What Legacy Is Left?: Kristen Ramirez + Angelina Villalobos

Kristen Ramirez (left) and Angelina Villalobos recently worked together on this stairway-painting project in Cheasty Park, which was funded by the Seattle Department of Transportation. Photo: Bruce Clayton Tom

Seattle native Angelina Villalobos got caught tagging public spaces in her teens, which landed her in a city-sponsored art program that steered her life’s path away from illicit art and toward commissioned public projects. Her murals are bold, colorful and fairy tale-like, blending iconography from Catholicism with folkloric creatures and pop culture. These days she focuses primarily on facilitating public art programs that incorporate youth as artists. She’s also a founder of Art Primo, an online art supply retailer with a shop and gallery on Capitol Hill.

Kristen Ramirez grew up in Sacramento, Calif., and began her art career in printmaking and painting, creating nostalgic signage-inspired pieces that resemble the faded advertisements found on old buildings. She has since forged a career as a muralist, working colorful geometric patterns into spaces in Seattle, Tacoma, Bothell and Portland. By day she manages public art projects for the Seattle Department of Transportation, where she serves as the liaison to the Office of Arts & Culture and helps figure out how best to spend resources that come from SDOT’s capital projects through the city’s 1% for Art program, which requires that 1 percent of the money for those projects go toward art.

The two got together to talk at Ramirez’s home on Beacon Hill, where they dug into the politics, problems and pleasures of public art in Seattle.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

ANGELINA VILLALOBOS Since I was really young I struggled with being a really light Latina, and not being Mexican enough. And then because I sort of look like I’m Asian, some people are almost disappointed when they find out I’m not. So it’s like, where do I fit in? My artwork has a lot to do with that. Your family background is similar.

KRISTEN RAMIREZ Yes, I am a profoundly white Mexican person. I’m Latina but I’m also a very white girl, as most of my background is Irish. That said, my dad’s house was a bicultural, bilingual household, but it was a household where we didn’t speak Spanish at home. Speaking Spanish was considered an embarrassment.

ANGELINA In my case they didn’t want us to have accents at all.

KRISTEN Yes, my grandfather came from Mexico to SF and he went from Rafael to Ralph and told everyone he was Spanish.

ANGELINA I hate to say it, but that’s happening now. It’s a way to protect yourself, mask yourself. For a while it felt like we were being taught to embrace that heritage but now it feels like it’s reverting back to that because—are Trump supporters going to deport you? It’s like two steps forward, five steps back.

KRISTEN I just hope it’s like the death rattle of white men. It’s the browning of the United States. It’s inevitable, right? You can’t deny data and we have to catch up. The border crossed us. That happened.

The Northwest has changed too. When I moved up here from SF, it was hella white. It’s not like that anymore.

ANGELINA El Centro [de la Raza] was always advocating [for the Latinx community]. Yet [when I was growing up] there weren’t a lot of resources for the projects I wanted to do—art, murals, comics. And at the time I didn’t want to be the stereotype of a Latina, a chola. I don’t speak Spanish—what do I do? How do I feel like I’m a part of something? So, creating opportunities for younger people is a thing I want to do.

Now the city’s legitimizing my once-illegal art! Sometimes the city will leave stuff that’s really beautiful, like leaving [wheat-paste artist] No Touching Ground’s art.

KRISTEN I think there’s a really interesting thing happening now where a lot of these city projects are about graffiti mitigation. People want to use art to fix problems, homelessness, etc. With the staircases, to be honest, I think the city views it as a graffiti mitigation. It’s a new urbanization thing to want public art all the time. Paying street artists to make public art, to beautify cities. This is a global trend right now.

ANGELINA This is what you and I are working on with your staircase project. We’re raising the visibility of a place that once was scary, like in South Park—there’s a problematic home right across from one of the staircases we painted there. When you do projects like this you’re trying to raise the visibility of the space and to prevent people from doing illegal activity around there. In a way it’s good, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problems. It’s a Band-Aid. But at least these projects provide a way for community to get involved.

KRISTEN “Pedestrian activation” is the term we use.

ANGELINA I basically facilitate a creative process that makes each staircase unique. Each participant is responsible for their own section. Young people who have never painted are scared about the process, but when they pull up the tape and see the result, it’s a revelation.

KRISTEN I’ve painted lots of janky murals throughout my life, but the first big mural I did was for SODO Track 10 years ago. That was my experience cutting my teeth on murals—and it got painted over to pave the way for new murals and no one told me. But that’s part of the thing with murals, is that you have to get used to the idea they will get painted over. And you have to be OK with it. But as I get older it’s tough to make murals. They’re so physically demanding.

ANGELINA Yeah, I think of that too, as a woman especially. We both have full-time jobs and kids. You usually get one or two weeks to make a mural and it’s like, can I jam-pack this into a weekend? And then, if I get priced out of this city and my work gets covered up, what legacy is left?

KRISTEN And the stipends are often offensive.

ANGELINA It’s tough because these artworks often raise the property value of places nearby. Just today I was told a property listing at the bottom of the staircase mentioned the staircase, as a way to promote its value. An interesting thing now working with corporations—they ask for cost per square foot [for a mural], which is a whole new way of thinking about it.

KRISTEN Because you’re raising the property value!

ANGELINA Which is true, but what does that mean when this is publicly funded, trying to serve the people in the neighborhood? And what does it mean for people coming in?

KRISTEN It’s tricky. I think often public art and murals are the unknowing, unwitting tip of the spear of gentrification.

ANGELINA Yes.

KRISTEN It’s like, aw fuck, you know what’s next! The beard wax and whatever is coming. It’s tricky.

ANGELINA So people like Coté Soerens, who was interviewed in the last City Arts, just opened La Resistencia in South Park—she acknowledges the changes in her neighborhood and asks, what is my responsibility? And then turned that into her business model for the cafe; a community resource. And I admire her for that. That’s how I approach making a mural. What is my responsibility there? When you’re working and people walk by, you have to pull people in and talk. It’s not like slapping stickers on a wall, or art that has no responsibility or connection to the space that it’s occupying.

KRISTEN It’s like unlicensed therapy—people approaching you and talking to you about the work. It’s part of making murals. I’m always up for the experience of it, though. It’s super physical and brutal but your interactions with the public are so unusual. You don’t have those opportunities often. I’ve done murals for zero money and sometimes have been grossly overpaid, but I love the physical experience of it.

ANGELINA That’s an issue with murals—it’s so physical that it’s a dudely art form. And then you get all this imagery I can’t stand of waify women with eyes half-shut. It’s a little rapey and macho.

KRISTEN But at SODO Track there’s a lot of women artists and POC, at least, who are making work.

I wasn’t raised by a family particularly inclined toward arts or culture, but at one point my dad took the family to see the Diego Rivera show at SFMOMA. I was captivated by Diego Rivera, but Jeff Koons’ “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” was there, all gilded, and I was like, is that art?! I didn’t have a lot of art background, though my mom probably should’ve been an artist. She worked assisting a female muralist in Sacramento making those images of old-time Victorian America. I suppose that was an influence. But living in San Francisco of course, there’s so much there that blew my mind in my 20s. I didn’t give myself permission to be an artist until I was 30.

ANGELINA What?!

KRISTEN It just wasn’t practical. I came from a family where you had to choose a practical career, become an educator. So I didn’t paint my first mural until I was 36—and you were 12!

ANGELINA Yeah, I might’ve been 12. I always felt super lost, and people in my life would give me a little nudge in directions I should go. I was at El Centro and I’d made a sketch and they asked me to make the backdrop to the play. It was my design and I assisted the designer and that’s how I learned to make a mural. Then I got involved with Panels For Progress because I got caught doing graffiti. I thought, I like this, I can do this!

As a 14-year-old, you could take one bus downtown and get lost for the entire day. But what’s your motivation for exploring the city like that? For me it was graffiti and doing tags everywhere. And in a city where you don’t feel you belong, how are you going to make yourself feel like you belong? You pee on it. So that’s what I did.

But the concept of graffiti is very different now. I was always quiet and careful—except when I got caught—but my personal graffiti was about hiding it in little places. I wanted it to never be buffed, be a legacy there, hiding them almost like Easter eggs, that’s what I liked to do. Like bread crumbs.

KRISTEN My entree was a little anarchist collective of silkscreen artists in SF who would tile huge walls with wheat-pasted posters.

ANGELINA There was recently an article on the top murals in Seattle and it was odd because so many of them are brand new, not iconic at all. And others feel more like a marketing ploy. Right here on Beacon Hill there’s a mural on the side of the Filipino restaurant that’s been there for years and is still beautiful. That’s iconic.

KRISTEN Have you done any other kind of gallery stuff? Have you shown at galleries?

ANGELINA I don’t have time to create much other work because I’m so busy with community work and public commissions. Also a lot of the work I do goes over people’s heads because I create such personal things, like my black-and-white illustrations are just a mess of things that I’m processing, growing up Mexican Catholic, growing up second-generation, growing up with grandparents who experienced the Great Depression, in these almost comic book-style vignettes.

I’ve never envisioned myself in a gallery setting because when I think of galleries, I tend to think of art hanging stagnant on a wall. I would like people to have paintings in their house. But when can I paint?

I did have a person who bought one of my paintings years ago and her daughter grew up with it in their home. When the daughter was getting married I did the wedding invitations because that picture was so important for her. She now works at Seattle Opera and through that connection—because of that painting—I’ve had opportunities to teach workshops there. That’s very aligned to the kind of community work I associate with making murals. But the gallery world, it just seems like a weird inaccessible world.

KRISTEN What was the transition then from art to community work?

ANGELINA What’s the first sign of a neighborhood in distress? Abandoned cars, homelessness and graffiti. If I’m going to help solve that problem, it would be counterproductive to contribute by making graffiti. So, I need to clean up, repay some of that karma by going in and giving back. Part of that conundrum is running Art Primo and asking myself, what are we perpetuating? Some of the products can be vastly destructive—or be used in so many creative ways. I feel the gallery space does a great job of highlighting the good that can come out of the subculture. It too are a community resource that supports its artists.

KRISTEN Yeah, I’ve wondered that about
your job.

ANGELINA We are really careful how we word things, because we do not want to tell kids [to] go out and get into trouble. We aren’t responsible for the aftermath, how products are used.

KRISTEN Go express yourself in the privacy of your own home!

ANGELINA Yeah! But at the same time, we are in the graffiti industry. But not everyone makes graffiti as an artist, some do it for the simple fact of their ego.

KRISTEN You know, when I painted my first mural my son was just four months old and it was almost preposterous that I’d do something like that. But for me part of the gallery-versus-public art conversation comes down to the fact that I’ve always been broke, and how am I gonna afford frames and things like that? Then, especially when you have a kid, every hour that you’re not with that child you’re paying someone else to be with that child, so for me murals became a very pragmatic way of being an artist because you have predictable fees, you can set your hours, you know you’ll start at point A and end at point B. So that seemed a pragmatic departure from the gallery world. You’re also a mom, right?

ANGELINA Yes, a stepmom.

KRISTEN So you probably know, it’s like, how would I find the time with a full-time job and a family, to go tinker in the studio?

ANGELINA Yeah, you probably find yourself in the same boat where you’re in a creative zone and you’ve got something good going and then someone comes in and is like, “I’m hungry!” And I can’t not do it. It’s part of being a Mexican Catholic.

KRISTEN Latina! You have to take care of everyone!

ANGELINA But being a parent has contributed to the process of me getting involved in working with children, and trying to provide children of color and Latinx communities opportunities to get into art.