Six years ago Robert Vargas, an artist of Mexican descent who was born and raised in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles, purchased a corner loft with enormous windows that perch over the bustling corner of 7th and Spring Streets in downtown Los Angeles. This is where he often draws artistic inspiration from the stark contrast of sheer ruggedness and trendiness he witnesses on the streets below while painting — whether in his loft or in the streets themselves.
Unlike many downtowners in the recently gentrified community who may turn their nose at the influx of their destitute neighbors from nearby “skid row” (this area contains one of the largest populations of transient persons in the United States), Vargas’ approach differed. “People are my greatest inspiration,” he says while sipping on a soda in the outdoor seating area of Syrup Desserts, a local Spring Street Café, moments before giving a dollar to a local transient he knows by name. “I was very excited to see how my surroundings downtown would change my work and how it would affect my content,” he says. Not surprisingly, the bustling area and all of its issues — homelessness, drug use, poverty — have become subjects in some of Vargas’ work.
In 2004 with the inception of DTLA Art Walk, a monthly celebration of galleries, music, photography, lounges, restaurants and bars that now attracts thousands, Vargas was at the helm of the then-stagnant artistic endeavor. “I felt like I had to protect home turf,” he explains. “In order to bridge the gap between the gentrification that is going on and what [the area] used to be before the gentrification process, I brought my gallery to the streets and began incorporating homeless people into my work.” Vargas signature has become his lightning fast creations that are typically done on sidewalks in front of an audience.
As a result, his following grew and the line of people willing to become the nimble artist’s subjects became massive. In a continued effort to fill what he felt was a void in the DTLA artistic community, in 2009 Vargas started his “Red Zebra” party every first Thursday of the month at the area’s prestigious Crocker Club. In 2011, LA Weekly declared Vargas’ event the city’s “Best Party“. Soon after Vargas himself graced the cover of LA Weekly’s 2011 People Issue, an accomplishment he says is his “greatest thus far aside from staying alive.”