Teacher, Trickster, Artist – El Curandero Raul Baltazar

Raul Baltazar’s name has been rolling off my tongue for the past several weeks. Ever since Oliver Shipley sent me the first tapes of the artist and himself having an initial conversation, I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around all the stuff that pours out of Raul, from the way he drinks coffee with cinnamon to postcolonialism to an appreciation for goofy kids who think he’s full of it. I went from being amazed by this artist’s rhetorical questions, to laughing at his jokes, to eating Oaxacan mole by his side. Before I met Raul, I was struck by how easily, intimately, and eloquently he spoke about prisons, about postcolonialism, and about art as a political tool. After meeting Raul Baltazar, I realized he exemplifies the kind of artist who is deeply engaged with theory through practice. It would be wrong to say he takes himself too seriously. He doesn’t, he’s easygoing and lighthearted and quick to smile. But he does see the role of the artist as one that is critical to social change.

Baltazar is out about his politics from the get-go. “We have to be careful about the ways we’re used as artists. Artists are powerful, we design the dollar bills. It’s important to recognize the ways that we can serve the community as storytellers and teachers.” When asked about his most memorable project, he recalls his experience of having worked with Los Angeles juvenile prisoners. Baltazar facilitated art classes at the largest juvenile detention center in the US, right here in Los Angeles. The artist digs deep, rhetorically probing into the ways criminalization is linked to our (post)colonial foundations. He seems genuinely concerned about living in a city that imprisons more youth than any other city in the US. Baltazar suggests that he too could easily have been locked up had he not found some direction as a creative being. Yet where there is conflict, this artist finds possibility. Baltazar himself reminds me of the artist who works to heal society; the one who somehow embraces chaos and makes a kind of beautiful sense of it. Accordingly, Baltazar’s murals have intentionally transformed the prison-like architecture of Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School into what now looks like an Aztec temple filled with color. Where once the middle school was a scene of architectural containment, it now appears more like a site of intellectual and spiritual learning.

Baltazar was in the Navy. He grew up in LA in the late 1970s and 80s and he found his way to escape. But if you’re from LA, even if you hate LA, you find ways to come back. LA, he reflects, is the kind of place that even when you become so sick of its freeways, its snobs, and its smog, you return and the city surprises you with its secrets well hidden and its thrilling pockets of art and culture. Los Angeles is undeniably dynamic. It’s a city that seeps into your flesh and bones. It becomes a part of you that you cannot shake, continually opening up new stories.

LA for Baltazar as a kid was magical. The murals on the walls of his neighborhood poured into his psyche and his bloodstream. They became a part of his cultural milieu and his identity as an artist. The images created by LA artists have had a lasting effect on Raul. He has been inspired by the (chicano) movement to reclaim public space through murals. He remembers as a kid being amazed by the East LA Streetscapers murals on Daily and Broadway, and also by a graffitied Tweety Bird wearing a sombrero. His politically minded parents were also an influence. He has blossomed from these seeds. His roots in Los Angeles have remained essential to how he works in the community as a self-consciously political artist.

Raul Baltazar will tell you he is influenced by the folkloric stories passed down from the lips of his grandfather in Chihuahua, Mexico. He imbues his art with cultural and spiritual symbols from throughout the world. In his work you can find Buddhist allegories as easily as you might find something quintessentially Azteca. In his murals, we see dragons, monkeys, elephants, and trees of life, all archetypal figures that tell stories about knowledge, trickery, falsity, and spiritual truth. He uses the idea of performance and the “stage” of life in one of his murals on the grounds of J.L.C. Middle School, filled with shadowy Angelinos in the dark night. Water, in some form, drips or flows through his work, referencing the unconscious nature of knowledge and stories passed down through generations. Much of his work re-invents folkloric tradition. In fact, one of his J.L.C. murals is literally infused with “good luck” magic. Raul told the J.L.C. kids that if they touched the mural, they would have good luck. The mural itself became an interactive performance piece in that part of its meaning became the magical luck that would come through touching it. Baltazar does not create flat, lifeless objects. He creates art that is living and breathing, interactive, and transformative. The Good Luck Mural is a great example of the ways art can take on spiritual qualities, or as Raul says, can become a “sanctuary or a place that’s going to re-energize you somehow.”

A curandero/a is a community healer. What is compelling about Baltazar is that he is aware of the ways an artist can work as a community healer, suturing, or talking about, the wounds, losses, and possibilities in our communities in powerful ways. The mere fact that Baltazar feels connected to community in LA is telling. It says that he isn’t just working for himself; it tells us how he wants to use his medium as artist to mend the spirit of the community and to pass along the tradition of storytelling. Murals speak loudly, reflecting the stories that resonate for communities living vibrantly within the margins. Even more than narrating/painting political stories of struggle and survival, Baltazar’s murals work as temples and gathering spaces for the LA community. I feel confident, as well, that hundreds and even thousands of kids will be influenced by Raul’s murals, just as he was influenced by the murals he saw when he was a kid in LA.

The figure of the trickster often comes into play in Baltazar’s work. Raul says, “The trickster makes you question what you believe and whether or not you truly believe it, and does so in an imaginative way that is part of folklore. Those are the stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. And, no one had to pay for it to get printed or jump through a bunch of hoops. It just happened. They kept being revitalized because they had agency, because they taught something, because they were relevant to the peoples’ lives. That’s what I’m trying to do with my work. Make it relevant today.”

In many ways, Raul Baltazar’s role as an artist, and trickster, breaks through and defies categories. He works in radical ways to resist being labeled any one kind of artist. Baltazar is at once performer, painter, filmmaker, sculptor, muralist, and illustrator. Focusing on his mural art here is a choice I made mainly to demonstrate the ways he engages the community. Certainly, however, Baltazar is an artist that challenges the tradition that seeks to identify art and artists as “Chicano” or “Postmodern” or “Conceptual” or “Painter.” In fact, more than anything, Raul Baltazar is a teacher, cultural laborer, and curandero in the form of an artist.

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