This One’s for My Homies

Jaime Guerrero turns his inner-city past into art.

Jaime Guerrero stands in his glasswork studio in Alameda, surrounded by homies. There’s a guy with a black cap and an oversize football jersey, a women in a long dress and big hoop earrings carrying a baby, a man chugging a forty-ounce bottle of malt liquor, and another man in a goatee and sunglasses, doing the “Wassup?” posture that translates to “You wanna fight?” Made entirely of glass, these homies are fine-tuned down to their stomach muscles and handlebar mustaches. They represent familiar pop culture clichés — the kind we encounter in Cypress Hill rap songs or barrio gangster movies. But to Guerrero, who grew up among real-life “homies” in East Los Angeles, the characters have sentimental value. Not to mention they sell for $2,000 a pop.

And they sell very well. Out of the thirty in Guerrero’s original collection, only five remain. They won him a Saxe Fellowship award from the Bay Area Glass Institute in 2006, and another $3,000 grant this year, which he’ll put toward a residency. Now he’s designing a collection of near-life-size figures (four feet tall and up), including a few with weapons “concealed” in their transparent glass stomachs. Currently, these figures constitute the bulk of his creative output.

But success has put Guererro in an awkward position. He conceived of them as a way to undermine stereotypes, and he wants them to fulfill their larger social purpose. Unfortunately, that isn’t necessarily possible for an expensive product made on such a small scale. Guerrero’s figures resemble the trademarked Homie toys by Richmond cartoonist David Gonzales (most of which are sold in gumball machines), but for one huge difference. Those Homies are art masquerading as a commodity, and these homies are a commodity transformed into fine art. Guerrero says his art has no relationship to the Homie toy line, even though they have the same name and stake out the same neighborhood. Generally glassworks aren’t cheap, let alone glassworks with this much detail. Thus, it’s unlikely that Guerrero’s homies will reach many of the people they represent.

And that’s a source of discomfort for the artist. All of his work has a very directed social meaning, most of which derives from his identity as a second-generation Chicano. A row of bright luchador masks adorn one of his studio walls, along with sculptural hieroglyphs and glass deities, all inspired by Meso-American myth. Two glass cucarachas hearken both to rural Mexico, and to Guerrero’s working-class background. (“I grew up in a poor environment, and I grew up with cockroaches,” he said. “They have this symbol of being culturally repressed, but the empowering aspect to them is that when everything dies, cockroaches are going to be the last thing to survive.”) A glass case on one table bears three high-heeled shoes, which are also made of glass. One is peep-toed, another has a chunky heel, the last is a classic stiletto. The back of the case says “Please Do Not Touch” in red block letters, which is purposely ironic, because the thing is sealed shut. The heels themselves are a hieroglyph, Guerrero said. “The shoes are like the Cinderella myth of what modern society deems beautiful,” he said. “It’s kind of the unattainable beauty that we’re always trying to get, either male or female.”

For all the intensity of these pieces, none have as much theatrical shock value as the homies. Guerrero started making them in 2006, and says they are largely based on the gang members he saw around his neighborhood in Los Angeles. He gave them stereotypically Chicano nicknames like Pepe, Nacho, and Chuy, and set them in archetypal poses. Some made gang signs. One of Guerrero’s earlier homegirls looked like a prostitute, in her mini-skirt and turquoise halter. Many drank forty-ounce bottles of malt liquor. He even made a series of figures trapped inside malt liquor bottles, and called it “Homies in a Forty.” “A forty is something that keeps popping up in my work,” Guerrero said. “It’s the accessible cheap drink. Growing up in East LA, a forty cost like $1.50. It’s cheaper than food.”

Other homies are ready for hand-to-hand combat, with their shoulders shrugged and their arms outstretched. “When two gang members meet, there’s this whole protocol that they go by,” Guerrero explained. “If you see a rival gang member you have to call them out. The way you do it is you make the stance or you say ‘Wassup.’ It’s an initiation to violence. After that, they either start fighting or they start shooting each other.” Such behavior is familiar to Guerrero, who saw a lot of fights growing up, and had to dodge a few bullets. But it’s still hard to resist the allure of gang violence, even after seeing its ugly side. “I kind of like the idea of that initiation,” he said.

A decade since graduating from California College of the Arts, Guerrero still has the art student look, with his baggy clothes and chic Ray Bans. He seems pretty far removed from the poverty and violence of his old hood. He wasn’t that deep in the muck to begin with: Thirty-five-year-old Guerrero grew up in a two-parent household, with two sisters and an older brother who helped spark his interest in art. (Both of them grew up drawing and painting; Guerrero didn’t encounter glasswork until he got to college). Nonetheless, the homie characters have a kind of nostalgic pull that helps personalize them.

Recently Guerrero stepped up his game with the larger phantoms, which stand at least four feet tall and carry weapons inside their bodies — the prototype has a handgun. He calls them “phantoms” because they represent the “fallen” homies. In Guerrero’s symbolic vocabulary, “fallen” doesn’t just mean “dead;” it means abandoned or forgotten. “They’re the forgotten culture, and the forgotten people, in some ways,” he said. Like their counterparts, the phantom homies are also frozen in postures in violence. “Like this one does,” Guerrero said, pointing to a half-finished homie lying with his arms outstretched on the table. “It has a posture of calling somebody out.” In fact, it could almost be a crucifixion.

The homies are labor-intensive and hard to make anatomically correct, especially since it’s hard to withstand the heat of glasswork for more than three hours at a time. According to Guerrero, the larger ones take about a month to make, from conception to completion. The materials are fairly expensive. Collectors understand that part of the deal, even if they don’t know what a homie is. “There’s an awareness in the glass collector world,” said Guerrero, who at first wasn’t sure how his homies would be perceived. “They know what it’s worth and they’re familiar with the process and the resources it takes to make.” Thus, most people who purchase his homies are fairly well-heeled.

Guerrero often wishes he could take his homie line outside the rarefied glass collector world. “It’s not accessible to a larger community, which is a problem for me,” the artist said. He’s also faced criticism from people who live in his old Los Angeles neighborhood, because they think the homies glorify violence. Guerrero demurs. “For me it’s not about that,” he said. “For me it’s bringing attention so there can be something done about it.” So far, he’s donated several homies to Bay Area Glass Institute, Galeria de la Raza, and Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino America. He hopes to ultimately start a glasswork education program in the inner-city, to give other kids the same opportunities he had at CCAC.

But to do all that, he’ll need capital. So he’ll have to sell a lot more homies.

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