Sam Rodriguez explores cultural hybridity and identity through a plurality of mediums

San Jose artist Sam Rodriguez doesn’t fit neatly into any one particular category. You can’t look at his body of work and say, “Oh, he’s a graffiti muralist,” or “Oh, he makes mixed-media pop art,” or even, “Oh, he’s an editorial illustrator.” Because he does all of those things (and more).

For Rodriguez, the variety of his art reflects the hybridity of his identity; and, by extension, the hybridity of the American cultural identity.

Rodriguez is Mexican-American. Growing up, in all of the neighborhoods he lived in and schools he went to, all of the other kids were also Latino. In American culture, all Latinos tend to get clumped into one category, yet within Latino communities there are incredible variations, with so many similarities yet also, he emphasizes, so many differences between them. Rodriguez also experienced an ethno-cultural identity crisis: visiting Mexico as a child he wasn’t considered “Mexican” enough because it wasn’t on his birth certificate, yet in America he was automatically considered (and dismissed as) Mexican.

“It can be confusing to figure out your identity and say, ‘This is where I stand,'” he says. “But it speaks to humanity in general, and really the idea of hybridity. Just within Mexico itself they have all these different cultural influences throughout their history, for better or worse, and then taking that and putting it in the U.S. mixes it even further.”

He says that is the motivating force for him as an artist – to take all of those different cultural and historical influences and use them as the basis of his work. “It might not be direct in all places but a key motivator is [that sense of] hybridity and how it relates to identity.”

Rodriguez’s body of work includes editorial illustrations for Complex magazine, portraits inspired by land maps and their imposed borders, a group art show for the twentieth anniversary of Notorious B.I.G.’s album Ready to Die and many other mixed-media portraits and illustrations of musicians like Kanye West and Erykah Badu, murals mixing portraiture and typography formed and fragmented by geometric patterns, paintings of Super Mario Brothers characters, an installation at MACLA, typography-heavy murals commissioned by the San Jose Museum of Art and the LinkedIn company headquarters – the latter he describes as a remix of their logo like a DJ’s remix of a song, a high-tech-inspired Day of the Dead mural for the Oakland Museum of California, and illustrations for Puma for a limited edition sneaker release. Despite the broad scope of his work (and clientele), there is a key theme that repeats throughout – an exploration of identity through linear patterns, typography, mixed mediums, and popular imagery.

“Growing up in the atmosphere I did, I dealt with identity issues,” Rodriguez says. “I was just made conscious of it because of other people and situations and that stuck with me. It motivates most of the body of work I do is trying to fuse things together.”

He experiments with portraiture using a variety of different mediums and blending them with contemporary inventions, reflecting a cultural identity influenced by popular media as much as industrialization and globalization. One of the major themes throughout his work is the mixture of portraiture and typography of different languages, particularly in a current series called “Typefaces.”

“When I choose different letters from different world languages I’m not just going to choose a particular letter because it means something [specific] in Japanese,” he says. “I’m observing [global culture] they way a painter observes a landscape – I’m just going to observe it and study it in that painting. That’s what I’m trying to do. It’s not necessarily about knowing what every [letter’s] meaning is,” just as those landscape-painting Impressionists didn’t necessarily know the name of every plant, flower, and tree they painted.

“I think about artists historically and the different things they did and why they did them. It was them observing and absorbing their environment. With Impressionist landscapes [they said], ‘Let’s explore and take this medium to its limits,’ and some said, ‘Let’s just observe nature and learn from it.’ That’s what I’m doing, but today, in our age, we’re sort of living in a dual reality. There is the material world out there but we also have this opportunity [to use] technology as a medium for all people. I think in the same way as an artist who paints landscape portraits, but I’m also observing this other realm – pop culture, language, culture itself – in the same way someone would observe a physical landscape. I’m observing the cultural metaphorical landscape.”

Rodriguez mixes characters from Arabic, Japanese, and Roman alphabets on the same picture plane just to see what happens, making a somewhat subtle statement about cultural identity but also, he says, to surprise himself.

He takes the same approach to the medium that he does to the images he depicts. He doesn’t use oil paints or acrylics, but instead uses spray paint on canvas and pieces of wood. “[Oils and acrylics] were used at a certain point in time because that was all they had to work with,” he explains. “[The material] you use also says something about the concept of your art and the time period. What would Picasso have done if he had a Home Depot?”

Rodriguez’s introduction to the professional art world was through street art. He had been creating since childhood but didn’t really think art could be a profession until he started meeting other artists in college and got his first gig as an artist through his job at New American Media, earning him exposure and his first real opportunity to speak to other professionals in the field.

“At that point it was still editorial work but I thought, ‘Okay, people actually do this,'” he says. “I didn’t know any professional artists. I didn’t know it was possible to make a real living off of it. I just knew graffiti artists.”

Early on in his art career, Rodriguez tried to keep his two seemingly divergent art worlds separate. When he was doing graffiti, he wanted nothing to do with the fine art he was studying in school. When he was in school, he wanted nothing to do with graffiti. Now, he says, there has been a sort of collision and he has fused the two together.

“Why not live as an artist with those two identities stylistically and conceptually?” he asks. “I try not to have any borders as far as how I want to work or reach people. As any kind of artist or writer or speaker, with what little time you have should try to occupy as much space as you can, whether that’s commercial space, editorial space, or physical space. Some might advise you to not do that, to just focus on one thing, but these are all the things I’m interested in.”

He first became interested in art through commercial art, looking at the album covers of his uncle’s record collection and watching cartoons. He enjoys commercial art just as he does street art just as he does fine art, refusing to just focus on one thing like an agenda because, he says, that’s just not how real people go about their lives. “Of course a lot of people in [art] school will tell you to focus on one field, but yeah, I’m not doing that! I just feel like if it can be done, it can be done.”

For a while he also didn’t include any pop culture imagery or references in his work, but found he would always go back to the stuff he liked as a kid, like Felix the Cat, and get really excited about it. “Why not incorporate it into your work?” he asked himself again.

Initially resistant to using a computer to make art, he has now incorporated that as a medium too. He also uses social media to share all of his work, which adds another dimension to audience engagement and accessibility and also creates yet another layer of medium.

“When you post a drawing or a painting and [people are] looking at it on a device that is not your actual art, they’re looking at pixels on a screen, that’s a new art piece. That’s another layer. That’s another medium.”

He looks at the process and popularization of street art, once derided as mere graffiti with overtones of socioeconomic and racial coding, as a reflection of contemporary culture, not just in art but as a whole. “Street art is really trendy,” he says. “The whole process itself is a sign of the times. They’re using lifts and [other technology and machinery] that wasn’t available before, and because of that they’re able to execute things at rapid speeds. And now everyone is using social media. That’s how I get gigs, sell prints, promote events…social media is also an art medium. These are things [artists in history] would have used if they had been available.”

While the popularization – and subsequent commercialization – of street art has led to some negative reactions among early practitioners, Rodriguez believes that, even if some of it is “cheesy,” there’s more awareness now, which creates a larger audience, which in turn creates more opportunities. “You just have to look at it for what it is and continue on with your original agenda,” he says. “Stay true to what your original intent was in any medium, but I also think you should adapt – not sell out or change your philosophy, but adapt to mediums. I try to stay true myself but keep an open mind.”

As he has evolved as an artist, he has expanded his scope to include things he at first denied in order to reach a wider audience but also to fully explore his identity as an artist and the cultural identity at large – a cultural identity that can’t be pigeonholed, that includes street art, commercialization and corporations, pop icons, cultural duality and plurality, global identities, and hybridity.

“Cultural hybrids – that’s inspiring. Art and science. Art and technology. I want to do that, but still keep the soulfulness in there.”