Artist Profile | Patrick Martinez: Conversation Starter

Patrick Martinez, “colt 45 malt liquor vessel”.

“I don’t decorate. I disrupt. I want to be able to shake someone up,” says Patrick Martinez, an artist who pulls from the visual vocabulary of his lifelong hometown of Los Angeles. The 35-year-old sparks discussion through paintings, neon signage and multi-media pieces inspired by different “pockets” of the city and their cultural communities.

His work is at times an homage, occasionally a critique, but ultimately, a bridge. “It’s using the untapped to communicate a certain idea,” he explains. “It might not be that deep. It might just be an aesthetic thing or a message to marinate in.”

He shouts in some pieces, whispers in others, but avoids being preachy, preferring a genuine conversation to a “That’s nice” response. “When I talk to someone, it’s from the gut and from the heart,” he says. 

Also: Exhibit | Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible

Take, for example, his work with Pee Chee portfolios, a type of folder first made in 1943 and popular throughout the second half of the 20th century. The original Pee Chees were made in solid colors with a series of lines down the left side and images of varsity athletes or cheerleaders on the right. Everyone carried them in Martinez’s school days. They’re a slice of Americana, which is why he’s “remixed” them and replaced the sports imagery with scenes of police brutality and portraits of young people killed at the hands of cops.

Patrick Martinez, "po-lice misconduct misprint 3".

Patrick Martinez, “po-lice misconduct misprint 3”.

“When I was growing up, to be a police officer was a really cool thing. When you’re a kid, you respected that,” he says. Now, “the police are a militarized kind of organization that’s over-prescribing the community. They don’t know how to deal with situations anymore.”

Guided by online video and photographs, he created a dozen Pee Chee-style paintings. When he began the project in 2005, “there was not a lot of meat there,” he says. “Now I have all this reference material and it’s kind of scary.” Completing the series wasn’t fulfilling enough, however; Martinez wanted to get the art out to the community. He has since printed up thousands of folders and is passing them out to high school and college kids. “The youth are not going to the shows. They don’t have access to that. Some kid that’s into art will seek it out on the Internet, but it’s not going to come to them. They’re too busy. This is a way of me reaching out.”

Martinez’s work has celebratory tones as well. Two mixed-media pieces titled “25 and still alive” are cake replicas featuring portraits of men with whom he grew up. The faux pastries are decorated to the hilt with ceramic roses and bright, loopy “frosting.” They look good enough to eat.

Artwork: "25 and still alive (Omar)" by Patrick Martinez.

Patrick Martinez, “25 and still alive (Omar)”.

“These guys have lived their life on the edge and they’re still here,” he says. “They’re growing up now and becoming responsible and trying to figure things out, navigate life.”

As an artist, Martinez has come a long way as well. He began doing graffiti at age 12, attended an arts high school, and received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He’s since exhibited in group and solo shows throughout California, across the country, and in Canada.

That’s not to say it’s been easy; the art world remains a playground for white, upper-class patrons. Martinez, who is of Filipino, Mexican and Native American heritage, tries not to focus on the skewed demographics. “ I don’t want to be an artist that’s frustrated going to shows. I just want to make good work,” he says. Still, he has noticed that show rosters don’t often represent the diverse population of Los Angeles with which he’s intimately familiar. “Art is the language of many, so why wouldn’t they want to have a diverse roster?” he asks. Though he sometimes senses that people have preconceived notions about his art because of his last name, it doesn’t keep him up at night. “I don’t let it get me jaded. It’s something that I go, ‘Okay. I just got to work harder now.’”

Artwork: "american pie" by Patrick Martinez.

Patrick Martinez, “american pie”.

Upward mobility is a recurring theme in Martinez’s neon signs; his thought-provoking multi-colored messages include “Pawn Your Dreams For A 9-5,” “Don’t Make Sense Make Dollars,” “I Don’t Like To Dream About Getting Paid,” and “Selling Out Is The New Keeping It Real.” In his still life and ceramic pieces, classic and contemporary references collide: fruit bowls are penetrated with firearms, flowers mingle with Colt 45, elevating urban iconography to Cezanne-level sophistication.

His blend of hard (security bars on a window) and the soft (bougainvillea) is representative of the clash between the bucolic Los Angeles landscape and the harsh realities that unfold within it. “It’s always strange to me,” Martinez says. “We have a lot of sunny days here, beautiful weather, and then you hear about these violent situations.” When he reads stories in the L.A. Times about crime, he imagines discarded murder weapons abandoned among rose bushes, a blue jay hopping over litter. His ability to take what the viewer would rather not see—the grit, the struggle, the savagery—and frame it so stunningly that you can’t look away is what makes Martinez’s artistry extraordinary.

“I grew up here, so I understand it in a way that has no celebrity involved,” he says of the City of Angels. “There’s a sublime beauty to it. Being here all my life, I’ve learned to appreciate it.”