Tucked away inside of one of Los Angeles’ oldest buildings, the artist could be mistaken for a squatter.
He sleeps on a ragged piece of carpet. He makes do without a shower. He wears nearly the same clothes every day: a plain T-shirt and worn-out sweat shorts.
But around the corner from where he sleeps is Hugo Martinez Tecoatl’s masterpiece: an elaborate array of murals vibrantly splashed across 4,000 square feet of space. Aztec gods, bicycles, serpents, marigolds and tributes to Pancho Villa, Benito Juarez and Emiliano Zapata stretch from the hardwood floor up 30- to 40-foot walls and across the ceiling.
The work stands out even in Boyle Heights, where colorful murals are as common as taco trucks.
Quietly and with painstaking detail, the Mexican muralist has spent the last year transforming the inside of the 106-year-old building, the oldest cultural center for Mexicans in Los Angeles and home to numerous plays, concerts and other events.
At first Casa del Mexicano’s director invited Tecoatl to paint scenes of Mexican history only on two arches, at opposite ends of the building. But when the artist finished those, she asked him to keep on going.
Piece by piece, he continued, never intending to paint the whole thing, until eventually, the entire interior was covered in an intricate blend of surreal images. Now only the giant cupola remains — because the center does not have scaffolding high enough to reach the 50-foot top.
“I want Mexican youth who may not know their story except for the color of their skin to see this and know we have a marvelous history,” Tecoatl said. “We are different, and you can feel it when you walk in here.”
Unlike Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose commissioned works were celebrated, the painter, who trained at one of Mexico City’s prestigious art schools, took on the job with little fanfare — and hardly any compensation.
Each week he is paid $100. He is given a space to live inside the center, a cramped room behind the main hall’s stage where actors change during performances. He is provided with all the paint, brushes and sketchbooks he needs. And to help him reach the ceiling, the center’s director borrows scaffolding from an acquaintance.
“With little money and despite the struggles, we did it. And it’s phenomenal,” said Martha Soriano, president of the Comite de Beneficencia Mexicana, the nonprofit group that oversees Casa del Mexicano. “It gives life to our Mexico, to our building.”
Located on a quiet cul-de-sac in Boyle Heights, Casa del Mexicano rises from the ground like a colossal lemon-and-lime-colored mirage. Much of the original features of the former Methodist church have been preserved, including the Roman columns and giant dome.
Back in the 1940s when the center opened, Mexican dignitaries and celebrities regularly visited. They danced and mingled in pearls and bow ties to raise money for cultural programs.
But in the late 1990s, the building fell into disrepair because of mismanagement. By the time Soriano and a new board of directors took over in 2004, the roof leaked, mice ran wild and windows were jammed shut.
Much of the building has been cleaned up and restored in recent years, but the cavernous inside remained a drab brown and beige, the cupola a blank, hollow slate.
In 2008, a muralist was hired to paint each Mexican state’s emblem in the cupola, along with the faces of Juarez, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. But halfway through the emblems, he abandoned the project for another job.
It was then that a local art collector encouraged Tecoatl to offer his services. When he showed up at Casa del Mexicano, Soriano told him: “We don’t have money, but I can give you all the paint you need and a place to live.”
She also promised the 53-year-old painter the liberty to paint whatever he wanted — as long as it depicted the story of the Mexican people.
For Tecoatl, it was a challenge worth taking.
Eight years ago, he gave up his home, his truck and a job at a posh gallery in Polanco, Mexico City’s Beverly Hills, to come to Los Angeles. The gallery, he said, had paid him well but discouraged him from painting socially and politically conscious pieces.
In L.A., people noticed his murals along the river and on the sides of several buildings. He was featured in exhibitions in Elysian Valley and East Los Angeles. To pay for rent, he worked odd jobs, decorating luxury purses and cleaning at a factory. He lived with roommates, and for some time, in his old blue Dodge van.
At Casa del Mexicano, the tall, shaggy painter moves about unassumingly, a tiny radio on the floor always humming the day’s local news. He mixes his acrylic colors on Styrofoam plates, and hangs sketches on the walls for reference.
He wakes up at 3 or 4 a.m., turns on the lights and begins working.
Ask the slightest question about what you see on the walls and he will wax on about urban violence, the human spirit, the power of education and the significance of skulls and jaguars.
Each wall, each scene, he says, tells a story — provokes spectators to think.
On one, in sky blue, yellow and rose, Tonatiuh, the Aztec god of the sun, propels a cyclist to pedal at high speed. On the ceiling, in an explosion of pinks, a young boy sits in a chair reading dozens of books.
Not far away, Los Angeles City Hall and the 1st Street Bridge form the background to a dying young man sprawled across train tracks, his body surrounded by howling wolves.
“This represents violence in L.A., gangs and hate toward oneself,” Tecoatl says.
Here, a mass of raised fists and angry faces depict the world’s ongoing struggle for justice near a naked, red-eyed Zapata brandishing the decapitated head of an enemy.
There, a money-hungry skeleton mixes a vat of petroleum not far from a woman meditating in the lotus position.
Visitors who walk into Tecoatl’s Sistine Chapel gasp when they see the changes to the space, Soriano said. They linger in front of different sections, debating meaning and taking photos.
Only a pair of skeletons making love on one section of the ceiling has raised eyebrows. (Tecoatl agreed to cover their top halves in marigolds while leaving their lower limbs intertwined.)
“We wanted something different, something never before seen,” Soriano said. “And that’s just what we got.”
Rigoberto Tejeda, the center’s theater director, first saw the murals a few months ago, when Tecoatl was halfway done.
“You walk in, and it feels like home,” said the 32-year-old first-generation Mexican American from Whittier. “The walls are full of stories, not just the kind we’ve read in books or heard from our parents but the kind we create for ourselves.”
Tejeda said he plans to take time to learn about each image, the same way he used to learn from elders during trips to Mexico as a child.
These days Tecoatl is so close to being done he no longer toils until sundown. He retreats in the late afternoon to his small room full of canvases and paint cans. Or he heads to a nearby gym to exercise and shower.
He hopes the center will be able to track down a ladder high enough to finish his work on the cupola — though, at this point, he said, he hasn’t quite decided what he’ll paint.
“Something with lots of warm colors and lots of strength.”