattoo design. But since Lowrider was focused mostly on cars, there was less real estate for the likes of politics, fashion, commentary and art. In 1981 Teen Angel decided to branch out with his own zine — Teen Angels — dedicated to cholo culture in full. He wanted to explore it all, and not just via art. He was into writing about hairstyles, bicycle trends and whatever else he saw that was interesting and wasn't being covered elsewhere. He was a self-styled historian of the culture. "He would write, 'This is the way everybody did their hair back in the '40s or '50s. This is the way they did it in the '60s,'" De Baca remembers.
De Baca became one of Teen Angel's biggest fans and — other than relatives — was the person who knew the artist most intimately in his twilight years, when he'd effectively become a hermit. It was then De Baca learned a secret about Teen Angel that would surprise, maybe even anger some of the artist's Latino fans: Teen Angel, who spent his career drawing big-haired cholitas and mustachioed cholos in a magazine for exactly that demographic, was white.
For De Baca, that doesn't change the impact Teen Angel had on the Chicano community, and an exhibit of old Teen Angels zines he co-curated with Bryan Ray Turcotte for Printed Matter's L.A. Art Book Fair helps solidify the artist's place in Chicano art history.
When it began appearing in convenience marts and mom-and-pop liquor stores throughout the region, Teen Angels was an affordable way for young Latinos to stay connected with what was happening in nearby communities that they might not otherwise be exposed to. "If you're from a little barrio in Southern California or Central California or Imperial Valley, all you knew was what was happening in your neighborhood," De Baca explains.
The most beloved section of Teen Angels was probably the mail, which was especially popular among people trapped in the California penal system. "You had these guys in prison sending in all their artwork," De Baca says. Teen Angels was like a visual version of The Art Laboe Connection's dedications, and edgier than anything you would find in Lowrider or elsewhere on traditional newsstands.
The zine peaked in the '80s and held on through the '90s, but in 2000 the artist behind Teen Angels called it quits and was no longer heard from. It turned out that no one in the Chicano community had ever known who Teen Angel was — it was surprisingly easy for him to vanish.
Then, in 2005, at an art fair specializing in Americana, a now-adult De Baca came across a booth selling art he was sure looked familiar. "As I was walking by this guy, I look down and see calendars filled with prints of trains. And I see what I swear was Teen Angel's art. I stopped dead in my tracks," he recalls excitedly. "Nobody had heard of Teen Angel in years, but what really blew my mind was that he had a white guy's name on it. The signature read 'Dave Holland.'"
The man working the booth, Holland's stepson, confirmed to De Baca that Holland was, in fact, Teen Angel. He gave Holland's contact info to De Baca and encouraged him to reach out, saying, "He might be happy to hear from you."
De Baca called Holland, but Holland wasn't happy. "[He] told me, 'I haven't left my house in 15 years, and I don't leave my house. I always wanted a '37 Chevy model car but hated leaving my house so much that I won't go to the store to get it. I don't want to deal with the public, and I don't want to talk to anybody either,'" De Baca recalls.
So De Baca — a collector of model cars himself — went into his garage, grabbed a model of a '37 Chevy, and sent it with a heartfelt letter to Holland, expressing his appreciation for the impact the artist had on his life. "I sent it out never expecting to hear from him again," De Baca says.
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But around two weeks later, he came home to discover some original art and a letter from Teen Angel encouraging De Baca to call him whenever he liked. And like that, De Baca was allowed into this extremely private man's life, bit by bit. He met Holland's wife, a Mexican woman, who was his only other window to the outside world. De Baca would visit Holland's house in San Bernardino in the morning and sometimes stay late into the night.
After a few years, Holland would open up more and more about his past, revealing how he became obsessed with cars, the military, tattoos (especially military tattoos), gangs, Chicanos and everything else he couldn't stop drawing.
De Baca is currently working on a book based on his interactions with the elusive artist.
"Teen Angel wasn't into self-promotion," De Baca says with pride. "He wanted to promote the culture and he loved art, he loved making people smile through his art. He was like a beast. Up until his last day he died, I would go to his house when he was sick, and he'd be asleep, slumped over on his couch with a paintbrush in his hand. It was almost like an addiction that he couldn't break — he couldn't stop creating art."