In middle school, Sergio B. Sanchez was caught searching for pictures of graffiti on the school computer. He had a few markers in his backpack and a stack of paper with his graffiti on it.
He was sent to the principal’s office, suspended for two weeks, put on probation and the principal threatened to call the police.
The principal told Sanchez to take a real art class because, with graffiti, he would never amount to anything.
Sanchez never took that “real” art class.
Now a junior at the University of Oregon, Sanchez opened his exhibit “Santanero y Mexicano” in the EMU Adell McMillan Gallery on Jan. 7. The exhibit features graffiti art pieces inspired by Sanchez’s identity as a Chicano from Santa Ana, California — commonly referred to as Santanero.
All but one of the pieces in the collection were made for the gallery. He decided to include a piece he created in high school to give a nod to his beginnings.
Sanchez began experimenting with graffiti at a young age after watching his older brother do bubble and block letters on their cabinets at home. In elementary school, Sanchez sold his graffiti to other students as a side hustle. But in middle school, graffiti was prohibited because it was associated with gang-related activities.
Despite the misconceptions associated with the art form, Sanchez kept pursuing it. Throughout middle school, he began experimenting with 3D art, and in high school he developed his current style: old school, freestyle lettering and Chicano-inspired images.
“Art like this is almost always criminalized,” he said. “It’s not looked at in the same way European art is looked at.”
Sanchez never thought his work would turn out to be anything until others around him started noticing it. For Sanchez, graffiti is a way to represent his culture and people. His art highlights the struggle, the pride and the love that come out of his community.
Sanchez said he hopes the gallery opens the doors for other graffiti artists to let them see their art in museums and galleries too. But more importantly, he wants to inspire people who look like him and come from a similar background to pursue their passions and see the value of their work.
“They don’t let you know that things like this are possible for kids or for people from where I’m from,” Sanchez said. “They want to keep you at a certain place where they don’t want to let you to pass.”
He has no formal art training or interest in receiving it. For him, his art is about emotion and not about being technically perfect. Sanchez doesn’t want his art to follow the norm; he wants to do his own thing.
“My art can’t be taught in a classroom. My art is learned on the street, through struggle, through experiences,” he said. “These are my experiences.”