George Yepes never stops experimenting with new media (Photo by Tessie Borden)
George Yepes never stops experimenting with new media (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Artist George Yepes Finds a New Canvas

You know the artist George Yepes from his East Los Streetscapers murals; from his painting — once owned by Madonna and Sean Penn but destroyed in the 1993 Southern California fires — that became a Los Lobos album cover; and from his participation in exhibitions at the Autry.

George Yepes, “La Pistola y el Corazón,” 1989, serigraph. A version of the painting became a Los Lobos album cover (Autry photo)

But lately, Yepes has found a brand new canvas, one that really comes alive. Yepes this year began to issue some of his most famous images as stencils and patterns for tattoos.

“I get e-​mails from around the world,” said Yepes, now based in Las Vegas but in town last month for a retrospective exhibition at ChimMaya Gallery. “There was a girl up in San Francisco who had been asking. She wanted to get a ‘La Pistola y el Corazón’ tatoo on her back.”

“La Pistola y el Corazón,” from 1989, became the cover for the album of the same name, released in 1990, by three-​time Grammy winners Los Lobos. A serigraph of the painting was featured in the Autry’s Bold Caballeros y Noble Bandidas exhibition, from November 2008 to May 2009, one of three Yepes works in the show. It’s a well-​used image.

But when Yepes got this request, he had to start thinking about how to translate many-​fasceted brush strokes and colors into a more stylized, somewhat simpler format with a limited color palette. He began to think of the painting in reverse.

George Yepes with tatoo designs based on his paintings (Photo by Tessie Borden)

“It almost shows how I design,” he said. “I do highly detailed sketch designs of all my paintings before I do the paintings. So it’s a skeleton under the painting. Even for my murals, I do a highly detailed sketch (equating) an inch to a foot.”

Putting the tatoo stencils together was a process more or less of peeling away each layer of the painting, so that Yepes was left with a line drawing.

“I made the design so that they hand this over to a tatoo artist, and he has the pattern,” Yepes said.

Each layer is included in the stencil package, so the client/​canvas can add detail simply by asking the tatoo artist to add layers. And because each layer becomes a different rendering of his work, Yepes signs the stencils as prints. So far, Yepes has transformed six of his paintings and designs into tatoos, and the stencil packages range from $6.50 to $18.50.

Yepes, who was featured in the Autry’s “Bold Caballeros” exhibition, never stops experimenting with new media (Photo by Abel Gutierrez)

Yepes, born in 1956 in Tijuana because his laborer father wanted to ensure all his children were Mexican nationals, began drawing very early.

When he was four, he went to live with family friends in East Los Angeles, and the family eventually reunited and settled there. In 1974, Yepes set out to earn a double degree in art and business at California State University, Los Angeles. Drawn into the Chicano art movement of the 1970s, he became part of the artist collective East Los Streetscapers and worked briefly at Self Help Graphics and Art.

Yepes’s work has always involved detailed preliminary sketches, first at scale and later full-​size, that he executes on butcher paper. They are his archives.

“On all my sketches, even this ‘La Pistola’ one, I don’t use regular paper; I sketch on butcher paper,” he said. “I always buy these $60-$80 rolls of butcher paper. I stand in line with all the butchers, all full of blood, you know? I’m standing there with my clothes all full of paint, and we buy the same roll. They wrap meat in it and I do drawings.”

Yepes said he stopped sketching on archival quality paper because the fine quality and expense made him so nervous that his sketches turned out terrible. Now, he gets the finest quality canvas there is, the human body, but others execute the drawings.

“The paintings are really structured,” he said. “Sculptors have seen my paintings and they say I paint like a sculptor.”

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About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.