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Velvet Goes Underground

Sam Quinones is the author of "True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx" (University of New Mexico Press). His last story for the magazine was on the band Los Tigres del Norte.

One day in 1968, when twins Juan and Abel Velazquez were 15 years old, their father, Jose, sat them down and placed before them canvases of black velvet. Jose had grown up on the hard streets of Mexico City, where he’d been a boxer for a time. Later he taught himself cartooning and then to paint on velvet, which is how he’d been supporting his family.

“Time for playing is over,” he told his sons. “It’s time to make money.”

He took up a brush, dabbed it in pink paint and taught his sons the craft he knew best. Starting with a simple classic image of Tijuana velvet painting--the Pink Panther--he taught them to paint on the soft, rich fabric. When their attention or brush strokes strayed, he grabbed his sons by the hair and shook them. “We just wanted to go out and play,” recalls Abel.

For the next two years, the boys learned the secrets of velvet painting. Brushes had to be nearly dry, their father told them. Laden with too much paint, they would cause caking. Painting back and forth across velvet muddies the fabric’s sheen, so paint only in one direction. Paint what sells. Be literal. Tourists don’t buy velvet impressionism.

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Other velvet icons followed: Snoopy, Charlie Brown, the Playboy Bunny. They learned to paint a prowling tiger and John Wayne, bullfighters and unicorns, black lovers and white lovers. The Velazquez twins became known among Tijuana’s painters as “The Photographers,” since what they painted invariably looked so much like the real thing.

Juan and Abel Velazquez were not the first velvet painters in Tijuana, but they are now, at age 51, almost the last. Like bleary-eyed boxers who’ve fought too many rounds, they still lug their velvet paintings around the city, trying to sell them to tourists but seldom with much luck. After decades of defining Tijuana, velvet painting is disappearing.

The art supply store that once sold 200 hundred-yard rolls of velvet a month now barely sells two. Many painters have died, moved away or turned to other professions. Only a handful are still known to paint velvet, and none of them are young. Even the tradition of committing Elvis to velvet--the fabled “Velvis"--marches steadily to extinction. In the entire city of Tijuana, more than 1 million strong, only a few still regularly brush the King’s fleshy cheeks and pillowy lips onto velvet.

One of these artists is Enrique Felix, who abandoned velvet for many years but recently returned to it as a hobby. “My children now are in their 20s,” says Felix, who sells his paintings at his curio shop near the tourist drag of Avenida Revolucion. “I don’t want them to do this. This is a good way to die of hunger. When we die, no one will know the technique. It’ll be forgotten and disappear.”

Tijuana is proud to be an industrial city now, a pit stop in the global economy where more than 600 foreign-owned maquiladoras, or assembly plants, employ more than 100,000 people. Tijuana workers manufacture more televisions than are produced in any other city in the world.

Yet few events signal that change as clearly as the decline of velvet painting, the art that was Tijuana’s hallmark for so long. From the late 1960s to the mid-'80s, the city’s tourist shops were virtually wallpapered in velvet portraits of JFK, clowns, unicorns, crouching tigers, bandits and Jim Morrison. The city of Juarez went even further, with factories of velvet painters turning out scads of the stuff. Tijuana had street corridors where teenagers could watch and learn from the more experienced velvet artists. Artists today recall that cops, construction workers--some even say doctors--became velvet painters.

In the United States, these were the days of lava lamps, black lights and water beds in vans. If the 1970s were the most embarrassing years of the 20th century, then Tijuana was its Florence. Even the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years, ingeniously drew political capital from velvet painting.

The father of modern velvet painting was a debauched drunkard named Edgar Leeteg, an American billboard painter who moved to Tahiti and was immortalized in the book “Rascals in Paradise” by James Michener and A. Grove Day. Leeteg would paint all week, then drink and fornicate on Tuesdays, when his money and whiskey would arrive by boat. He died during a drunken spree in 1953, leaving behind many Tahitian children and hundreds of velvet paintings hanging in Hawaiian bars, restaurants and brothels.

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It’s not clear how the art form migrated to Mexico from the South Seas. One theory holds that U.S. sailors who had seen Leeteg’s work in Hawaii brought their enthusiasm for it back to their home base in San Diego. When on leave in Tijuana, they asked the street painters there if they could duplicate Leeteg’s style. Whatever the explanation, velvet painting clearly took hold in Tijuana in the late 1950s. By the ‘70s, the city had a well-trained battalion of painters who were able to provide any icon of machismo and pop culture that tourists wanted splashed across the fabric.

There was a moment in the early- to mid-1960s when velvet painting could have become serious art in Tijuana. The painters who were using the medium were widely considered some of Tijuana’s best: Miguel Najera, Tony Maya, Roberto Sanchez, Nacho Amaro. Imitators hadn’t yet entered the field. Tijuana’s main attraction, however, was Avenida Revolucion, the tourist drag known for intense competition among merchants. Tijuana took the low velvet road and soon paintings were selling wholesale.

Imitations of what sold well became the prevailing ethic. Painter Jesus Gutierrez photographed a neighbor with rugged features. Using the man’s photograph as a model, he painted a bandit. The man moved away long ago and his name is lost to history, but he became the standard bandit for dozens of velvet painters. Through the years, they would add whiskers, an eye patch, scars, a beard, a mustache or a cigarette. But the nose, eyes and chiseled visage remain unmistakably the same. “You paint something, and if it sells well everyone does it,” says Gutierrez, who owns a gallery in town and paints velvet only on request.

By the mid-1970s, velvet had become the purview of an international assortment of immigrant merchants who would visit Tijuana. There was a Mexican guy from Arizona. Bart the Armenian lived in New Zealand and would order 200 paintings each time he came through, as did an Indian fellow from Trinidad and Tobago.

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The Canadian Arabs are remembered most fondly by Tijuana’s velvet painters. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, they arrived almost every month and set up in a San Ysidro motel. They’d order paintings in lots of 100. Tijuana’s painters would frantically dash off the work over the next two weeks, and the Arabs would fill tractor-trailers and truck them to Toronto. “They’d empty Tijuana every time they’d come,” recalls Juan Velazquez.

One day, while hurrying to fill an order, Jose Velazquez finished a canvas and tossed it aside. Later he found that it had landed face down against a blank piece of velvet and had left a print. The Velazquez studio grew hushed. He swore his sons to secrecy. Soon they were painting one canvas heavily and then laying it against a blank one, pressing the two together. They would quickly fill in some detail and have a sellable second painting in a fraction of the time it took to paint one from scratch. Soon the Velazquez home was a velvet production line.

During these years, the twins built their parents a home, paid the household expenses, bought cars and clothes, and gave money to their sisters. By 1979, the velvet painting market was so crowded with artists painting the same kitsch that they undercut each other’s prices, with most works selling for $10 to $30 each. The painters decided to unionize, and the Quetzalcoatl Painters Union grew to 350 members.

Through the union, velvet painting became part of the PRI. The PRI ruled Mexico for so long because it mastered the ability to co-opt and extract loyalty from varied sectors of Mexican life. It did this by threatening to levy government sanctions against those outside the party.

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During that same period, the Tijuana police began rousting velvet painters who worked and sold in public. So the new union asked Rafael Garcia Vazquez, a PRI leader and head of the collection of vendors unions known as the Revolutionary Workers Confederation, to help defend them. In exchange, the painters joined the PRI and supported the political career of Garcia Vazquez. At one point, Garcia Vazquez even tried to use velvet painting unionists as his bodyguards when a faction within the confederation threatened to oust him or kill him or both.

Sales of velvet paintings began to weaken in the mid-'80s as tourists’ tastes turned to other things. Painting on onyx was popular for a while, and by the end of the 1980s, velvet’s glory days had drawn to a close. Painters stopped painting. The union faded away. Jose Velazquez spent the last years of his life as a cartoonist, selling his work in front of the Fronton Palacio jai alai hall. One day even the Canadian Arabs stopped coming, without a final goodbye.

These were the years when Tijuana began turning away from tourism. The decline of velvet painting correlates directly with the rise of the city’s assembly plants, which make increasing numbers of America’s televisions. Today the town’s economy has diversified. Its middle class has expanded. Most of the people crossing from Tijuana into the United States are Tijuana residents with cars and money, going shopping. The city now has an opera company, two conservatories of classical music and far more Mexican businessmen visiting on weekdays than American tourists.

If velvet painting once defined Tijuana to Americans, and a good many Mexicans, its decline serves as a faithful barometer of the city’s changing place in world culture.

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While the Velazquez brothers continue to work in velvet, they can no longer make enough money by selling paintings to stores. So they take them to the street. Abel Velazquez says, however, that he was recently prohibited from selling his paintings on the tourist bridge to Avenida Revolucion. Mixtec Indian vendors from Oaxaca--selling serapes, gum, wrestling masks and grains of rice with your name on them--complained that he was hurting their sales. This may be the final indignity: Indians, once the most disparaged of Tijuana’s migrants, now have the political power to push around velvet painters.

“We spent our youth in velvet painting. They were nice years,” says Abel Velazquez. “But it’s like everything else. Everything ends.”


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