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Portrait of an artist as a visual activist

Durham's Luis Franco creates 'urban pop art' with a message

Published: Saturday, October 6, 2012

Updated: Thursday, November 1, 2012 16:11


Luis Franco

"Let Go" by Luis Franco.


Luis Franco

"MLK Jr. and Malcolm X" by Luis Franco.


Luis Franco

"Finding Balance" by Luis Franco.

Here is what you see: The fist pick, the ink drip, the words of Malcolm X, soy sauce and Sriracha, "The Greatest Fighter Ever Lived," Star Wars, black hands in white hands, Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, American Indian paint, Angela Davis, Goya cans and Cholula bottles.

You see color everywhere, but that’s the point. See, you got to free your mind.

Artist Luis Franco communicates to liberate. He’s a visual activist.

Starting Out

When Franco was a kid his dad would visit. This was in Euless, Texas. Franco’s dad drew pictures for him. It was how they connected – drawing. Later Franco found comic books, Star Wars, graffiti art and hip hop. But before all that, it was a father-son thing.

“I used to just kind of draw things all the time,” said Franco. “I would sit in the back of the class with a coloring book. Just sit in back and color.”

It started that way. A little kid mimicking his dad.

During high school Franco moved to Durham with his mom, and later, graduated from N.C. Central University with a bachelor’s degree in visual communication. He might be Texas born, but Franco is a Durham guy.


Franco said comic books were important to him as a kid. Daredevil and Batman. The Avengers and X-Men. He’s big into Star Wars. Way back when, he looked at photographs and copied them onto paper. Just a kid, drawing what he saw.

Franco’s mom played 70s and 80s music in the house. Soul. Funk.

“I hope I’ve captured a 70s kind of feel in my art,” said Franco. “I get a lot of that because my mom was the kind of mom that played Michael Jackson and The Commodores.”

Later, Franco got into hip hop. He injected that influence into his work.

“It’s [my art] urban pop art. I feel it has an urban quality – I love hip hop, it comes through in my work,” said Franco.

Graffiti art lurks in Franco’s work as well. He said New York City subway murals by Futura 2000 and Lee Quinones inspired him, “I really like that old school kind of flavor.”

Franco’s time at NCCU played a large role in his development. He said he created original art for “Ex Umbra,” the undergraduate literary magazine. He experimented with Afro-Cuban and African-American images, and later incorporated that into his current work.

Then there’s Keith Haring. Franco said Haring’s work – complex, vibrant drawings and paintings with layered messages – is a huge influence. Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, and died in 1990.  Haring’s work often spoke about his struggle in a time of intense public hostility toward AIDS victims.

“During that time it had to be tough,” said Franco. “I thought that was impressive, that he did that and used it as a platform.”

Visual Activism           

For Franco, visual activism works by starting conversations about equality, and by paying homage to those he calls “soldiers of the front lines of equality.”

“I wanted to honor those who came before me and fought for equality,” said Franco. “I’ve experienced racism first hand. I kind of carried that with me as I grew up and went to Central.”

Sean Palmer is the assistant director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture at Duke University, where Franco’s work is on display through Oct. 31.

“Franco’s style is a mix of new age digital media – I’ll call it hip hop art. He’s remixing the 60s and 70s images,” said Palmer.

Palmer said what he loves about Franco’s work is that it asks viewers to think and reexamine their relationship with cultural icons.

“It’s almost like the rebirth of cool. If you took cool and consciousness, and combined them – that’s what Franco’s work is,” said Palmer.

Many of Franco’s pieces feature civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X and others.

“Franco’s work is asking you to pay attention to what you think you know,” said Palmer. “You might know Martin Luther King Jr., but do you know Martin Luther King Jr. in relation to Malcolm X?”

Franco’s recurring fist pick image politicizes his work in a way that conjures empowerment.

“I’m trying to educate people on things that have happened in the past and bring it into the present,” said Franco. “It’s almost like candy. It’s really sweet, but there’s a bit more to it.”

Franco said the first pick symbolizes revolution and unity for him.

“A revolution not of color, but of mindset, of freedom, justice and unity,” said Franco. “It’s really crucial that we attack the youth with tolerance.”

Palmer said Franco’s choices in subjects display his unique mindset and creativity.

“These are people who are fore-grounders in civil rights work,” said Palmer. “What does it mean to have a civil rights fore-grounder on your wall?”


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