Smile Politely

Jose Vazquez walks us through the creation of that incredible CUPHD mural

An in-progress mural at Champaign Urbana Public Health District by Jose Vazquez. It features 11 different people, all painted among and the colors of monarch butterflies. There are orange cones and a large cherry picker parked in front.
Jessica Hammie

We have written about the amazing new mural at Champaign-Urbana Public Health District (CUPHD) a few times already since it made its debut. As someone with no talent for drawing or painting, I could not quite wrap my head around how someone creates something so huge and with so much detail. As soon as I saw artist Jose Vazquez tagged in the comments for the one of the announcements, I knew I wanted to ask him at least a hundred questions about the creation of this mural. Vazquez graciously agreed to answer all my questions about that incredible mural, how he got into street art, and what he’s working on next.

Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

a close up shot of Jose Vazquez standing in front of the CUPHD mural. He is smiling at the camera; he has black and grey hair and a beard.
Jose Vazquez

Smile Politely: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What’s your connection to Champaign-Urbana? Are you originally from the area? 

Jose Vazquez: I am originally from Mexico and at the age of three, my family moved to Chicago. Growing up, I got into graffiti and became a graffiti artist. Back in the day, graffiti art wasn’t as well respected or acceptable as it is now. The term “street artist” was not even a thing. Things have changed since then and now you see “street art” all over the world. But even before graffiti, I was always into drawing and art, and I always knew I wanted to do something with my skill. I went to school for 3D animation and ended up working for a couple of game studios in Chicago. I ended up getting hired at Volition and moved to Champaign back in 2006.

A three photo collage shows the various stages of completions of the CUPHD mural, starting with painting the large brick wall white, then mapping out the mural using a grid.
Jose Vazquez

SP: I learned about your art through this incredible mural that you did at CUPHD. What was the planning like for this project? Who came up with the design — was there any collaboration?

Vazquez: Before working on the design, I wanted to learn more about CUPHD and the other organizations that were involved at the time. I wanted to find out what they were looking for and what they thought the mural should represent to them. At that time, the mural was going to be on a different wall and not as tall. I had worked on a few designs, getting feedback on what they liked and didn’t like. There were also some great collaborations going on and I would build upon certain ideas. One thing that everyone wanted to make sure of was that it was a mural that represented the community, the diversity in our community, and the people that CUPHD serves. Part of that diversity is our immigrant community, some coming from Mexico and Central America. Someone had mentioned the monarch butterflies and I loved the idea of incorporating the butterflies into the mural. It represented so many things similar to the people here in C-U. It’s a place where we have so many people coming from all parts of the world gathering to be part of our community. Similar to how the butterflies migrate from all parts of the country, Canada, and Mexico to gather in one place.

SP: Logistically speaking, can you walk us through the process of creating the mural start to finish?

Vazquez: Before the final design was approved, I made sure that the design would eventually fit the wall it was going to be painted on. So, I would make sure my “canvas” or space for my design would be the same dimensions as the wall — it would just be in inches instead of feet. The wall was 26 x 62 feet, so the size of the design was 26 x 62 inches. One foot would equal one inch.

All the design work was done on the computer and drawn digitally. After that step, I made a grid over the design and used it for my reference. The next step was to prepare the wall, prime it, and grid out the entire wall. It took some time, but this would help me in making sure things would fit and be proportional to each other, especially for the size of the wall. After that I began to sketch and paint each section as I went along, making sure I followed the grid.

A close up shot of a bunch of spray paint cans
Jose Vazquez

SP: What kind of paint did you use, and how much paint did that take?

Vazquez: The mural is mainly done with professional spray paint, but I also used high quality exterior paint. A lot of the details were done using only spray paint. I think I used around 60 to 70 cans of spray paint, seven gallons of paint, and ten gallons of primer paint. The actual painting of the mural took about a month to complete. I would work mostly on weekends and in the evenings after work. There were a lot of long days, that’s for sure. I did have some help from a couple of friends: Victor Duarte, Cambden Blair, and my son Gabriel. 

A mural at Champaign Urbana Public Health District by Jose Vazquez. It features 11 different people, all painted among and the colors of monarch butterflies.
Experience Champaign-Urbana on Facebook

SP: What was most challenging about the project? 

Vazquez: The most challenging thing for me was the sheer scale of this thing. This to date has been the largest mural I have ever done, where I took on most of the work. I have done large scale murals before back in Chicago, but this was when I was part of a crew of six to seven people all who took on parts of the wall from start to finish. I remember when I found out that the mural was going to be moved to this bigger wall, I was asked if I was thinking of just going halfway up the wall, since it was much taller. I said “no, we should do the whole wall!” It would make such a great impact. I was excited to get started but at the same time a bit nervous. 

Digital art showing a lost civilization. A man stands in the foreground facing large ruins and mountains
Jose Vazquez

SP: I saw on your Instagram you do a lot of digital art — it’s all really impressive by the way, the detail on some of your pieces is incredible — do you have a preferred media to work with? Do you have a different approach when working digitally versus drawing or something like the mural? 

Vazquez: Thank you. I love working on all kinds of mediums but for a long time it’s been digital. Professionally, I mainly worked on digital art and not as much on traditional mediums. As a father of three, for a while I didn’t have a ton of time to work on personal art where I would be working on more traditional mediums. Now that my kids are much older, I tend to find some more time to do more personal and more traditional art. I miss it and I love the tangibility of it. There is a physical piece at the end that everyone can enjoy and see. There is a different approach to working digitally compared to traditionally. One thing I’ve noticed is that I am much more cautious when it comes to beginning a traditional piece. Those first few strokes are almost nerve wracking for me. I think I’m much more careful because I don’t have that safety net of the undo button. But once I’m in my zone, I just lose myself in my art with no worries.  

SP: When you are starting a new piece or a new project in general, do you have a clear idea of how you want it to turn out before you begin, or is there a lot of experimentation or improvising along the way? 

Vazquez: It differs, there are times where I know exactly what I want, and I have to create what is exactly in my head. Sometimes it is great, but it can be frustrating because you can see it but it’s just not coming out, so you agonize about getting it right. Then there are times where I just let things happen or let things evolve. Those times can be fun, especially when you have happy accidents.

SP: What are you currently working on?

Vazquez: I am currently working on a new mural for a new business but this time it’s indoors and much smaller. 

SP: What have been the most rewarding and most challenging projects you’ve completed to date?

Vazquez: I have to say it’s the CUPHD mural, again most challenging because of the sheer size of it, but it’s been so rewarding to see it getting so much attention and positive response from the community. 

Digital drawing by Jose Vazquez showing a tan and pink monster. It has a large head, skeletal like body, eyes sit at the back of it's head and lots of sharp teeth. It resembles a terrifying alien.
Jose Vazquez

SP: What’s next for you? 

Vazquez: I am working on more personal art, evolving my style, and finding more of my voice again. After that I’m not sure what is next, I know I would like to continue doing more murals. It’s been fun getting back into them but at the same time I still love what I do as a digital artist. 

SP: Outside of the mural, is there any other place in CU for people to check out your art?

Vazquez: Go check out the new Martens Community Center and all the cool stuff it has to offer. While you are there, see the mural I did for them last year. You can also check me out at the Boneyard next year (I plan to be there again).

You can also check out Vazquez’s other projects and digital art on his Instagram.

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