FORT WORTH, Texas — Juan Velazquez has painted around 70 murals in Fort Worth, all in the last three years.
On a windy day in late April, Velazquez stood in front of a blank, blue wall outside at Tres Coronas restaurant.
The corner of East Vickery Boulevard and Parkland Avenue isn’t a spot anyone in Fort Worth would think to come to enjoy a realism-style painting of a Mexican landscape, but, for more than one reason, that’s why Velazquez was in front of the blank, blue wall.
“I think it’s important that everyone feel represented in the artwork that we have in the city,” he said.
Velazquez’s name and Instagram handle grace nearly 70 walls across Fort Worth, mostly in underserved, poorer neighborhoods.
Velazquez didn’t begin his mural painting career until 2020, but since then, he’s painted nearly constantly, developing a reputation for hyper-realistic works across Dallas-Fort Worth and for the way his works begin.
“I can see how this looks crazy,” said Velazquez, sketching out randomly placed squiggles and shapes across the wall.
Velazquez uses what’s known as a doodle grid to plan his murals. He fills the wall with shapes and random lines, then takes a photo of the wall and uses an application on his phone to show him how the picture he wants to paint will fit on the wall relative to the shapes. It’s so distinct, other artists often know he’s going to paint a mural if they see doodles outlined on it first.
“I had a few people that were like, that looks insane. That doesn’t - I don’t think that’s going to look good,” he said. “If you saw the photo you would probably see it too.”
Prior to the last three years, Velazquez had a standard 9-5, but after the birth of his daughter, he was motivated to pursue his dream of being an artist. He also had a tattoo of a paintbrush on his arm to remind him of his goal.
“I’m going to have to explain to people why I have a paintbrush and I’m not an artist, or I just have to become an artist,” he said. “I want her to feel like she can do whatever she wants, and I can’t tell her that if I was too scared to do what I wanted to do.”
He started with a brush and oil paints but when COVID closed indoor galleries and cancelled art shows, the city’s walls became his canvass.
“It doesn’t feel like I’ve worked in three years. I’ve just been painting,” he said. “I just have a weird sense of pride with just using spray paint.”
The mural at Tres Coronas is set to replicate a picture of a bridge in Nochistlan Zacatecas in Mexico.
“I’m like, I got to put something on that wall to make it ‘boom’ you know,” said Jesus Luis Jr., the restaurant’s co-owner.
It’s a tribute to home that also includes three goats, a nod to the restaurant’s specialty, goat stew.
“It’s really important because of our family,” he said. “It makes it look nicer. I’ve looked at it for a while.”
Velazquez partly paints because when he looked at the city’s art, he only saw one color.
“I go to the Kimbell Art Museum and nobody from the paintings looks like me,” he said. “Nobody.”
Velazquez was in the same battalion as Vanessa Guillen when they did basic training, though they didn’t know each other.
“That was something that bothered me,” he said, of Guillen’s death. “It’s kind of like a brother killing you in a way.”
His tribute to her along Hemphill Street in 2020 was when his name and work began to be widely shared.
“On Instagram, I had gotten like 6,000 followers overnight,” he said. “I probably had like 4,000 friend requests on Facebook.”
Social media has replaced galleries as the showcase for work. He’s painted a mural of Emiliano Zapata with the words ‘No Se Venda’ on it on Hemphill St. to oppose rezoning and gentrification, and he’s proudest of his work bringing lost legends back to life, like his paintings of Frida Kahlo and Vicente Fernandez along West Magnolia Street.
"I feel like it’s kind of like a haircut, you know. Like, when you get a haircut, you feel different about yourself. It’s still you, but you feel better about yourself. I feel the same way with communities,” he said.
“I feel like if you go out and you don’t even have sidewalk, and you don’t even have streetlights or your roads are messed up, you feel a certain way about your community. I can’t do that. I can’t fix – I can’t add streetlights. All I can do it paint. So, what I can do is take a wall that is abandoned or doesn’t have any art and put some art in it, and hopefully the people, the people feel a little bit different about their community," he continued.
His right arm has the tattoo of a paintbrush and the left has an ‘817’ tattoo, the Fort Worth area code. Velazquez said the city and the way it looks is important to him. He’s far from the only muralist in Fort Worth and the Instagram-famous Inspiration Alley is filled with murals. He said what the city lacks, though, is a place for young students to practice there art.
“A lot of kids, they’re in middle school or high school. They just want to go paint. Fort Worth, there’s no place you can paint,” he said. “If you want to paint, your only option, your ONLY option is to do it illegally.”
He was part of a group the City of Fort Worth assembled to develop a graffiti abatement plan. He said the suggestions were mostly around education of the harmful impacts of graffiti, but his recommendation was the development of an area like Dallas’s Fabrication Yard, an abandoned warehouse where anyone can paint and practice.
“You start painting illegally, you start hanging out with other people who do illegal stuff. Now, you become friends with them. Now, it becomes a lifestyle,” he said. “They’re going to paint. It’s silly to think that they won’t.”
As much as he wants to teach, Velasquez said he’s still learning himself.
“I don’t admire my work. I don’t ever look at it and be like, ‘look what I did’,” he said. “I see all the imperfections in it. I just move on to the next one. Don’t even think about it.”
In the city he wears on his sleeve, Velazquez is leaving his mark.