Johnny “Zurdo” Quintanilla is an artist from the Lincoln Heights area of Los Angeles, the oldest neighborhood in Los Angeles, California, outside of Downtown. His art is considered to be pop-surrealism, but to me, it’s much more than that. I see a deep appreciation for his cultural heritage, and a nod to artists such as Frida Kahlo and Dali.
I first met Zurdo in 2017, at Jeff Hamilton’s Street Art Fair, and I was immediately taken by his work. So here we are, almost two years later, and I finally get to ask Zurdo (which means “left-handed,” or “lefty”), about his art and life. I take it he’s left-handed, so I didn’t ask him about that.
You were born and raised in Los Angeles. Have you ever traveled or worked on your artwork outside the city? If so, where, and how did that change you as an artist?
Yes, I am born and raised in Los Angeles. This is my city. This is my home. This is where I feel at peace. I’ve gotten to travel a little bit. I wish I could travel more. Hopefully this year, I’ll be able to travel more. I guess it depends on where life takes me, but I hope it takes me to other countries in other places in the world.
But usually, when I travel, I don’t like to paint. I literally just love to be in tune with the city that I’m in or the environment that I’m in. I love to meet the people. I love to hear their stories. I love to just explore my surroundings and explore the communities and be an explorer. Maybe in the future, it would be nice to travel to another city to do like, maybe make some murals or something, like strictly like I’m going to that place because of the mural or because of the project.
Your work is heavily influenced by your cultural heritage, and, in some ways, reminds me a bit of the surrealism found in Frida Kahlo’s work, especially pieces like La Venadita (Little Deer), 1946, which shows Kahlo as a wounded deer. Is she an influence? Or who and what would you say are your greatest influences?
I guess the past few years, I’ve been influenced by Frida Kahlo’s work. I feel like it was actually at the right time for me to be introduced to her and kind of learn her story as an artist. But she wasn’t somebody that I grew up admiring, or she wasn’t somebody that impacted me earlier in my art career. I’ve learned to appreciate her, I learned to really love her work, but most importantly, just love her story as an artist, as a female artist, especially around that time when not a lot of females had a voice. So, she’s definitely impacting my work, and I feel the reason why is not so much about her art. Don’t get me wrong, I love her art. You could definitely feel the emotions and you could definitely feel what she was she was going through, and you could definitely feel her pain. Overall, I was drawn to her because of her personal life, her story, how she struggled; even with her injury, she was unstoppable. I admire her because she was a powerful woman, a woman who figured out how to get through life no matter what obstacles were in front of her. She somehow fought her way.
For me, being raised by a single mom, I appreciate her, because, for me, my mom is my Frida Kahlo, if that makes any sense. Raising six kids as an immigrant here in L.A. and not knowing the language and finding ways to feed us and put a roof over our heads. I owe everything to my mom.
Queen Bee is an extraordinary piece that I really love, and is a great example of your overall style. Can you tell me about that piece, what it means to you, and where the inspiration came from?
It’s definitely a serious piece that I that I really wanted to take my time with, and I wanted to send out a message. It was a piece that I really wanted to make a big impact with. I feel like here in Los Angeles, living in a big city, sometimes we get so disconnected from nature and we forget what life really means, we forget the beauty of it. But Queen Bee is me raising awareness about how it’s so sad that, to this day, we’re still losing animals. There are so many animals that are being extinct. I feel like we’ve come a long way as humans, but I feel somehow we’re advancing in a way that we are forgetting how to appreciate and take care of our land.
To me, your work seems to deal not just with your cultural heritage, but it also has a deep appreciation for nature, and there are varied themes of rebirt: branches growing out of people or animals or eggs. Can you tell me a bit about the themes of birth as presented in your work?
Yeah. My work is really cultural and there is a lot of nature in it. I feel as far as culture, it’s my personal culture. I think it’s just growing up in a big city like L.A., I’m very influenced by all the different walks of life here, and all the diversity. Through my work, I’ll paint something, create something that I’m not really sure why I’m creating it, but once it’s done, that’s when I really figure out why I created it.
And yeah, nature. I love nature. I think in a city like L.A., we forget. We forget that there’s nature out there. You know, we get stuck here in the city and we are busy with our lives, these fast lifestyles, and we forget the beauty of wildlife. It’s important, too. Once in a while, I just sit in the woods, get away from the city, and rejuvenate myself, clear my mind, and relieve some stress. Get away from all the loud noises, industrial noises, and the cars and the sirens. Get lost in nature.
I do talk about a lot about rebirth and reincarnation and new beginnings and stuff like that, just because I feel like with this mentality that everything has to be perfect, we have this mentality that there’s no room for failure, there’s no room for the wrong decision. I am always big on new beginnings, man. I make a lot of mistakes. And I love mistakes. Through my work, every single piece has a few mistakes and I see it because it’s my work, but a lot of people see it as just part of the piece.
Dali or not Dali?
Yeah, Dali was actually one of one of the first artists that I really was obsessed with, growing up. It changed the way I thought about art. It opened up my imagination as an artist, and I kind of realized that there are no boundaries, there are no rules in art. You could literally create your own world. There are no rules. There’s nobody to tell you what to paint, what to draw, how to think, or what to create. You’re your own creator. It’s your own world, your own imagination.
But yeah, he was a big influence. Even to this day, I still see a lot of Dali in my work. Like the egg. A lot of eggs pop in my pieces, and that just represents reincarnation, rebirth, and all that stuff, starting over and new beginnings. You could always start again. You could always wake up the next day and just start over.
Have you collaborated with other artist, or wish to? If so, who, when, why?
Yeah, I have collaborated with Artists. When I was a younger artist, in my early 20s, I used to get together with my friends and would have art sessions and drink wine and just draw and paint and challenge ourselves in that way, and, you know, that helped me get out of my comfort zone, and I grew as an artist. I did it more for fun, when I was younger. We used to draw or sketch on paper and then pass it down to the next artist and kind of continue to fill in the pages. You have to work with their style of art and you’re going into their world. It’s challenging. It’s fun. It definitely expands your mind. It’s something that I recommend to young artists. Definitely do art sessions. Especially with your homies. Instead of going into the bars or clubs, just have a little art session, kick back, buy some wine or some weed, and just fuckin’ have fun with it. It’s fun to be in a space full of artists and full of creative people, just constantly challenging yourselves and growing as artists.
“It’s something that I recommend to young artists. Definitely do art sessions. Especially with your homies. Instead of going into the bars or clubs, just have a little art session, kick back, buy some wine or some weed, and just fuckin’ have fun with it.”
My most serious collaborations were in Coachella Valley, in Indio. Me and one of my art friends built and created an upside down house, which for me was a game changer. It was definitely something that I had in mind, but I just I never knew exactly how to approach it. When I got this opportunity to bring one of my paintings to life, and the whole process of creating from scratch one of my upside-down homes, I think that was definitely one of the more professional collaborations that I’ve ever done. But I love collaborating.
There’s a lot of artists that I would love to collaborate in the future. Hopefully, this year, I’ll get a chance to collaborate. But I’m always open to different artists. Overall, I want to make sure that I build a good friendship with that person and I’m comfortable to do a project with that person because you’re literally opening your world to them, you’re opening your life to them, you’re inviting them into your world and into your life. And I feel like it’s important to take care of your space, to take care of yourself.
Do you do public murals? If so, where? If not, is that something you want to do or do more of, if you already have?
I have done murals in the past. It’s something that I do enjoy, something that excites me as an artist, and something that I do look forward to. This year I hope to do more outdoor projects. I actually have a mural coming up here, in Echo Park. It’s definitely something that, as I get older, and as I get more serious with my art, that I do want to do more of. Sometimes a painting on a canvas isn’t enough, you know; sometimes you need to get out of your comfort zone and out of your studio and into the world.
Respect that environment and respect the people that live there, you know, because they’re the ones who are going to see it literally almost every day. So you want to make sure you build a good relationship with them. It’s a good opportunity for you to study a little bit of that neighborhood and a little bit of that community. I love murals, especially here in L.A., a city where we have tons and tons of murals and different styles and a lot of them are just breathtaking.
What is coming up for you? Any shows? Art Fairs?
So, I’m excited about this year. There are a lot of things I do want to accomplish in art. I do have a show coming up at Phantom Gallery. It’s still in talks, but hopefully in March or April, so we’ll be doing that. I do have that mural coming up here in Echo Park, on Sunset and Coronado. I want to curate more shows. I want to be able to do more events. I want to focus on really cool shows; really interesting pop-up exhibits. Sometimes having too many shows is overwhelming. More outdoor projects. More installations. More collaborations.