Neto Velasco came to Los Angeles to make his mark, but the city also made its mark on him. He arrived from the Mexican town of Querétaro a year ago. "I had a really good life in Mexico, but I prefer adventure," he says. "That's why I came here."
Velasco, a graphic designer, had left his house and given everything away except three pairs of jeans, five T-shirts and a camera. "I want my life to be simple. Like, if tomorrow I want to go to Japan, I just grab my backpack and let's go," he says.
At 26, he is young and passionate and wears his heart on his sleeve. He admits that it wasn't just adventure but misadventure that fueled his decision to come to the United States: A girl in Mexico had broken his heart. She'd met another guy. "I never want to talk to you again," she said. Velasco refused to remain in the same country she inhabited.
In L.A., he got a snake-and-dagger tattoo to remember her by. He'd given her everything but received nothing — just a dagger in the heart.
"Every time I have a broken heart, I need to get a tattoo, and I need to go out and do some stencils," he explains. Tattoos and stencils — which he's used to mark the streets of L.A. — are his therapy.
He has needed rather a lot of therapy since moving here. His skinny chest and arms, fairly bare when he got here, now are blanketed in tattoos. "But it's a good thing!" he insists. "That's how many times I have loved.
"I just got this one two days ago," he says, indicating a spiderweb on his arm. The spider represents his time here in L.A. It's been tough, lonely. He knew not a single soul when he got here and spoke English mostly in theory. Of course he was scared. But if he doesn't do crazy stuff now, when will he? When he's in his 30s and married with kids?
Luckily, a design studio job was waiting for him when he arrived. His employers originally found him an apartment in Beverly Hills. "But it was so lonely," he says.
Velasco decamped to Koreatown after spotting an ad on Craigslist for a manager in a student dormitory. He lives in the dorm for free, provided he keeps tabs on the students and makes sure they aren't wrecking the place.
An enterprising sort of guy, Velasco converted the abandoned patio into a makeshift art studio, where he is sitting right now. He bought lights, a silkscreen machine, everything he used to own in Mexico but gave away. "My boss doesn't know about this. But he never comes."
The students are all in their early 20s and come from different countries — France, Japan, China, Poland, Turkey, Brazil — to study English for two months at a stretch. Velasco meets a lot of people now, which takes the edge off the loneliness.
Still, in the year he's been in the United States, he has not made any close friends. "I don't have one true friend here. I'm in a city all by myself. I don't know how it works. I don't know where to go," he says.
While the foreign students are nice, they come and go. It's for the best. "I don't want to hate the city," he reasons. "But I don't want to be in love with it." He is scared of loving L.A., of wanting to stay here forever. Velasco shrugs. "It's a great place for lonely people, too. There are a lot of things to do."
If the tattoo spider is Velasco, the web represents work, effort and logistics. A spider struggles for days to build its web. In one instant, a careless human can destroy it.
With his visa about to expire, Velasco is stressed out. His company has offered to sponsor him in exchange for a five-year work commitment, but he doesn't know if he wants to stay. "Five years," he says, shaking his head. People who quit their jobs are brave, he believes. "I congratulate them. It means they are free."
Near the spider, above the crook of his right elbow, is a tattoo of his little sister's face. She calls him every day from Mexico. She is 10 years old and misses him terribly.
On his stomach, Velasco got a snake, a writhing, red and angry thing. Its tail coils around his belly button. The snake is for his dad, who used to drive a Shelby Cobra.
When Velasco was young, his dad forbid him to get tattoos. People won't look at you the way you want them to, his dad warned. "How do you know I don't want to be looked at that way?" Velasco countered. He barely speaks to his parents now.
Most times, marking his skin is not enough. So he marks the streets. At the dorm, he cuts the patterns out of cardboard. Stencils are fast: Pick a spot, spray, run. "In less than a minute, you're finished." He craves the adrenaline rush but doesn't have the courage to run away from cops.
Themes of love and freedom dominate his stencils. Velasco is driven by romantic imperative: "Everything I do, it's inspired by love."
Several months ago, he stenciled the word "libertad" — Spanish for "freedom" — on every telephone booth on Melrose between La Brea and La Cienega, some 40 total. It took all night. He did it for his fellow Mexican citizens who were protesting the country's recent elections. "This is how I scream the name of my country," he says.
Before that, Velasco stenciled a quote from the movie (500) Days of Summer: "I don't want to get over her. I want to get her back."
He sprayed it on Hollywood Boulevard, the boulevard of broken dreams, for every struggling actor or model or artist he's met here.
Before that, he stenciled Bob Dylan's face onto a sidewalk in Little Tokyo. Whenever you have a question about love, Velasco advises, listen to Dylan's songs and you'll hear the answer.
He did his first stencil in Los Angeles a month after he arrived. Riding his scooter around Westwood, Velasco picked a dark place on Wilshire Boulevard, pulled the black paint out of his backpack and sprayed "Love Kills" on a wall.
He was petrified. "There's a lot of cops. I did not want to get deported my first month here."
Velasco had been miserable after the snake-and-dagger girl broke his heart. But when one door closes, another opens. His friends in Mexico took him to drown his sorrows at a bar, where a waitress named America served him drinks. She was wearing a Joy Division T-shirt. They got to talking, then dating. "It was as if I had known her all my life," he recalls.
"I'm sorry," he told her. "I don't want to fall in love."
He did, of course. Irony of ironies, he was set to leave for the United States in a few months. "Go," she told him. "Go eat the world."
The long-distance relationship has been hard. It has resulted in another tattoo: a suitcase, emblazoned with the words, "It's always better when we're together." Twice Velasco's girlfriend has been denied a tourist visa. Just last week, she confessed she couldn't do it anymore. The distance was breaking her.
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In agony, Velasco stenciled a Joy Division song title outside the Angels Flight metro station in downtown: "Love Will Tear Us Apart." This girl, he says, is "the one."
As for Los Angeles, "I think I am done," he decides. "I'm not going to waste that amount of love just because I am here."
He and America have plans. They have money saved up for a trip to Japan. Or Paris, or Poland, or somewhere else.
By the time you read this, he will be gone.