Raza Aztlán turns taggers into muralists
“From one art form to another: bombing with spraycans to painting with brushes”

San Antonio Current, 28 May – 3 June 1998
Smoke from crops burning in Mexico brings the faint taste of pesticides on this steamy and overcast day. Mixing with the stench of a nearby fried chicken stand and the cigarettes five teens are smoking spray-paint laces the chemical fuzz in the air like icing.

Aerosol ball bearings smack together and paint hisses out onto the walls of a factory skeleton — the remains of a building off Military Drive, a husk of labor right down to a rusted time clock card file. The teens are admiring their work. Ranging from 15 to 17 years old, they have names like Kaze, Nome, Shek, and Kaes — tags that sound good to them and look striking on a wall.
“It’s better than the names gangsters come up with, like Snoopy, Payaso, or Sir Loc Dog,” says Nome, who’s touching up a piece and experimenting with his new tag, “Jents.” He specializes in wildstyle — indecipherably wicked, explosive, wraparound typeface that could confound graphic designers. “You make it for other [graffiti] writers to understand, not for the norms,” explains Shek.
Another crew member, Case, arrives to check on his throw-up (a wildstyle tag with bubble letters), but his almost-finished piece has been crossed out with a single scrawling blue line. HeÂ’s not happy at all and thinks he knows who did it, while Shek looks at one of his pieces he has dismissed by painting a bulging revolver to the side with action lines that make it look as if itÂ’s shooting out his name.
“It’s blasting my tag,” Shek says, “’cause I thought it was wack after I did it.” Shek’s an artist of principle — he’ll only battle on walls, not with fists. Except for the random drama that happens every now and then in unknown territory. He points at a warning tag: “No wall beef. Physical beef. Toy fucken ediot [sic].” Laughing, Shek says his boy wrote that as a threat of physical revenge against those who crossed him out.
Believe it or not, Shek and these other teens are on their way to doing something less dangerous and more legal, and the beat-up white van that pulls in across a prickly field is here to transport them from one art form to another, from bombing with spraycans to painting with brushes.
Cruz Antonio Ortiz drives the ’69 Chevy, and he looks a lot like a 25-year-old version of the teens in back — paint flecks on his clothes and all. The growling engine and bumpy alignment knock objects around on the dash, including a worn copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This is a major part of what he does for his group, Raza Aztlán: driving around, scouting for taggers he can recruit to work on legal, commissioned, graffiti-incorporating murals. The organization is non-profit, though it has no official 501c3 status yet. It began as a spin-off from the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center (Ortiz is a board member), under which Raza Aztlán applies for grants.
Raza Aztlán is trying to get on its feet as a separate organization focused on mural projects, as well as ’zine-writing, experimental art workshops, and the Coatl program, which helps teens get into college. While Ortiz, his wife Rina Moreno, and their friend Laura Hernandez founded the group, he stresses that they include the youth in all decisions, right down to financial reports, so that they’ll feel like the organization is theirs.
“The thing with graffiti artists,” Ortiz admits when we arrive, “is it’s hard to have a set schedule with them, so it’s like when they come, we’ll have five or six, and the next day we could have 20, 25, all from different gangs who hate each other. But we get them to sit down and tell them, look, we all have something in common: we’re all Mexican-American or Latino, and we all live in a working-class or low-income environment. Let’s start working on these things and express ourselves on walls with murals.”
While the teens go across the street to practice on canvas, Laura Hernandez recounts how the group came together through the three founders. At 29, Hernandez was raised on the northwest side. “I grew up very sheltered,” she recounts, describing her clean, family-oriented neighborhood. “The culture I grew up in was more Americanized.”
After graduating from Incarnate Word High School in 1987, she noticed the neighborhood start to change, with more tags, noise, and police patrolling. “It seemed like our neighborhood was becoming more and more isolated,” Hernandez remembers. She started spending more time on the South Side and worked as a case manager for three years at the Center for Health Care Services. In 1994 she started graduate school in social work at Our Lady of the Lake, where she met Moreno and helped start Raza Aztlán.
“Looking back on my childhood, I think I grew up with a certain perspective that these kids are bad, that these kids are wasting their time and they obviously don’t care about what’s happening to them and they’re destroying their neighborhood. It took me a long time to realize…There’s a lot of good kids trying to change their situation who can’t — they need to find ways to express themselves. It’s just going to take time to reach these kids and build trust.”
Her first try at community work with Moreno came in the fall of 1995. Moreno heard about a truce between West Side gangs, and so they decided to take advantage of the peace to keep gangs from fighting again. Independent of their studies, they got together with Ortiz and met with youth at a basketball court on Trinity Street.
“We had a rough time starting, because we didn’t have any foundation to go from,” says Moreno, “and we even had a little event at that basketball court, and hardly any youth showed up.” They kept trying, which is typical of the group’s determination and specifically Moreno’s driven vision.
Moreno, 25, claims the far West Side and their current home on the East Side as her neighborhoods. MorenoÂ’s single mother worked as a program coordinator at the San Antonio State Hospital, as she has for the past 20 years, and she used to come home frustrated when she thought people acted wrongly at work.
“I felt like it wasn’t fair, what my mom would tell me, and I thought somebody should be accountable,” Moreno says. “I always said I was gonna grow up and basically, I guess in my own little mind, save the world from all these unjust things.”
As an angry young teen at John Jay High School, Moreno dressed differently and drew jokes from teachers. “Youth always feels misunderstood, because nobody’s really willing to listen to you.” She graduated at 16 and went directly to St. Mary’s University, finishing college in 1993 and meeting Ortiz that year when she joined Inner City Development. He was working on a mural project, and Moreno wanted grassroots experience with low-income neighborhoods. “We both had a lot of similar ideas about the community and our people, and I guess that attracted us to each other.”
In August of 1996 they named their work “Raza Aztlán,” and they have worked with teens ever since. The organization has moved wherever they found themselves, including the inner city northwest side. They are on the East Side now, drawn by the inner-city setting and the lack of community centers or mural projects for teens on this side of town. And her grandparents’ house is right across the street, where it has been for 50 years.
“Cruz was doing murals,” Moreno recounts, “and a lot of the youth involved were doing graffiti, and we thought maybe there would be an interest in the art. We figured, let’s do murals with the youth and exercise their interest in art by making it more productive, so they get into less trouble, and then there’s a pride that comes along with the images they’re presenting. It’s also about improving the face of the community, the image that we have. You know, we got boarded up houses, graffiti everywhere, you got streets that look really bad…I think that Raza Aztlán can help make the rest of the community look better.”
Since Raza Aztlán has no budget except for mural commissions and fundraiser money, Moreno works with the San Antonio Police Department Victims Advocacy Section, responding to domestic violence calls with a community-policing officer. “I’m not an artist,” she admits, “I’m a social worker, and that’s my interest in this — taking graffiti artists, and instead of being so hard on them, being punitive, and putting them in juvenile detention centers and taking them down a negative road, let’s take them down a positive road. And at the same time, it brings pride to the community.”
A loud cracking sound from outside interrupts, and Moreno gasps: “We just heard a gunshot…did you hear that? I’m going to call 911.” She gets on the phone as Ortiz walks over to their new studio space.
Kaze, Nome, Shek, and Kaes are sketching with markers on paper, as they do before they hit up a wall. They claim membership along with 20 or so other taggers in the CDS crew, which stands for as many things as they can conceive: Criminals Down South, Calling Da Shots, Creating Dope Shit. “Caca, Doodoo, Shit,” jokes Shek.
Traveling to Raza Aztlán headquarters from the Palo Alto neighborhood on the South Side, they have been working with the group for only a few months, and so they’re a rowdy bunch compared to the more seasoned teens who worked with Ortiz on the group’s first two murals.
Kaes tells the story of sitting at a Taco Bell after bombing some trains when Ortiz walked up to him because he had paint smears all over. “He asked me if I was a tagger, and I thought he was a cop, but he said he wasn’t and he could hear the cans in my bag. He said he wanted me to work on murals with him and mix spray paint into it.”
While they haven’t used brushes yet, these guys know the difference in paints by eyesight, just like they can immediately distinguish gang tags from graffiti art, which is done for art’s sake as opposed to marking territory. And scratch bombers — they call them scribers — who mark windows with razors are distinct altogether.
When asked if CDS mainly tags or bombs — if they focus on quick name tags as opposed to more elaborate wildstyle bombs that sometimes carry pictures and figures — Shek answers, “a little bit from column A, and a little bit from column B.”
Shek puts together a slap tag, a small piece of graffiti art with his and the crew’s names plus a lanky, stylized figure in baggy clothes and the label “One Cool Dork” that’s been marker-painted onto a sticker, which can be quickly slapped onto a surface. Shek appraises his own work and concludes, “I don’t know, it’s kinda wack.”
They get their spraypaint through legal-aged buyers. A full piece can cost $20-$30 worth of paint and take up to six hours to complete. Nome says he’s working with Raza Aztlán because of the constant threat of getting busted.
“Here, we get to practice, there’s free paint, and we don’t have to worry about the cops harassing us.” But they still plan on tagging, especially downtown. “When you go downtown and meet other writers,” says Nome, “they’re like, ‘oh yeah, I’ve seen your stuff, you get up a lot.’ It makes me feel good.”
As their fame with other writers increases, their infamy in the community and with the police brings them back to the reality that they are wanted as criminals. “It’s a thrill when you know you’re getting chased,” Nome admits. “You get an adrenaline rush. At first it’s scary when you’re running, you’re like, ‘oh shit, what do I do?’ But then afterwards, when you got away, you’re pumped up. It’s a high. That’s if you don’t get busted,” Shek adds.
Finished with the sketches, they practice can control against a wooden canvas, and the air fills with thick Krylon coating. “Sometimes, like especially when it’s really hot outside bombing,” Kaes says between spray bursts, “the sun gets to you an you got the spray paint into you already, you start walking and feel all weak.”
Shek pulls out a plastic baggie with fat and think spraycan tips. “Factory tips are weak — they mess up too much.” They compare tags and talk about different styles that have come and gone, like in 1993 when the fad was to go gangster. “That really messed up tagging,” comments Nome, “and now even gangsters try to use our style and tag like us.” Kaes points out that “gangsters can’t be taggers. Gangsters have guns — our guns are Krylon cans.”
Ortiz pulls up with the van to take the group on a survey of Raza Aztlán murals, and he talks about the advantages of pushing graffiti into legal formats. “We tell them, look, these are skills, you’re learning painting skills, so you can get a painting job or whatever you want. We also teach them silk-screening, to make T-shirts they can sell. That’s empowerment. Not just cultural or self-esteem building — it’s also about economics. We need to develop something where our artists are gonna get paid.”
After a quick drive, he parks at Zarzamora and Cincinnati so we can see “La Lumbre de Esperanza,” started in 1996 and completed in 1997. Painted on a taxidermy shop, the mural depicts an indigenous woman reaching out to Mexican men and women enclosed by a concrete wall and boxed in by buildings.
The second mural, completed late last year, sits behind a gas station at West Avenue and Olmos. In Aztec motif, it’s titled “Quinto Sol,” with the four elements represented and spraypaint accenting the blues of the water spirit, cloud shading, and the orange-red of Quetzalcoatl.
Ortiz worked with the surrounding businesses and neighbors to approve this mural. Sometimes he has to reign in the taggers: “I tell them, look at that! It’s not a corporate office, it’s a simple business, a mom and pop shop. They’re just barely surviving, and you doing that, you’re disrespecting them. Do you like it when people scratch out your stuff? No. Well, then, let’s have some respect.”
Ortiz walks around to a house behind the gas station and emerges with Roy Carrillo, who started tagging when he was 12 and worked on the “Quinto Sol” mural. At 17, he claims he’s done with tagging, though the gas station management let him put some pieces up on their back wall with the UTM (“Up to Mischief”) crew tag. Carrillo quit tagging a year ago because it’s boring to him now and he got busted too many times.
Given his talent, it’s good he won’t face imprisonment. One of his pieces bears the title “Deceived Since Conceived,” and a squirming, mangled figure with a ripped umbilical cord dramatically carries his tag. “Tagging is getting too old, and everybody’s doing it, like a fad,” he mentions impassively.
“You can lecture kids all you want,” Ortiz adds, “you can make laws, you can make codes, but they’re going to come out and do it again. I’ve seen it. Some of them straight off tagged again after getting out of jail, and of course they got busted and went back. But then we have some who did stop, and now they’re going to San Antonio College, like Roy. That’s our reward.”
As he’s walking away, Ortiz reflects on the hope Raza Aztlán bears: “I know some of them say that ‘I’m always gonna tag,’ and the structure of graffiti art is based on risk. But the thing is, that’s endangering our communities. Raza Aztlán is at the borderline — we’re trying to get the community to understand them, and them to understand the community. We tell them they shouldn’t do it, but you can tell them a million times, and they’ll still do it. We have to keep working with the youth instead of rejecting them like everybody else does.”

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