When tattoo and graffiti artist Daniel Lopez stepped off a bus in Spokane for the first time in 2013, he was a 30-year-old addict from Southern California who had already spent more than half his life clouding his mind and talents with drugs. Lopez was on the verge of suicide.
His mother had been dealing with meth addiction since he was a toddler; his father had long been absent and involved in gangs. His grandmother, who had adopted him as a 4-year-old, had just passed away. Lopez’s older sister in Yakima had taken him in but could not stop his downward slide.
With no support left, Lopez scored what he considered his last chance to get straight. He found a placement at Portland-based Adult and Teen Challenge, a nonprofit Christian organization dedicated to helping homeless men. The Spokane chapter welcomed Lopez, who was grappling with mental illness, malnourishment and bad teeth.
“They actually thought I wasn’t going to make it because my mind was so broken, you have no idea,” Lopez said.
Fast forward eight years later, and Lopez, 38, is now among Spokane’s most renowned and prolific muralists. His colorful street art stretches across dozens of buildings and walls throughout the Lilac City landscape. His swag and style have an unmistakable pop and joy despite his humble origins.
From his depiction of Moses parting the seas on an Airway Heights water tower to the lively “mural alley” he helped create in the Garland Business District and from his “American Jesus” near Second Avenue and Division Street to his huge birds on blue on the I-90 underpass at Altamont, Lopez’s vivid exuberance rarely fails to bring smiles to passersby.
Lopez has gone from feeling alone to being known. And loved. “Like one lady said she and her 80-year-old mom go on drives, and her mom loves to find my new murals,” Lopez said. “I’m just doing my own thing, and to learn someone loves me? It’s so great.”
Now there is another medium in which to love Lopez. From 5-8 p.m. Friday, the muralist will celebrate his first-ever exhibition of oil paintings, “When Words Fail,” at the Wonder Building at 835 N. Post St. downtown. Mask-wearing and social-distancing protocols will be in place.
“I had never oil painted in my life, and it’s always been intimidating for me, but, for the past two years, I dived head first into it,” Lopez said. “There are hierarchies in the art world, and then there’s the misfit artists who are just as serious as the more academic artists.”
Lopez took a few art classes in high school and showed promise but dropped out when he was 17. He became an apprentice in a tattoo shop at 18 where he worked for several years while doing graffiti pieces on the side. He plans to travel to Europe to receive formal instruction at some point, but until then he studies art online.
Lopez’s new obsession with oil painting is a way for him to explore another side to himself. “I love the street art stuff, but with the oil paintings, I can get really personal,” Lopez said.
One man on social media saw Lopez’s self-portrait in oil, “Monster,” and messaged the artist to let him know how much the piece moved him. “Monster” depicts a bare-chested and tattooed Lopez staring morosely at himself in a mirror, blocking out his own reflection with his hand.
“He said, ‘Dude, I’ve been ducking and dodging every mirror, and I can’t even look at myself right now,’ ” Lopez said. “He told me he looked at my painting and saw a man struggling with something inside of himself. My jaw just dropped. I was like, ‘You are spot on, dude!’ “
“I’m in this funky weird spot right now where the longer I’ve been clean, new things start to surface,” Lopez said. “Right now, I’m in this soul searching – especially having this show, where I’m like, ‘Who am I really? Who’s Daniel?’ “
Lopez would be the first to describe his transformation from down-and-out addict to local celebrity artist as nothing short of miraculous. He credits God for everything, and he likes to paint themes about him. And Jesus.
“I don’t think religion should be so taboo,” Lopez said. “Nonbelievers tend to picture the fire and brimstone type of church right off the bat, but I believe that God is loving. No one can ever convince me that God doesn’t love me.”
In his oil painting, “God,” which is included in the “When Words Fail” exhibition, the Lord is a casually dressed man in a high-backed leather chair in the sky. He wears trendy pop culture style, sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the “Evil Empire” album cover by Rage Against the Machine.
Lopez describes the very notion of depicting God at all as “bold” and “over the top.” But he obviously had fun trying. He likens it to Rodin’s sculpture “Hand of God” in which the master sculptor depicted God’s hands chiseling Adam and Eve out of a rock.
Lopez’s interpretation of God is more of a socks-with-sandals guy in a La-Z-Boy. Religious symbols abound, with lightning in the socks alluding to the firmament and the “empire” referring to an evil system in need of a hero.
“People always think back to the Renaissance when depicting God,” Lopez said. “So, I made God contemporary, in the now.”
Another theme in Lopez’s oil works is political, including feelings around the pandemic. One piece originally included in the show, “Liberty Is Sick,” shows the Statue of Liberty wearing a mask and sitting in a hospital bed.
The painting has already been sold after going semi-viral on Reddit. Lopez posted the work late one night, expecting “cynical comments from gamers” but was shocked to find more than 54,000 uploads and countless shares.
“That was such a fast-moving time, with riots and murders, and the pandemic was going crazy and people protesting and being evicted, and all of America wanted our rights back,” Lopez said.
“I’m not anti-mask, but businesses are struggling, people trying to feed their families. I just wanted to use a monument symbolizing America in a respectful way to try and speak up for everybody.”
While local businesses and art collectors continue to flock to Lopez for commissioned work, his oil paintings are providing his most creative outlet at the moment.
“It turns out, with the stuff I’m most self-conscious about, those are the pieces where most people are like, ‘Wow! This is what’s going on,’ ” Lopez said. “It’s definitely an awkward place for me.”
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