Now in his 30s, Arturo Donjuan recently ran into someone at a grocery store who he hadn’t seen since he was a teen. The obvious mutual question was, "What are you doing these days?" His old friend is now working as a manager, but Donjuan is still doing what he was doing in high school: making graffiti and hanging out with his friends. This is how an art collective started 15 years ago.
Graffiti isn’t permanent. It isn’t well known for being a longtime career, especially if you just come up with a name and start spray-painting it all over the city. “That’s a recipe for a short career,” says Miguel Donjuan. Sour Grapes, a collective made up of family and longtime friends, started small, learning little by little. Eventually they went out at night to spray-paint buildings and trains while avoiding rival graffiti artists, hiding from cops or running from them.
They started working in their neighborhood, Oak Cliff. But many of its buildings were rundown, so they found West Dallas more conducive to their purposes. There was violence in the area, but they never had any problems. Their work was so colorful that it clearly didn't indicate any gang affiliation. This was before digital cameras or Facebook, so they’d take a picture with a 35mm camera, develop the film at a Walgreens and wait for the photos. But most of that work was either painted over or the buildings it decorated were torn down.
As Sour Grapes grew more popular, the “graffiti detectives” started to take notice. That’s when they had to make a change. It was either evolve or stop. They decided to evolve, which, as they see it, definitely beats going to jail. Sour Grapes started making murals as community projects. Again, they started small, painting friend’s garages, often during birthday parties. They also painted murals on corner stores, and on tire and muffler shops.
They noticed others taking graffiti and murals straight into galleries, but didn’t want to replicate what they were doing on the streets. Sour Grapes weren’t in a hurry to get into galleries. They wanted to carefully consider how to function in both worlds. “We evolve or we just fall off like everyone else,” says Carlos Donjuan. “It takes a lot of understanding of both worlds. The gallery world and the graffiti world are two different things.”
But Sour Grapes eventually started doing shows in restaurants and garages, moving the graffiti letters, animated characters, faceless figures, images of childhood memories, personal struggles and broader themes indoors. They were eventually invited to galleries and continued working in West Dallas, but out of a studio. It was never planned. They used the same approach, taking it one show at a time with a slow evolution, a natural progression. Slow process, long career.
The common theme in their work is getting together and having a good time. “Some artists are depressed or angry,” says Carlos Donjuan. “But we do it because we like it.” They have managed to take the spirit of getting together and having fun with graffiti or mural painting into galleries. Sour Grapes is a collective that most members were practically born into. “You don’t pick your best friend,” says Carlos Donjuan.
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They also know their audience and consider them. The majority of the people who go to their shows have been following them for years. At every show they get a few new followers, slowly building an audience from year to year. “We really want to make sure they are proud of what we do,” says Carlos Donjuan “When you invest in your audience, you invest in your art as well.”
Sour Grapes attract diverse crowds and believe it is something the Dallas art scene needs more of. Their crowds are made up of friends they have known since childhood, family, gallery and museum employees, and even executives. Sour Grapes want their shows to be all-inclusive, without any pretension. “Whether you work at the DMA or you work at McDonald’s, it doesn’t matter,” says Carlos Donjuan. “Whether you show up in a Bentley or your mom drops you off, it doesn’t matter.”
Sour Grapes have now had murals commissioned. They recently worked with five different high schools for the Mayor’s Rising Star Council, creating a mural for each school with its students. They want to make people interested in murals and influence a new generation of artists. They don’t recommend graffiti because it can put you in jail. They’d rather see people make money with mural painting. Imagining a city full of murals, their hope is to help train young artists to exercise their talent. Sour Grapes' method was trial and error, but it doesn’t have to be that way for the people behind them.
See Sour Grapes: Celebrating 15 Years of the Collective at the Latino Cultural Center through August 30.