by Nicholas Pell
The sun sets on Hollywood Boulevard as I shake hands with Daniel Esparza outside of Angels & Kings. This famed Hollywood hotspot owned by Pete Wentz and Perez Hilton is the go to spot for tattooed rockers, aspiring models, coffee shop troubadours and the like. Known for a dark, semi-gothic ambiance and a famed Peter Gronquist sculpture of a ram’s head with golden AK-47 assault rifles for antlers above the bar.
Esparza is a tall, slender man who carries himself in a cool, laid back manner. The baby faced 31-year-old artist of Riverside, CA has a deceiving appearance. I immediately wondered if he was old enough to drink his shot of Jack Daniels legally. As we belly up to the bar, he pulls out his iPhone, showing me examples of his work, which features beautiful women done over in Mexican Day of the Dead style.
“No,” he says, “airbrushed.” My jaw actually dropped. In an age age where Photoshop is more common than photography, it’s always that more impressive to see an artist still working with his hands. To see him getting results far more beautiful, vibrant and real than anything a computer could produce is truly remarkable.
Esparza’s art stands firmly rooted in the Chicano tradition, a term basically meaning “native Mexican-American” for the gueros in the audience. His subject matter is beautiful women, his inspiration the Mexican Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos. Rather than a paintbrush or a mouse, he uses an airbrush and canvas, tools more commonly used to adorn low riders or create cariactures for tourists on Venice Beach. Esparza wields his airbrush like a true master, creating subtly nuanced life-like portraits of women you want to see strolling the streets of Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix.
To call his art immaculate is to do it a disservice. It’s photo realistic. One’s first impression is that he has, in fact, Photoshopped beautiful Chicana women with Day of the Dead sugar doll-style make up. But digital technology still can’t make anything this life-like and dynamic. The women look as if they’re just poised to open their mouths, getting ready to belt out low rider oldies, say something sexy or lean in for a kiss. Never has a static image so skillfully implied the bounce of a woman’s hair or her blinking eyes.
Esparza got his start at a young age in Compton, California. In 2nd grade, he and some friends had a contest to see who could replicate a comic book panel the best. Esparza, being an enterprising young man, simply found a similar panel and cut it out. His friends called him out, demanding that he reproduce the panel on the spot. He was so successful that they bought the original ruse.
At first, Esparza just drew stuff he was into, the typical obsessions of a budding his age: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ren and Stimpy, X-Men and The Simpsons. An early effort showed Bart Simpson with Cyclops’ eye beams. But Esparza’s artwork came into full bloom in the unlikeliest of places. Right after high school he got a job with a company that did airbrushing. His start was rather inauspicious. Used to working with pen, pencil and paper, it was hard for him to adjust to the world of airbrush art. For the first two weeks, he made many mistakes, leading him to believe that he would soon be fired. To his surprise, ownership and management alike showed patience. Two other professional artists (Esparza declines to say who) cut their teeth at the same studio.
It was only two years ago that the Day of the Dead-themed work first appeared. At first, Esparza just played around with the motif. Tattoo artist friends often worked with similar themes, providing him with inspiration. A year ago, he knuckled down and got serious about it, a decision that paid dividends. Since then, he’s won best of show in regional art fairs and has been featured in national publications such as Inked Magazine and Lowrider Arte. Today, Esparza’s work can be found internationally. He’s been saving photographs of women for years, using this stock of photos for reference material. He selects photos based on the position of the face or some striking feature that catches his eye.
Still, while Chicano culture influences Esparza’s art, he’s careful to say that he’s not just prideful of brown skin. A self-described lover of life, Esparza didn’t so much choose his subject matter as much as it chose him. His whole family is into Mexican culture and he cites that as his main reason for working in this style.
A believer in hard work and pursuing one's passion - Live for today but plan for tomorrow is the philosophy that describes this refined rogue's approach to achieving success in life.
Nicholas Pell is a writer and radio host. His earliest writings appeared in punk rock bible Maximumrocknroll when he was just 15. Since then, his writing has appeared on Salon, LA Weekly, GOOD, Mademan and AlterNet. He lives in Hollywood, California, less than a block from the handprints of Steve McQueen, Michael Caine and Humphrey Bogart. You can catch Nick on The Nightfly with Nicholas Pell. You can also interact with Nick on Twitter @NicholasPell.
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