This is America: police brutality and pop culture. Immigration and the NFL. Gentrification and…Drake. These are all themes explored by artist Patrick Martinez, who was born and raised in Los Angeles to a Native American and Mexican father and a Filipino mother, and uses neon, ceramic, and mixed media installations to unpack the idea of the American Dream. On the Internet, he is mostly known for his neon installation Less Drake, More Tupac, which Drake actually bought and currently displays in his home. I talked to Martinez as he wrapped up his first solo show at L.A.’s Vincent Price Museum and prepared for the next edition of neon installations on sale at We Buy Gold, Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels’s roving art gallery, now open at 179 East Broadway in New York City.
On Less Drake, More Tupac, Martinez’s 2011 neon sculpture that Drake bought for $6,000 and that still has a life of its own on Instagram:
“This was when Drake had his second or third album out and [a friend said] Drake is the best rapper ever alive. And I’m like, ‘Wow that’s crazy, you’re tripping.’ He was like 21, 22, and at the time I was like 30 or 32. It was a generational gap. So I created this as an inside joke for my now-partner, my ex-girlfriend, and it was hanging at her place. I did this group show in Los Angeles, and I had two pieces for it, and my friend who was co-curating it came to pick up the pieces and saw Less Drake on the wall and was like, ‘Oh, we gotta show that. That shit is dope.’
“I guess a few weeks after the show opened, Drake’s best friend saw it and brought him over and he took photos with it and he bought it. I made him a second one. My ex-girlfriend still has the first one. People are like, ‘Why do you hate Drake so much?’ Everyone thinks I’m out to kill him, but the photo [of the piece] keeps on circulating and they think I’m putting it out there. Like, no, I’ve been over that, I’m trying to do other things. It’s not even like that. My brother loves Drake and he bangs that shit. I wasn’t even trying to show that piece and [Drake] wanted to buy it. I honestly thought he bought it, threw it on the floor … but he still has it up at his place. It’s just funny. At the time it was about content—more content less filler—but Drake has kind of come full circle and turned into someone that’s just a monster.”
Martinez created his first solo L.A. museum exhibit, America is for Dreamers, in response to the Trump administration’s hostility toward undocumented immigrants and people of color:
“The Vincent Price Museum is on the campus of East L.A. College. I’m from that area. I knew there were a lot of DACA recipients and undocumented students there, I just didn’t know how many. There are about 2,000+. So I wanted to speak to them in the show and then also the ideas about gentrification and the foundation of homes slipping away from a lot of people—it’s not so concrete anymore, it’s more like quicksand. It’s like, Damn, where do I go? Rent is so expensive I can’t afford it. I’m getting priced out of the neighborhood. Am I or my friend going to be able to stick around? What is home? When I think about the wall the current administration is trying to build and barriers like these ‘gentrification fences’ [in L.A.] and some of them are so tall you can’t even see the home. All this talk about walls and barriers — all these things isolate people.
On how expensive and unrealistic the American Dream is now, and the hope of creating a new dream to work towards:
“The ‘dream,’ earlier on for me in my life growing up in America, it really felt like certain things would be doable. Like at this point I thought I’d own a home. It’s not the experience my parents had—even though they were struggling at times, they still made stuff happen. It just feels like a lot of that stuff is slipping away. I’m 37 now. It’s not the same type of life my dad had [at that age]—not that it’s easier or harder. He had kids, he had a home. It’s hard out here financially in Los Angeles particularly. The cost of living is so crazy. So a lot of things are just further out of reach.
“The American Dream is just an idea and I know that and I don’t want to be attached to that. I’ve learned to become happy with what I’m doing and how I can help in any situation, but talking about ideas and objects, things of the American psyche, the desire to own a home, have a family, those are very expensive things to have. Things feel more out of reach. When I started creating the work I had all this in mind, but it didn’t really change, the work was evolving, but I don’t think I still feel the same way. If anything I’m a little bit more concerned because there’s so many people being attacked, friends and family, in different ways. There’s all kinds of acts of violence. Whether it’s racism, prejudice, immigration issues… it’s interesting times. You compound the interesting times with trying to own a home, you feel lost at times.”
Martinez’s Pee-Chee folder series—depicting the men, women, and children who’ve lost their lives at the hands of the police, including Stephon Clark and 6-year-old Kameron Prescott—reveals how deeply police violence impacts our communities and our youth:
“I did the first one in 2005 when I was still in college, in art school. It was a print, more of a generic version of police brutality because I knew it was going on. I was in the street, doing graffiti with my friends in the 90s. I would see it—we just didn’t have phones with cameras to capture it: summertime, it’s hot as hell here, getting put into the back of a police car and then the cop is turning up the heat in the car and leaving the kids in there. Weird shit. And you would see this shit and say, ‘Wow, he was fucking with this 14-year-old kid.’
“I would see stuff like this, but I didn’t have any reference for it. I just started making this work about police brutality and kids getting harassed at school…like why are there cops at school? And then all these videos and photos came out and it was exactly what I was dealing with. Now [I create this series] to show solidarity. These are my friends, these are my neighbors, these are American people. I’m trying to give importance [to the victims] with paint. A lot of this stuff doesn’t get remembered. Everything’s digested in blog speed. One day you see it, next day something else happens, like Trump takes a dump, and the shit gets covered up. So when I do paint these it gives it some kind of focus. People go, ‘Well why are they painted? Who is that?’
“It gives it importance. Back in the day, rich people would only be painted, so I’m thinking about that, like what’s contemporary figure painting? These are the figures in our country. These are the people I want to paint because people are going to forget about these things happening.”
Martinez is currently working on a series that examines the changing landscape of L.A., especially the use of “gentrification fences”:
“The work right now is transitioning into the actual changing of the landscape—like the physical facade of a building—and the erasure of Los Angeles. How things are disappearing, records, actual places. I’m not really calling out a specific place but more the feeling of something that was there that’s now getting painted over and getting in some people’s eyes fixed and updated. All those things are informing the work right now. It’s interesting to see this stuff and kind of respond to it and acknowledge it in the work. And I’ll have a solo exhibit at Charlie James Gallery [in L.A.] and a group exhibition in Mexico City, both in September.”
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Interview by Amirah Mercer.