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South LA’s Tlaloc Studios Brings Local Roots To Arts Space Accused Of Gentrification

An image of native god Tlaloc from a Tlaloc Studios t-shirt.
(Courtesy Tlaloc Studios)
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New arts space Tlaloc Studios in South L.A. takes its name from the Aztec rain god Tlaloc, giver of life.

"He's really admired around these neighborhoods," artist Ozzie Juarez said. He added that, along with Virgin Mary murals, you’ll spot plenty of Tlaloc murals if you walk around South L.A.

Native god Tlaloc symbolizes the studio’s approach: showing that it's led by members of the local community — and that they want to give back.

"This space used to belong to a different group of people that weren't from the area," Juarez said. "They weren't doing too much for the community ... They weren't really involving the community. It was mostly about themselves as artists."

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The approach comes after the arts space that used to be in the same building, Dalton Warehouse, faced backlash from activists over concerns that the neighborhood was being gentrified. That activism included a group splashing red paint on the art, the walls, and bystanders.

Defend Boyle Heights, a group that advocates against gentrification, publicly supported that protest — including posts like this one on Instagram:

Juarez was at Dalton Warehouse that night, as he was set to have his own work shown there the following month. He was hit with paint himself. Tlaloc being a symbol of fertility, abundance, growth, and life is what the space needed after what happened with the last version of the space, according to Juarez.

Phoenix From The Ashes

Artist Ozzie Juarez in front of a mural of the Virgin Mary.
(Courtesy Ozzie Juarez )

Following the protest against the space in 2018, Juarez said, he slowly started to take over and redevelop the studio. He rented his own small studio there in 2019, renting more studio spaces as other artists left before ultimately working out a full transition.

"It kind of worked out in my favor, because I am from the area, and I'm trying to help out the community as well," Juarez said.

Still, he spoke up on behalf of the artists who were behind Dalton Warehouse, which ended up being one of numerous art galleries that chose to leave the area amidst ongoing protests.

"They weren't really bad people at heart — they were just trying to make some art as well," Juarez said.

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That doesn't mean there weren't issues.

"None of the artists who were in this situation were from the area — all of them were outsiders," Juarez said. "They had no ties to Los Angeles, nor South Central. The only reason they were in South Central to begin with is because it was cheap and affordable, not necessarily because they want to help the environment or help people around them."

There are now 11 artists who use the space, their work including screen printing, sculpture, ceramics, photography, performance, drawing — and even tattooing, though Juarez noted they're planning to get rid of that soon. Each artist has their own aesthetics, with many also creating across a wide variety of mediums, but Juarez said that he feels there are deep-rooted connections in their work.

Many of the artists are from the area and consider themselves to be locals. They all followed similar routes into art, including punk and graffiti. The work of these artists shows those roots, often with a punk aesthetic, including both abstract pieces and those making a broader statement.

Using Art To Reach Out

Artist Ozzie Juarez works at Tlaloc Studios.
(Courtesy Ozzie Juarez)

One advantage of the space, according to Juarez, is being able to bounce ideas off each other. The other artists include some of his longtime best friends.

"The area that I grew up in, it kind of doesn't cater to any artists. And it's hard seeing artists from around this area," Juarez said. "I branched out after high school, because I saw the effects that this kind of world was having on my friends, and the kind of outcomes my friends' lives were resulting in — and it just wasn't what I wanted."

Juarez had a 4-5 hour commute to Santa Monica College every day during those years.

"I left as far as I could from my current living situation," Juarez said. "Just to escape this bubble that I was in before. Because I didn't really have a door open for me, or anything that I could follow. It was hard for us to see any art galleries, or art shows, or things like that in my neighborhood."

Now Tlaloc Studios is trying to bring that into the community. One of the ways they’re doing so is through the studio's gallery/event space. They've only held a handful so far, but they're looking at alternating each month between art exhibitions and art swap meets. It's rewarding having people outside the studio see the art and the amount of work coming out of Tlaloc Studios, Juarez said.

"I want to inspire more people to follow this lifestyle, because it's definitely worth living in. It's worth chasing. There's so many different opportunities that come from making art,” Juarez said.

Building For A Post-Pandemic World

Inside new South L.A. arts space Tlaloc Studios.
(Courtesy Ozzie Juarez)

As COVID-19 pandemic restrictions lift, they plan to host workshops, film screenings, and other interactive events. A lot of people want to be artists but can't see it happening for them, Juarez said. He wants to make the gallery a place for everyone, not just the artists who work there.

"There's not a lot of young brown artists that are making it," Juarez said. "Now more are starting to, but back in the day, it was harder for people to see that."

Art can be a tough business, as Juarez knows — he ran a short-lived L.A. gallery previously. The lesson he took away: the power of community.

"With numbers, I feel like anything is possible," Juarez said. "When all these worlds collide and join forces, it just becomes super powerful.”

One way that’s being put into action at Tlaloc: there are more artists involved in this gallery than Juarez’s last one. The gallery's current event is a photo exhibition running through Friday, June 26, with more than 50 artists from the Los Angeles area — including both natives and non-natives.

He also has his eyes on growth: there's an empty lot behind Tlaloc Studios that's owned by L.A. Metro. They've collaborated already, promoting a Metro program helping Southeast L.A. artists showcase their work — now he’s thinking of asking for what he calls a favor.

If he gets approval, the extra space would be used to hold a bigger swap meet and extended gallery and vendor space. Juarez said that he feels this would help bring the community into the space even more. He also hopes to see more spaces like this spring up.

"And more art from the people, not from other people coming in," Juarez said. "I really want to see a lot of our community start making art and start influencing our culture more — more than they already do."

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