On Bristol and McFadden stands two murals that adorn the side wall of Santa Ana’s long-time business, El Mercadito.
One an ode to the late Vanessa Guillen the Texas Army soldier who was tragically murdered in 2020, the mural reads “Protejer a Nuestras Mujeres,” “Protect our Women.”
To her side, another mural is seen dedicated to local street vendors, their brown faces immortalized on the wall.
Both murals were painted by Alex Sanchez, the Santa Ana graffiti artist and muralist who is trying to change the negative way people look at those who use a spray can to express themselves.
Sanchez who also goes by the graffiti name “Sincero,” said he grew up in a low-income household where he bounced around from room to room with his mother and sister.
From a young age, he said he looked for different outlets to deal with any of the hardships thrown at him, whether through music or art.
“Graffiti was my scapegoat for a lot of the problems I had at the time, I truly feel like graffiti art molded me and helped me build character, it’s a crucial part of my story.”
“I feel like I resorted to drawing and painting, in particular, graffiti to stay away from trouble and from drugs and the gang-banging life,” he said as he stared at one of his murals. “Graffiti was my scapegoat for a lot of the problems I had at the time, I truly feel like graffiti art molded me and helped me build character, it’s a crucial part of my story.”
Sanchez considers himself an artist that comes from the streets, his first attempts at graffiti were when he was just a teenager, at first he admits that although he never intended to get in trouble he did.
“Not many are fond of young kids writing everywhere,” he said. “I understand that and know it can get out of hand, but making them feel like troublemakers rather than hearing what may be causing them to do this is also not good.”
Like many teenagers who dabbled in graffiti, getting in trouble inside and outside of school was inevitable. And when those moments would come, Sanchez said he was made to feel guilty, like a lost cause and the way peers viewed him or anyone involved in graffiti would change.
He noticed that as soon as that happened it was almost like a label was placed on him or anyone who practiced graffiti.
Sanchez is not wrong.
In Santa Ana, those most often arrested for graffiti vandalism are youth ranging from 17-18 years old.
Getting caught can result in the person getting a misdemeanor, or receiving a fine that in the case of a minor falls on their legal guardian.
Last year, the city’s public works agency responded to 34,611 graffiti removal requests from the public and proactively removed 86,513 instances of graffiti, according to Santa Ana City Spokesman Paul Eakins.
The cost for the removals was up to $2.1 million.
That’s money that people like Sanchez feel could be allocated to funding youth programs for those wanting to pursue art.
Sanchez points to efforts like the Graffiti Arts Program, which was spearheaded by Santa Ana City Councilman Johnathan Hernandez. The City of Santa Ana’s Arts & Culture Office is currently looking for local organizations that can design and implement a pilot for the G.A.P. program, offering a $50,000 budget.
The program is described as a year-long interactive, multi-disciplinary public arts program that will inspire leadership and community pride in youth through the creation of murals across Santa Ana.
Sanchez has been in touch with Hernandez about becoming a mentor for the program.
“It’ll be a safe space for kids and teenagers to come and learn about graffiti about artwork and learn that you can do something positive with art,” said Sanchez. “So I’m hoping to hop on board and give my testimony.”
“Seeing how he (Sanchez) has used graffiti and it being not about self-validation but more so the validation of others I think that’s a beautiful side of graffiti we don’t get to see, I want to see these murals celebrated,” Hernandez said over the phone. “I don’t condone vandalism of course but I want kids to feel proud about having a program that helps them develop their artistic skills.”
Sanchez explains that although graffiti is often associated with gangs that isnt always the case, and that’s exactly what he is trying to change as he transitions from graffiti and more lettering work to mural work, in particular portraits.
Sanchez’s biggest message to Santa Ana youth is that they aren’t criminals for wanting to do graffiti.
“In reality, it really is a skill, some may clump all graffiti artists as pandilleros (gang members) but some of us have never been in a gang, we simply have a skill,” he said. “And I feel like when we’re young some of us don’t know the potential we have, we don’t know that what may have started as an outlet to rebel or in my case a form to simply express myself can be turned into a career.”
Feeding off community inspiration, Sanchez’s most recent work has been local murals.
For him painting familiar faces throughout Santa Ana is a form of fighting the growing gentrification that the city has seen over the years.
Instead of painting murals that don’t resonate with his community, he literally paints faces that resemble those around him.
Murals that without saying it yell “We Are Still Here.”
And he’s done just that, although he has taken on many commissions for the city of Santa Ana as well from many local businesses in the area his community murals are what he holds close to his heart.
For instance, in his mural on Bristol and McFadden, he painted three local street vendors, Oscar Camacho an elotero, and Petronila and Andrea two flower vendors that he met in 2015 on Main and 1st street.
That particular mural was fully funded by himself and his friends, they all pitched in to pay Camacho and a flower vendor for a full day of sales so that they could hand out free elotes (corn), raspados (shaved ice), and flowers to anyone who stopped by to watch him work on the mural.
Camacho who has been a street vendor in Santa Ana for over 20 years, said he felt special being chosen as one of the vendors being honored in the community mural.
The street vendor sells near Bristol and Mcfadden and sells raspados (shaved ice), corn, and other treats, he is well known and loved by the community.
Cars passing by while he’s on his route often honk at him and wave asking him how he’s doing as they drive down the road.
“It’s an honor to have my face up on that wall, as street vendors we never see our faces in murals and we’re not always respected by everyone,” he said in Spanish as he pushed his cart down Rene St. “Most of the time the murals you see are of people who have passed away so it’s really nice to see them honoring us while we’re still alive and well.”
The day the mural went up kids lined up to get their free snacks and many walked up to Sanchez asking for an autograph.
“I didn’t know how to feel because that has never happened,” he said with a smile radiating across his face.
Other kids curious about the man painting their favorite street vendor on a wall, would ask Sanchez about his work. Asking “How can I do this?”
“That mural left me feeling very fulfilled not only did we give back to the community but I exposed kids to the power of art,” he said.
When asked why he picked to showcase vendors for this mural he said:
“I feel like I connect to street vendors, in the sense that they have this no-excuse mentality doesn’t matter if it’s cold or super hot they’re still gonna go outside and get their work done,” he continued. “They have their families to feed and I respect that a lot and I coincide with that work-hard mentality.”
When he finished his mural he had no idea that he was immortalizing a community member, Andrea, the flower vendor who would sell on Main and 1st street.
In 2021 after seeing his mural on social media, the family of Andrea reached out to Sanchez to let him know that the vendor had passed away.
The family told Sanchez that the vendor had an accident while selling flowers and not being able to recover from her injuries she returned to her country where she eventually succumbed to her injuries.
They expressed their gratitude to Sanchez via Instagram because, for them, the location of the mural is now a place that they can visit to remember their family member.
One of his most personal murals featured a paletero (ice cream man) named Max and Sanchez’s grandmother. Both of their portraits are located on the walls of Sahuayo Meat Market in Santa Ana.
“I paid an homage to my grandmother because she’s been living here in Santana forever and she raised a family of 10, when she first got here she worked picking cotton and overall it just felt right to dedicate a mural to her,” he said, describing the moment as so special it brought a tear to his and his abuela’s eyes.
In total a mural like that of his grandmother and Max takes him up to 9 days of work, working 6 hours a day.
Every piece he creates is done with intention, for this mural which was sponsored by the city of Santa Ana he did the same as he did with the mural on Bristol.
He used part of the money given to him to purchase pizzas and paid off Max the paletero (ice cream man) for a full day of work to hand out free popsicles.
Sanchez said deciding where a mural will go is not just about picking a location but about asking for permission from the community to install any kind of artwork.
“Before even asking the owner of a building I have to ask those who live here for permission, once I get their approval I ask the owner, but getting approval doesn’t always happen,” he said.
Getting permission from the community, and in some cases from any potential gangs that may reside in the area, allows pieces like his to be untouched or defaced.
In this case, everyone in the community, including the owner of El Mercadito, Rodolfo Santos, was delighted to have the murals go up in that particular area.
Santos along with his wife runs El Mercadito, the communities local convenience store, they sell warm tortillas, drinks, medicine, snacks, hygiene products, and more.
Santos who is originally from Orizaba Veracruz in Mexico said that in the last 10 years of being in business, he constantly struggled with graffiti being scribbled all over his then-white walls.
But one day Sanchez approached Santos with the idea of giving his wall a new life and purpose, leading him to paint on separate occasions Vanessa Guillen and a handful of local street vendors.
“Since then we haven’t had any issues with graffiti on the walls, I think they respect the murals because the community knows the people on these walls,” he said in Spanish as he rang up a customer. “These murals represent us and as a business owner I love them, they make my building look even better too and graffiti is no longer an issue.”
Other murals that have been respected for years despite being in a community where gangs are present are the legendary and historic LA RAZA mural located in the Artesia Pilar neighborhood. The mural has represented Santa Ana and its Chicano community generation after generation.
In the 30 years of its existence, it has for the most part stayed untouched by vandalism, with the exception of very few markings.
La Raza mural is now considered a historical piece of art, one that residents have fought to be preserved and restored seeing as over the years the paint has begun to chip and fade.
Sanchez can only hope that his murals continue to be loved and respected by all Santa Ana locals just like that of La Raza murals.
“My intention is not to be famous it’s just a genuine passion that I want to invest in and grow and share with my community. I want to leave a piece of my heart in the community, I was brought up in a family that cares and wants to help others and I want to do the same, it’s not about personal gain.”
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