Velvet art fading to black

SUN JOURNAL

Kitsch: Once a thriving Tijuana business, paintings on velvet are about as popular as sad-eyed clowns these days.

January 08, 2003|By Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

One day in 1968 when Juan and Abel Velazquez were 15 years old, their father sat them down and placed before them canvases of black velvet.

Jose Velazquez had been a boxer in Mexico City. Later, he taught himself cartooning and, from there, to paint on velvet, which is how he was supporting his family.

"Time for playing is over," he told them. "It's time to make money."

He took up a brush, dabbed it in pink paint and handed down to his sons the one craft he knew. Starting with a simple classic of Tijuana velvet, he taught them to paint the Pink Panther. 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," says Abel.

Other velvet icons followed: Snoopy, the Playboy Bunny, John Wayne, prowling tigers, black lovers, white lovers, Jim Morrison. The Velazquez twins became known as "The Photographers" because what they painted invariably looked so much like its subject.

They were not the first velvet painters in Tijuana, but they are now almost the last. Like bleary boxers who fight on despite too many rounds, the Velazquez twins still lug their velvets around Tijuana trying to sell them to tourists, never with much luck.

After decades of defining Tijuana, velvet painting is disappearing. Only seven or eight painters still do velvet, and none of them is young. In the entire city of Tijuana, more than 1 million people strong, only three men regularly paint Elvis on velvet.

One of them is Enrique Felix. "My children now are in their 20s," says Felix, who owns a curio shop. "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 650 foreign-owned maquiladoras employ 120,000 people. Tijuana churns out roughly 20 million televisions every year, more than any city in the world.

Yet few events say change as clearly as the decline of velvet painting, the art that was Tijuana's hallmark for so long.

For the United States, the 1970s were days of lava lamps and black lights and vans with waterbeds. Tijuana was the Florence of kitsch. The city's tourist shops were virtually wallpapered in velvet painting. The city had corridors of velvet painters, where teen-agers could learn from veterans how to paint sad clowns or John F. Kennedy.

The father of all this was a debauched American billboard painter named Edgar Leeteg, 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 carouse all Tuesday, when his money and whiskey arrived by boat.

He died during a drunken spree in 1953, leaving behind many Tahitian children, and hundreds of velvet paintings hanging in bars, restaurants, and whorehouses in Hawaii. No one remembers how velvet painting came to Tijuana. Some speculate it was through U.S. sailors, who saw Leeteg's work in Hawaii and, once back in San Diego, began asking Tijuana painters if they could do the same.

Whatever the case, velvet painting took hold in Tijuana in the late 1950s. By the 1970s, the city had a well-trained battalion of painters able to provide whatever icons of machismo and pop culture tourists wanted splashed on the fabric.

Imitation of what sold well became the prevailing ethic.

Painter Jesus Gutierrez photographed a neighbor with rugged features. Using the man's photograph as the model, he painted a bandit. The man's face became the standard bandit for dozens of Tijuana 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 man - his name lost to history.

"You paint something, and if it sells well, everyone does it," says Gutierrez, who owns a gallery in town and years ago stopped painting velvet.

Velvet quickly became the purview of immigrant merchants who visited Tijuana from around the world. Bart the Armenian lived in New Zealand and ordered 200 paintings every time he visited. An Indian fellow who lived in Trinidad and Tobago would also order 200 or 300 paintings every visit

The Canadian Arabs are remembered most fondly of all. They would arrive almost every month and order paintings in lots of a hundred. Tijuana's painters would frantically dash the work off over the next two weeks. The Arabs would fill entire big rigs with Tijuana velvet and truck it to Toronto. "They'd empty Tijuana every time they'd come," says Juan Velazquez.

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