As we sipped on Tejuino that we got from a cart in the Sears parking lot of Boyle Heights -LA, Ernesto Yerena shared with us his opinions on politics, religion and what it takes to play the game. Ernesto creates brightly colored images that are culturally and politically charged. As a Chicano artist, he is working to represent his community through his art. He has a lot of fascinating theories and stories, and we're pleased to be able to  share them. Thanks for a great interview Ernesto!

Follow him around: @ernestoyerena

Interview by Britt Harrison, Photos by Kim Newmoney, Video Edit and Interview by Justine Jaime

Posted on July 24, 2015



I gravitated towards music, art, and any culture that would use their art to explore their creativity. Bands like Rage Against The Machine or Public Enemy even Tigras Del Norte and jazz like Sun Ra. The way that they were able to engage politically and also create culture was really striking to me. Now that’s how I like to create. My work is very personal, but it also makes sense within the politically or socially conscious movements. 


Colors, for me, are very influential. I use a lot of really bright, even fluorescent pinks, blues, purples, and lime greens, because they are a part of my history. If you look at Mexico, there’s a lot of bright colors in the architecture. They do this because the natural landscape is really bright with flowers. The architecture came from Spain and Europe, which brought over a lot of royal blues, blood reds, and burgundy. But when it moved here everything got a lot brighter. The color magenta is really prominent in Mexico, because the Aztecs noticed that on the cactus lives this little larvae. It looks like a little spider web, but if you peel it off there’s this insect inside that has really bright blood. They would smash these up to color their clothes. So I use a lot of those colors because it is my connection to community.


My parents were very supportive and continue to be. My grandpa and dad started painting cars when they were really young. My dad got started at the shop as a kid by cleaning up. He’s been painting his whole life. When I was growing up, he would come home after work and paint cars in the backyard. So I was always around it. And my mom is very supportive in that she made me very critical and ambitious at a very young age.  


When I was nine my grandpa got me my first Exact-O kit. He bought it at the 99 cents store and it was drenched in oil. It came in the blue box that was defective and wouldn't really close fully but that was my first kit. 


It really sunk in one mid-winter fair, I saw a fender that was painted with a really bright, candy red and magenta flames going around it. It kinda blew my mind. I remember asking my dad, “How do you do those flames?” And he told me that the guy used an air brush, but he could show me how to do it with tape and a mask. My dad didn't really draw, but he was a master at adjusting the medium to his limitations. He showed me how to cut stencils.


I started with an internship for Shepard Fairey in 2006. Then I was on and off until recently. I was always in contact with Shepard, he would send me some files sometimes. Working for Obey was like my University in a way, because I was learning a lot of corporate design-like logos and brochures in school, but I really wanted to make posters. A lot of my favorite art was poster designs like Cuban political art from the Revolution, Chicano art, Black Panther art, and political art from the 60’s.


I’m trying to do the solo stuff. It’s a lot of work, and it gets exhausting but at the end of the day you’re doing exactly what you want to. It can be a struggle, because nothing is ever constant.


I think everyone gets to this point where they’re kind of cruising, but for me I got started so young. I didn't really have a life other than work. In high school and collage I probably went to one party. Since I was probably fifteen, I was always drawing, making horrible drawings, but I was trying to learn.


This studio is kinda different from everywhere else, because its mostly open space. There’s always a community of people working here, but it can be laid back. I like being out here because even though were in the industrial part of town, it can be very quite, almost like a small town. 


I’m trying to get this mural done in my studio. I actually cut out a perforated stencil and made something like a coloring book on the wall. It wasn't that easy, but I’m trying out different techniques because my murals have a lot of different colors. I’m trying to find a way to spray house paint, but the original guns are too coarse to spray a stencil. So my dad customized a gun for me. I should be able to use thinned out paint and get pretty clean lines. A lot of my work is trying to figure out technique and make new stuff happen. I’m a nerd about the process.


This one is called, Our True History. It’s one of my favorites images. It’s of a young Chicana, or Native woman. This was in response to growing up and never seeing myself in history books. You go on TV and the only brown people are waitresses or maids. Psychologically, it bothers me, because if I go see a movie I immediately notice the absence. When I saw Mad Max, I thought, ‘Oh shit, in the future, there’s no people of color unless you're a super model.’ I created this image to try to fill the void. There’s a huge void in music and art, and that’s just the void that I see. I’m sure that queer folks of color or women of color see even more of a void that I don't see. Having male privilege, at the end of the day you don't get to notice everything, because the things that are messed up kind of benefit me, and I don't even notice them. That’s what privilege does to people.


I think it’s important for people to raise those conversations, and that’s what that mural is about.  A lot of my work comes from a place where I feel upset or angry. I used to make work that was always against something, like this could be viewed as against white supremacy, but I don't want to make anything that is against anything anymore. I’d rather make it pro-something. I want this to be pro equality or in favor of trying to see ourselves in history, rather than being against the books that don't have us in them. I don’t even want to think about those books, I want to think about the books that have everyone included. 


Even though I’m very critical of it, I still love a lot of religious art work. I use a lot of the rays.

I guess a lot of my imagery seems cliché, but the Virgen María is very important to me, although I’m not Catholic anymore. A lot of people don’t understand that. To me it’s like looking at the history past what we think of the Virgen today. When the Catholic Church came to Mexico, they really wanted to find a way to convert the Mexican people. The Church knew that Mexico lived in a matriarchal society, and that they couldn't get this group of people to adopt a male deity. So they used the Virgen María. Now in Mexico you see more images of the Virgen than Jesus, even though that is contrary to what the church would say. It’s just culturally they were guided by female deities or female energy. So for me, when I make those images it represents my mother, because that’s who my mother and grandmother pray to. I respect that no matter what my beliefs are.

The Sacred Heart is something I have tattooed on my wrist. To the church it represents Jesus’ heart but for me, the fire represents knowledge from the indigenous teachings, because stories were shared around the fire. And the thorns to me represent the struggle of every day life, whether it’s battling anxiety or depression or being broke and not knowing how to pay the rent. I like to take Catholic imagery and give it my own meaning. Its kind of my response to the way they did the Virgen, they took a lot of the indigenous traditions and imagery and they gave it their own spin, I wanted to do that to them too.


Ganas means motivation or work, like staying on task. My grandpa always says that as a goodbye. A lot of working class people say that. It means ‘work hard today.’ Its part of who we are and that’s kind of why I wanted to name my business that. I did get some help from my parents along the way, but I don't come from a lot of money. I’m up to my neck in student loans. Growing up I didn’t have a lot of resources, like I didn't go to any art schools or programs. I worked really hard when I got to college to play catch up. It was just being motivated that got me ahead, and that’s kind of the spirit of Hecho Con Ganas.