Outside, the air brakes of the Metro buses hiss and squeak. The bus shudders to a stop at the corner of Fifth and Main. Doors flip open, spitting out a scruffy procession of sallow-faced men clutching filthy pants held up by twine, hollow-eyed addicts trolling for their next hit and teenagers sporting headphones the size of dessert plates. Some lurch down Main, others wander down the Nickel.
Two stories above the intersection, behind a reinforced steel door and two deadbolts, Fabian Debora's Skid Row art studio, La Classe Art Academy, reflects the chaos and cacophony of the streetscape below.
Debora clicks on overheard lights. What was outside is now in: the graffiti, the drifters and the gangsters, and a cross-section of those who call downtown Los Angeles home.
The sense of having been swallowed by the city is uncanny. Debora's studio is a cornucopia of these streets, past and present. In one painting Einstein, grinning mischievously, is tagging “L.A.” on a wall; a skateboard deck featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe hangs above a desk littered with paint pens; a memorial shrine with religious candles and dead roses is tucked in a corner. Smoke from a fresh sage bundle is curling into the air.
Canvases are propped on easels and stacked against one another on the floor. On one, a brown-skinned girl leans in against her older brother on the streets of Tijuana, smiling impishly. On another, Debora, arms outstretched, in fiery oranges and reds, stands life-size against a chain-link fence, offering his view of the Los Angeles skyline to his son. This studio space is the inside of Debora's mind.
Debora became a gangbanger in the Aliso Village housing project in Boyle Heights when he was 12. Raised by a single mother and an often-absent, heroin-addicted father, Debora was schooled on the rambling streets of East L.A. He spent days spraying and scrambling up the cement banks of the Los Angeles River and running from police. A smoked-out meth-head who ducked and dove through alleys, he did numerous stints behind prison bars, where he found ways to practice his art — such as scratching ink onto the skin of his fellow homies.
“I've been into drawing since I was a kid,” Debora says. “For me, art was a relief, away from the realities of my world. My mom and dad would fight. There was a lot of domestic violence. I always had a little notebook. I would go and hide, draw. It was my escape, the only way I could express what I was feeling inside.”
Every Tuesday from 9 to 11 a.m., Debora opens his studio to clients from Homeboy Industries, the nonprofit job-services organization that works with ex-cons and former gangsters, and to teenagers from Learning Works, a charter school associated with Homeboy. Debora says the art academy is in its fetal stage, “barely getting its breath,” but the students roll in.
“I carry many feathers,” Debora explains. “A gang member, a drug addict, a felon, but I have redeemed myself through the power of art. It has given me my self-worth.” He pauses, then adds, “I feel it is my responsibility to use my art as a vehicle in helping kids and even adults to heal and recognize value in themselves and their surroundings.”
They come because they want to. Attendance is not mandatory. Three folding tables, covered in tagged-up butcher paper, brushes and paints, fill the studio. An easel with the day's exercise faces the seats. The level of the students' capabilities varies, yet no one hesitates. They stroll in, get seated and begin working on their projects. The Isley Brothers harmonize in the background and heads bob.
Debora doesn't dictate instructions; he simply makes himself available and waits to be asked for guidance. The students thrive in an atmosphere where they are not judged and have nothing to prove.
“Whoever shows up on any given day is who I work with; it happens organically,” he says. “I'm not looking to work with the professionals, I want the stumblers.” When Debora laughs, the right side of his mouth hitches up in a wistful, childlike grin.
Debora has come a long way from tagging his moniker, Spade, on the L.A. River's bed. He has crossed oceans and borders, visiting Rome and various countries in Central and South America, telling his dark origin story and rendering his images of Los Angeles. His artwork has been featured in exhibits, both solo and group, across the country.
In 2013 Debora painted a mural on the ceiling of the American Airlines terminal at LAX to celebrate the opening of a Homeboy Café. Macy's has hired him to live-paint murals for events and conferences. From 2007 to 2012, Debora worked as a teaching assistant to Ysamur Flores-Peña at the Otis College of Art and Design. Edward James Olmos awarded him a scholarship and featured Debora's story in a 2007 documentary, Voces de Cambio. Since 2008, the walls of Homegirl Café on Bruno Street have rotated his works.
People in the art community focus on the relevance and meaning behind Debora's art. Isabel Rojas-Williams, executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, a nonprofit that preserves, documents and restores the murals of L.A., says, “I have seen his techniques grow and expand over time. Every day he is more accomplished than the day before. … Choosing art as his way to express himself, using his brush, the walls and the canvas, Fabian is writing our history.”
Williams came to the United States in 1973 from Chile. In 2012, she was approached by the U.S. Embassy in Chile about sending someone there to speak with at-risk youth, and she immediately thought of Debora. He traveled to Chile, spoke with government officials, facilitated art workshops and met with kids.
“Fabian made a tremendous impact on those kids in Chile, not only as an artist or a mentor but as a human being,” Williams says. “He showed with his art how it is possible to transform absolutely any experience.”
Debora saunters through his studio with his hands in the pockets of his creased Levis. Bending over a student, he whispers in Spanish about las oportunidades de arte. His inky black hair is meticulously braided and hangs between his broad shoulders. Before he answers a question, he always pauses and looks off to the side. His replies are soft, yet every word is weighted. His eyes are almost black, smooth and wet like glass. They miss nothing. The same skill set that served him on the street serves him in class. He's watchful, aware and anticipatory.
Through the years, Debora has maintained a relationship with Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries. Debora attended Dolores Mission School as a child and was steady in hitting up Boyle for a job. But due to his drug use, he was always empathetically denied.
Getting clean and sober on Aug. 1, 2006, reordered Debora's life. Since February 2007, he has been employed at Homeboy as the director of substance abuse services and programs, having received his alcohol and drug counseling state certification in 2014. He recently celebrated nine years clean and sober.
Anyone who rolls up to Homeboy knows there's a guarantee of shared pasts riddled with crime and drugs, as well as guidance on how to move forward. The recovery process Debora and those at Homeboy follow has its foundation in uncensored honesty, full disclosure of past actions and a devotion to new actions that set straight the wrongs committed against others.
“I spent seven years of my life, from juvenile hall to adulthood, within the jail system. I have paid my debt to society,” Debora says. “Both at Homeboy and in the art classes, I am open about my past, my crimes and who was harmed in the process. I encourage my students to do the same. I use my past as a way to inform and relate, but not to glamorize or glorify the life.”
Two years ago, Debora met Ruben and Sandra Islas through a mutual friend at Homeboy. In 2009, the couple established Latino Producers Action Network, or LPAN, which builds foundations for artists. Eventually, the couple asked Debora what kind of space he used for working on his art projects.
“The kitchen, the living room, [or] at Homeboy, the streets — wherever I can,” he replied. Then Debora shared with them his dream of an art academy.
“What was once only a vision is now in existence,” he says. He speaks of the couple in almost reverent tones. “They are more than my patrons. I believe people have guardian angels, and they are mine.”
Debora fires off a detailed inventory of what the couple told him when they gave him the studio space:
“Here is a space, a place to paint, to master your craft.
“Now that you've gained access, it is important and necessary for you to give access.
“Build a school. Do unto others what we have done for you. If you build it, they will come.”
And they do come. Debora turns up the music. Hearts of Fire by Earth, Wind and Fire fills the studio. “I love you guys,” he says to no one and to everyone. The students are finishing up a project titled Reclaim Your Truth, paintings on 12-inch-square pieces of balsa wood. They are studies in shape and color, but everyone was encouraged to paint in his or her own style, so no two are the same. Every painting will include on the back a personal anecdote written by the artist. They will be given to people who donated money to Homeboy Industries.
“They are not just paintings but a piece of somebody,” Debora says.
One girl laments over how to start; her paintbrush is trapped in midair. Debora walks over, massages her shoulders, breathes deeply and says, “Come on, mija, bring it to the center, from the heart — think of your husband.” Everybody busts out laughing. They get it.
Carlos Villegas arrives with two other Learning Works Charter School students in tow. The main campus for Learning Works is in Pasadena, and a satellite campus that began at Homeboy now has its own location in downtown Los Angeles with approximately 150 students. Learning Works describes itself as more than a school, rather a “movement who welcomes and serves dropouts.”
Villegas, 21, landed on Homeboy's doorstep in 2009. “I was messing up pretty bad,” he says. “No hard drugs, no prison time, but smoking weed, not going to school, hanging out with my homies and just acting stupid.”
Villegas earned his high school diploma and now attends a nearby community college and works as the driver for the charter school. Being held accountable has expanded his outlook on life. He flips through his phone to show some pictures of his art, and laughs about his first impressions of Debora. “Man, in the beginning, I didn't get along too well with him,” he says, “because he was the one who gave the drug tests, and I was dirty. But knowing him for six years and coming to his classes has taught me how to improve on techniques in my own artwork, how to have confidence in painting what I know about, what my eyes see.”
His last photo depicts a beaming Villegas next to a mural he painted, which spans a wall at Learning Works — concrete evidence of his work and talent.
Student Javier Chavez strolls in sporting low-slung, baggy jeans and a black Homeboy T-shirt emblazoned with its motto, “Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job.” Chavez works at Homeboy and has been clean and sober three years. His entire head and jawline are swathed in tattoos. Chavez is listo, with pencils tucked behind both ears. He finishes his Reclaim Your Truth project, sets it aside to dry and moves to his next project. It's an exercise on blending and merging colors and contours. Starting with a deep maroon red, he daintily eases into violet, then meticulously brushes on varying shades of blue. His concentration is formidable. He paints, bent at the waist, for the next two hours.
Lu Vargas, another student, had an alternative path to Homeboy, not due to drug addiction or gang affiliation. She attended classes there for her GED after dropping out of high school when she became pregnant. Vargas is an accomplished artist in her own right. She has been tattooing for five years and works at Coy Fish Tattoo in Los Angeles. Vargas had admired Debora's artwork for years and now rarely misses a Tuesday class.
Vargas' demeanor is demure and shyly elegant. Tattoos that resemble henna twist and wind through her fingers and up her wrists. Her sleek black hair curtains to her waist and is tucked behind her ears. Her brushstrokes are deliberate and thoughtful. Her painting evokes a feeling of being submerged in the depths of the ocean; curving, spiraling shells and tentacles fade from velvet-black to hues of midnight blue. Debora stands off to her right, nodding his head and coaxing her in Spanish as she applies the clear coat.
“With art, there are always ways to improve, to learn,” she says. “I appreciate the way Fabian carries himself during class. He is always supportive and makes everyone feel comfortable. I see myself reflected in him; we have similar backgrounds and struggles.” Vargas is reflective and pensive; she listens intently as Debora guides other students. “Art for both of us is love, life and the best way to express our feelings. He shows me how to put all my happiness, pain, fury and freedom into my art. Everything I feel inside can happen between the brush and the canvas.”
Debora treats all his students with respect, and it's obvious the reverse is also true. He only dispenses advice when asked. He places his hand over theirs and demonstrates brushstrokes. Never does he tell anyone they're doing it wrong. And they all complete the two hours with something they've created. Something tangible. Something to give to someone else. But what they walk away with, inside themselves, is paramount.
There is no denying the existence of the streets. So Debora embraces it. All he has to do is go outside. Once he gets rolling on a new piece, his biggest challenge is not at its beginning or its end — it's when he is in the middle of it. He says he experiences a “roller coaster of emotions” when he's in the act of creating.
“Sometimes I curse and cry in frustration,” he says. “I take a paintbrush full of paint and slam it on the canvas. Then I just gotta drop it, go outside, take a walk or listen to music. … When I'm at this point, I always remind myself that through the mist and the darkness, there is always some kind of light.”
Debora remains hyper-aware of his audience when he begins a new painting. He knows that when people are admiring his work, his art is bound to speak to them. So he chooses his images with care and concern. “When I begin my process, I know I am using a tool,” he says. “I need to speak on behalf of those who've been denied a voice. I have to tell a story that can have an impact, make a difference.”
Many of his pieces depict symbolism and traditional scenes from his culture and environment — imagery that's often stigmatized or demonized. Debora believes he has a responsibility to remove those negative associations. One such painting is from a series titled “Childhood Memories.” A lone pair of scuffed and tattered Converse sneakers swings from a telephone wire, its laces twisted together. Palm trees rise in the background. Skirting across the turquoise sky is a patchwork of clouds stained a darker blue: dusk in Los Angeles. This particular image has been perceived as, “Oh, this is the 'hood. They sell drugs here,” he says. (It's street lore that shoes hanging from wires signify drugs for sale on the pavement beneath.)
“No, man, that's an urban legend,” Debora scoffs and grins. “When we were kids, we didn't have all this technology like now. We were poor, we were outside, and throwing them shoes up there was a simple childhood game of horseshoes.”
Debora is enamored with the subject of childhood, perhaps because his was conspicuously absent. In raising his five children, he stresses the importance of showering them with love and compassion. A number of his paintings feature his sons and daughters, and his studio is plastered with their drawings; whether crude or polished, they get hung because they matter. Debora's father died in Mexico under murky circumstances, but his mother, brother and sister are his most loyal supporters and promoters.
“I definitely suffered loss of innocence as a child,” Debora says. “If I can help extend a child's innocence by paying attention to them, doing art with them, it also gives me a chance to reclaim a childhood I never really had.”
Debora doesn't waste time lamenting the statistics and the hard realities regarding drugs, gangs and crime. He knows. He wants to ferret out innovative alternatives to do battle with these age-old issues. Debora lodges himself inside these problems, hacking away at the core, armed with a paintbrush and his past.
A puzzling characteristic of addiction, whether to drugs, alcohol or gangs, is that when people cease the behavior, they often feel a gaping hole that needs to be replaced with something. Debora is trying to fill that gap.
Still, there are some who decide they don't want what Debora offers. They return to the lifestyle.
What if he and others could reach some of these kids before they start gangbanging or shooting guns or slamming drugs? “I have often wondered what different directions my life might've taken if I had access to something like this,” he says.
The streets of Los Angeles created Fabian Debora — they live within him. But flip the switch, and the same is true. In his art, on his canvases, Debora creates those same streets. It isn't one or the other, it's both.