Most afternoons you can find Gus Chavez at the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Ana, the same place where 30 years ago he discovered a love of art.
At 37, Chavez has become known locally for teaching children to paint and for his work on an unusual canvas: T-shirts. He airbrushes glowing portraits onto the thin, white cotton.
Most of his subjects are athletes and musicians he admires--Michael Jordan, B.B. King, Carlos Santana, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix and local R & B singer Derek Bordeaux. He captures them in action, striving to make his subjects look realistic as they shoot baskets, strum guitars or sing into microphones.
“I didn’t want to do portraits because they were so delicate. Just one stroke of the airbrush and you can mess up. There’s no erasing,” Chavez says. “But it just clicked.”
He chose to paint on fabric for a practical reason: “A canvas is $40. If I mess up on a T-shirt, it’s only $2.”
And the cost to customers? About $100.
Word has spread around the Santa Ana neighborhood where Chavez lives. People drop by his garage-turned-studio, a space cluttered with bikes, surfboards and art supplies, to ask for a shirt. Or they’ll bring a pair of pants or a shirt for him to paint.
Chavez has not forgotten his roots, or that a $100 T-shirt is a luxury many cannot afford.
“Sometimes kids come by, and they want something for their mom. I’d feel bad even charging them $5. I just say, ‘Bring your shirt, and we’ll talk about it.’ Then I just give it to them,” he says. “In return, someone will bring me a big plate of tamales. I know they don’t have any money. This is the way they repay me.”
Chavez learned how to paint and draw as a child while attending art programs at the Boys & Girls Club, but his talent lay dormant until three years ago, when he was laid off from his job in the aerospace industry. At a loss for what to do, Chavez returned to his love of airbrushing, and teaching children at the youth club how to paint.
Chavez “is a pretty positive role model,” says Larry Mireles, program manager for the Santa Ana club. “The kids like him a lot. They look up to him because of his art, and he doesn’t talk down to them. He takes time to show them how to paint.”
Many of his customers treat his shirts, which he sells under the label Tribal Rags directly to those who seek him out, like art. Some refuse to wear them. The shirts hang on walls like paintings.
“They might wear it once over another T-shirt, and that’s it,” Chavez says.
Chavez says he has no desire to return to the aerospace industry. He works part time at the youth club, often giving tours of the place he knows so well.
“I’ve been a member since I was 7,” he says. “I grew up with my mom. I’m a first-generation American. She came from Mexico and worked two jobs. I didn’t get out of Santa Ana. I never went anywhere. I didn’t even know about Huntington Beach. My escape was the boys club.”
A single father, Chavez lives with his sons and his mother, Maria, whom he calls his “worst critic.”
“She draws a little herself, and she’s the first one to say, ‘Honey, that looks kind of funny.’ If she thinks it’s good, then it’s good.”