Visual Art

The Sour Grapes Graffiti Crew: Born and Raised in Oak Cliff, and Not on Bishop Ave.

Early 90s in Dallas, you could creep to the train yard in Oak Cliff and see tags from Kaws and Barry McGee, a ghetto gallery-on-wheels for street art. For the Donjuan boys -- three broke brothers from the hood -- it was the seed to survival.

Before the brothers became the sprawling Sour Grapes graffiti crew, before the major gallery exhibitions, and before the decision to open their gallery to the public for free this weekend, their padres brought the family, by not-so-legal means, to the United States, settling in Oak Cliff. Hoping for a better life, the elder Donjuans got to work to ensure their children would succeed. Coming up in the barrio, the oldest, Carlos, now 30 and an adjunct art professor at UTA, quickly became aware of the ghetto's ability to take an existential hold on their dreams.

"Growing up and seeing your friends killed, or in gangs, seeing them locked up in jail, we were seeing it happen to our own friends and cousins," Carlos says.

"Luckily, we were close in age and we had the same interests," Miguel, 28, says. "Well, Carlos had the interests and we just followed. Luckily we followed the positive things, turned us away from the negativity in the neighborhood."

Avoiding the gangs that control any neighborhood is tough -- especially when graffiti art is the first impression of creativity you see.

"There were the lowrider gangs, and that evolved into the punk version of lowrider gangs, out there to just kick people's asses," Miguel says. Arturo, who's 29 and works as a barber at Studio 410 in Oak Cliff, says they "learned how to deal with it. We directed our energy elsewhere."

They lived in a house of 15; avoiding the gangs by taking field trips to galleries and artist talks wasn't exactly an option. In the house, their exposure to creativity was mostly limited to home-made Halloween costumes and gardening, says Arturo. But the Donjuan's uncle, Noey, an 80s b-boy, taught the young boys the four elements of hip-hop: break-dancing, MCing, DJing and graffiti.

"Most people get into graffiti around 18, 19-years-old," Arturo says. "We were 12, 13-years-old trying to catch up to these dudes that were out of high school already. They wouldn't give us the time of day."

"A lot of graffiti artists back then were doing graffiti, but every other part of their life was shitty," he adds. "They were into drugs, no job, they just did graffiti cause they had nothing better to do.

Sour Grapes came along in 2000, basically as a joke. "We were all in different graffiti crews, but we would all paint together, so we just dropped them all and formed one," Arturo says. "All the other graffiti crews had really intimidating names like City Wall Assassins, and City Bomb Squads, we were like 'That's crazy.' Someone said Sour Grapes and it stuck. It's became something it's a lot bigger than it was gonna be."

Carving out a niche in the graffiti world was tougher before the advent of the internet, where kids today search online to "bite" others styles, Miguel says. "We had to wait for monthly publications of graffiti magazines that would come from New York, Cincinnati and L.A.," he says. "These magazines were like Bibles to us, twenty of us would huddle around trying to see the new graffiti writers. It's a humbling experience to know that we had to go out there and look for this artwork that wasn't accessible to anybody."

These days, gentrification has white-washed Oak Cliff into a crosswalk of PTA moms and Uptown chic. Living there for practically their whole lives, the brothers Donjuan hope they can help people remember that Oak Cliff is more than just Bishop Street. "If people are going to say 'We're Oak Cliff,' then invite Oak Cliff, don't just invite Bishop Arts, don't just invite just Kessler Park, don't invite just Steven's Park," Carlos says.

"There's all this area back here that's being ignored. I think we represent all these ignored areas. We're not trying to represent the cool crowd. We talk about, 'Oh, the museums aren't inviting,' but it's unfortunate when even the small places seem that way."

"Hopefully it will make it become the cultural hub we want it to be," Carlos adds. "There's just not a lot of unity yet. "

That's where the Grapes come in. The brothers' open studio on Saturday is their way of unifying the community through art. The event is free. "We didn't just invite people from galleries and museums, we blasted on Facebook," Miguel says. "Bring your kids, bring your students, it's open to everybody."

The numbers of Sour Grapes change from time to time; the brothers count 16 at the moment, but at the helm remain the Donjuan brothers. The group tries to live by an all-for-one, one-for-all mentality; Carlos sees his recent Juxtapose Magazine feature as a come-up for the entire crew. They're grateful for their recent exhibit in the Dallas Contemporary and an upcoming commissioned work at the Belmont Hotel, next to Shepard Fairey.

"I still love having that mentality that I'm a poor kid from Mexico. I don't ever want to let go of that feeling," Arturo says. "I have my son, and when he has his son, we're gonna teach him the same values, we're gonna work hard and appreciate what we have."

Sour Grapes Studio, 801 Seale St. Suite B, will be open at 6 p.m. Saturday. Art will be available for purchase.

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Lee Escobedo