Earlier this year, the Hotel Figueroa launched its Featured Artist Series to showcase the work of female artists and culture makers in Los Angeles, and the first selection was painter Shizu Saldamando. Saldamando was born in San Francisco’s Mission District and grew up immersed in the Chicano art scene there before moving to Los Angeles to study art at UCLA. She says, “I’ve been in L.A. for a very long time but always on the east side. Always on the real east side — East L.A. proper.”
The people in that Los Angeles community have found their way into her art. Saldamando photographs her subjects and uses the images for reference as she draws and paints. She says, “I’m kind of coming at it from this very music-centric angle, where a lot of the images are pictures I’ve taken when I go out to shows, or we’re hanging out after a show, or we’re at a backyard party. There are these different social spheres that I document that all center around L.A. nightlife in some way, but not necessarily the bougie, high-end hotels or the Hollywood clubs.” Instead, her portraits capture moments in the lives of her friends and acquaintances. She describes her work as “an homage to L.A. and L.A. life, but from a very specific, different point of view than what your average tourist might expect.”
After UCLA, Saldamando worked at Self Help Graphics for a few years, and then went to grad school at CalArts. After that, she began working as an artist’s assistant, and over time, she realized her world was getting smaller and smaller. She recalls, “I was just working with other artists. I was going to artists’ dinners, going to openings and hanging out with other assistants and other graduates. It was creatively stifling.” She knew she needed two things — a way to make money and a reminder of what got her excited about art in the first place.
Since she could draw well, she apprenticed at a tattoo shop in East L.A., which eventually solved both issues. She now works from a private tattoo studio in Pomona and says, ‘This is how I can make money without having to worry about selling my art. At the same time, it’s reconnecting me with old friends who want tattoos. It’s keeping me connected to a larger community that I was really being pulled away from when I was an artist’s assistant and just existing in that really specific world.”
She views each tattoo as an artistic collaboration, explaining, “It’s me and the person, creating a piece together, and I get to know people and be inspired by them to create more portraits.”
When Saldamando’s artwork shows in galleries such as Charlie James in Chinatown, where she had a solo exhibition last year, she makes a point of involving her subjects in the events. She says, “The first people on the invite list are the ones that are in the actual pieces. That’s a really big deal. If you go to a reception, you’re going to meet somebody that I drew, because they’re there. They’re the ones kind of setting the tone for the whole reception, and they’re always posing for pictures in front of their pieces.”
Saldamando’s parents are activists, and they sometimes ask why she doesn’t paint portraits of people like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. She views her portraits as a different kind of activism. “I think I’m doing something very political by showing contemporary people of color that are the legacy of that history, but that don’t necessarily have to adhere to some narrative of a suffering farmworker or laborer. These are people that are existing and having fun creating their own scenes and creating fashion. In a lot of ways, there’s this media narrative that we only see brown people depicted as, and this is something else.” She adds, “A lot of the people that I show are like fourth-generation East L.A., or they’re first-generation, or they’re DACA, but they’re all a mixture and it’s hard to tell. That’s not the basis of the narrative, and that’s what makes it interesting to me. That’s who my friends are.”
Thirteen of Saldamando’s works created between 2009 and 2018 will be on display at the Hotel Figueroa’s Artist Alley Gallery through March.
Hotel Figueroa, 939 S. Figueroa St., downtown; hotelfigueroa.com.