Empire Seven Studios breaks down the barriers to putting art on walls

Empire Seven Studios in San Jose started because Juan Carlos Araujo wanted his own art studio.
He envisioned the space at 525 N. 7th Street as his own personal art space, but found himself hosting semi-regular art shows for his artist friends and after a couple of years he knew he had to decide between fully committing to it or keeping it just for fun.
And so Araujo, along with partner Jennifer Ahn, officially opened Empire Seven Studios in 2008.
“Once I made that decision in really loving what I do – representing artists and showcasing them and what they do – we transformed gallery one more time to something to complete with other institutions,” he explains.
Empire Seven is not any one “thing” – they do not exclusively highlight specific kinds of artists, mediums, styles, or themes. If pressed, Araujo will call it “urban contemporary,” but ultimately it comes down to what they like and want to show.
“We want to work with art that we like,” he says. “The last thing I want to do is showcase stuff I don’t even want to look at myself. I’m not trying to insult anybody, but everybody has their own taste and we’re all entitled to it. The kind of art we’re showing [might be from] people from my background, maybe non-educated self-taught artists, but we’ll also show educated and very much academic artists.”
Aside from subjective preference, the only criteria Araujo and Ahn have for the artists they show is that the artists be organized, serious, and attentive to detail.
“We really want a professional approach,” he says. “Things like that are just basic information you can get from talking to an artist. Is this person serious about what they’re doing? Do we like working with them? Are they nice artists?”
Araujo says it has been a long journey over these last seven years and he has learned a lot. Now he is trying to open the doors to art that isn’t just loosely “urban contemporary” but a wider range of artists, like graphic designer Joe Miller, who Araujo calls “a living legend in the graphic design world.”
The gallery rotates art shows once a month. Each show will run three to four weeks, and when there is an “intermission” period they’ll host a pop-up that might showcase a whole different genre of art or appeal to an entirely different demographic.
Empire Seven has also been busy painting murals throughout San Jose in the last couple of years with the E7S Mural Project, an effort to get local artists involved with the community and create a public awareness of San Jose’s rich artistic presence launched in 2013.
Araujo’s background is in graffiti, and Ahn majored in photography at San Jose State. “When we met we hit it off and I learned and soaked up as much art information from her that she would relate, so that sparked a whole interest for me into arts and not just graffiti.”
Empire Seven has shown all different kinds of art because they enjoy all types of art. “My background is my background,” Araujo says. “I’m self taught so for me to close the door on something is not a good move for me. I’ve always been open to new things and new ideas and take it as a learning lesson; everything I do and see I try to teach myself anything I can learn from it.”
His background in street art started when his cousin came over one day and said, “Let’s go tag some stuff”
“I liked it,” Araujo says. “I liked paint. I liked leaving my name on something.”
When he was coming up in the graffiti world, things were a bit different – street art was still reviled as vandalism, and there was a code of respect for the experienced graffiti writers who were appreciated and admired by those newer to the scene. Araujo did it for a few years but stopped, until a friend re-ignited his interest in it, telling him he never should have stopped, so he started all over again, and getting in trouble for it all over again.
“A graffiti writer will always want to write on something,” he says. “It’s just a part of me now. It’s not a trend and it’s not a hobby. Graffiti very much became my lifestyle. It just molded me. It helped mold something for me at least, and [created a] structure [for me] to utilize. I never through graffiti was art; that was not the perception I had. Graffiti was vandalism. I always felt that way.”
But even with that perception, Araujo took the kind of artist’s approach to graffiti that is so widespread and popular now, re-branded with a much more pleasant-sounding word: beautification.
“I never did target the obvious ‘do not paint’ stuff. I looked for things that maybe should be painted – a building that’s an eyesore or high up or somewhere only people seeking graffiti will go seek it out and find it.”
Eventually, after he grew to relate graffiti to art, he realized that there was a way for him to mesh these worlds together.
“[Now] I see graffiti as its own art form where it has developed and it will [continue to] develop just like any other art form,” Araujo. “It’s definitely fun being able to work and be paid; that’s always a blessing. I never thought that after all those years of vandalizing I would end up being able to paint a mural on Facebook or GoDaddy. Now I’ve had the opportunity to be there, and when I’m there I just think about the past. I think thinking about the past just keeps me humble and being able to experience that while I’m there.”
The E7S Mural Project initially started as a passion project, with Araujo and a few fellow artists making the sacrifice to paint a mural (which is very time-intensive and costly) without being paid, simply because they wanted to. Some walls Araujo pursued for several years; others for just a few months, depending on the business owner and property owner. Now E7S has 11 murals throughout Downtown and Northside San Jose. They also received Knight Foundation funding for three murals (the remaining two will be completed over this summer).
Murals are pieces of public art, and these murals serve the same purpose that murals all over the world have been doing in recent years – beautification, placemaking, legitimizing a predominantly urban and long invalidated artform, highlighting the work and talent of local artists and building up the local arts community, and, simply, giving the public something beautiful and interesting to look at, a piece of public art that they can see and engage with every day without accessibility barriers. But beyond that, some of the E7S murals also offer a bit of poignant local commentary, like “Not a Drop to Drink” in Japantown, a commentary on California’s ongoing water crisis.
Since this project started, San Jose officials have begun breaking down the barriers to public art that existed in the past, opening the doors to numerous other artists and groups creating public pieces of their own. But that didn’t come without Araujo having to push it a little.
“We did a couple of the walls really renegade-style without breaking any laws, [but without] all the bureaucratic paperwork and permits they want to throw at you to make money,” he says. “If you want to make an impact and want to make a change, you just have to do it. You shouldn’t have to go to City Hall to beautify a section of a part of the community that might need it. You don’t need a permit for a trash bag to pick up trash.”