Da Vinci of dirt? Road grime fuels this L.A. trucker’s rolling masterpieces
Truck driver Arnulfo Gonzalez uses the back of his dirty truck as an art canvas, pleasing many along southern California’s highways with his depictions of horses, the Grinch, Jesus and more.
One day in 2016, as Arnulfo Gonzalez waited at a warehouse to pick up cargo, he stared at the filth caked on the back door of his box truck. After a moment of contemplation, he ran his finger on it.
The Mexican immigrant once had ambitions to become an artist. He had earned a degree in the subject from East Los Angeles College and taught ceramics workshops in Bell Gardens. He took his wife on date nights to drawing classes, where they used each other as subjects.
Gonzalez set aside those dreams and became a trucker in 2000, “because there was more money there,” the father of two said. Besides an occasional notebook doodle, work and his family were his focus.
Until the day he realized that his canvas and paint had been there all along.
“It clicked,” Gonzalez said.
By the time his load was ready, he had outlined a woman’s face in the muck.
Dockworkers immediately offered praise. And so, every other week since, the short-haul driver has offered a new “painting” to commuters across Southern California, using only the dirt and grime that collects on his troca. Jesus Christ. A giant jellyfish. A Thanksgiving spread. A horse with a flowing mane, a soulful eye and richly detailed reins.
Often, the 48-year-old Gonzalez answers his muse as he waits for cargo to get loaded. He likes to use classical music as a soundtrack — Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata is a favorite.
“It relaxes you and brings out creativity,” Gonzalez said.
Truckers long have personalized their rigs.
In Pakistan and India, so-called jingle trucks feature calligraphy, beads, extravagantly colored arabesque designs or Hindu motifs. Japan’s dekotora subculture celebrates trucks with ironworks and lights seemingly pulled from an anime. In Spain, artists convinced truckers to let them paint contemporary works on containers as a way to protest the strictures of museums.
American truck art, on the other hand, historically has been staid: mud flap silhouettes, the trucker’s name stenciled on the side doors or — in recent years — toys tied to grilles or hung on the back bumper or axle.
Lavishly adorned commercial trucks “are not part of our culture,” said Max Heine, editorial director for Overdrive. Every year, the magazine hosts Pride & Polish, which it describes as the “premier truck beauty championship series in North America.”
Heine said American trucker aesthetics tend to focus more on chrome parts, paint jobs meant to evoke classic Peterbilts and Kenworths, or a beat-up rusted look known as “rat rod.”
By those standards, Gonzalez’s truck is humble.
Driving up and down L.A.’s eternally traffic-choked streets and freeways, the Hacienda Heights resident has an audience to dwarf any Arts District installation. It would be easy for onlookers to imagine that some wannabe street Rembrandt furtively made the scenes on Gonzalez’s vehicle — like a graffiti artist in the night.
Truckers inspire many stereotypes. Artistic soul is not one of them.
Cruz Palomares, 50, a fellow troquero from Paramount, likes to show other drivers a photo of his favorite Gonzalez piece: Santa Claus on a reindeer-drawn sleigh flying over a forest.
“The cabrón has a gift!” Palomares said, using a word common in Mexico to refer to Gonzalez that literally means “male goat” but can serve as both an insult and term of respect. “The guys I show stay there with their mouths open. And then they say, ‘Hey, your friend made a mistake to be a trucker.’”
Gonzalez tends to agree. But a man’s got to make money.
“I don’t see myself in this job forever,” he said.
His voice trails off as he stands in the parking lot of the Puente Hills Mall, ready to embark on his next “painting.” He slips on plastic gloves and opens a toolbox filled with paint brushes and other artist’s materials.
“Who knows what can happen? At least, I want to graduate to a wall.”
But for now, grime is like an ink that never runs dry.
“It just gathers and gathers and gathers and never ends,” said Gonzalez.
The son of a troquero, Gonzalez migrated to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico, when he was 18. Before his artistic awakening in el Norte, he wanted to become an engineer or mathematician.
“When you’re artistic, you get that out there one way or another,” said his wife, Libet. “I want him to do whatever his passion is, and I wanted him to do this.”
She points out, though, that Gonzalez doesn’t hang any original pieces at their home.
“He’s too much of a perfectionist,” she said. “He’ll do something great, then tear it up. Besides, I think he wants his work seen by as many people as possible. That’s why trucks work so well for him.”
Laura Fernandez, who works in the shipping department at one of the loading docks Gonzalez frequents, said she told the trucker “to do stuff that people can relate to.”
“He’s driving all over L.A., and people are stuck behind him,” Fernandez said. A Grinch that Gonzalez did this past Christmas, she said, was particularly impressive.
“Imagine — with grease? Have you tried to clean grease?” Fernandez said. “The more you try, the dirtier the surface gets.”
As Gonzalez pulled into a car wash off Rosecrans Avenue in Norwalk, pedestrians and customers of nearby businesses stared. Some took photos. Someone shouted that the horse painting was good enough to use as an ad at the Santa Anita racetrack.
“Man, there’s so much talent hidden out there,” said Jonathan Aguilar, who owns a barber shop in the strip mall. “And you don’t even know about it until you’re behind it.”
Gonzalez’s early works and methods were rudimentary. He’d get a Clorox wipe and do basic line drawings, like a Dia de los Muertos skull.
As he gained confidence, Gonzalez experimented with dimensions and material. Last year, he completed a stylized Virgin of Guadalupe cradling the infant Christ, surrounded by roses and poinsettias. The lines on her hair suggested depth; the roses looked inked on.
Everything popped with the red clay Gonzalez mixed into his truck’s mugre.
For now, he mostly copies photos and others’ illustrations. Because of that, he has no plans to quit his day job. He’s trying to perfect the eyes of subjects “because even with a horse or a person, eyes make people feel emotions.”
After washing off his last creation, Gonzalez covers the back of his truck with cooking spray to capture as much muck as possible over two days. He sketches out the next one with chalk the night before on black paper, and sleeps on the idea.
Gonzalez uses LA’s Totally Awesome all-purpose cleaner spray to bring out better whites, a finely pointed natural-hair brush to move around the crud, and cotton swabs for details. For vibrant grays, Gonzalez gets dirty water from his janitor pals; for the darkest blacks,he scrapes the soot from his tailpipe — and dilutes it in a jar to create other shades. He’s experimenting with axle grease for even more tones.
And when it rains?
“You’d think the truck would get washed,” Gonzalez said. “But it gets dirtier.”
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