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Portrait of an artist as a visual activist

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

By Matt Phillips - Echo editor-in-chief
On October 6, 2012

  • Let Go by Luis Franco. Luis Franco
  • MLK Jr. and Malcolm X by Luis Franco. Luis Franco
  • Finding Balance by Luis Franco. 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.

Influences

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?"

Aesthetics

The art world hasn't exactly welcomed fine art created with digital tools. Franco is a graphic designer at his nine-to-five job, and he does most of his fine art on a computer. He doesn't have, nor does he need, a studio.

"It's a little bit of a challenge if you're dealing with certain crowds in the art community," said Franco.

Franco illustrates by hand using pencil, pen and paper. He then scans the images and manipulates them.

"There was a time when we had cave painting. There were no brushes or commercial paints," said John Pelphrey, who co-owns with his wife, local artist Kelly Dew, the LabourLove Gallery at Durham's Golden Belt. "With every new tool comes an opportunity to do new work."

Pelphrey said some artists who show work in museums - major, million-dollar sale type artists - don't even touch pieces attributed to them. Instead, they tell assistants what they want and supervise the execution.

Dew said artists can't worry about opposition to new techniques. Doing good work is what matters. Artists need to find their voices.

"The goal is, you put it out there as much as you can, and you don't worry if people like it," said Dew. "There comes a point as an artist when you say 'I'm going to do what I'm going to do.'"

Franco's combination graphic design and fine art is about conveying a message. He gravitated to pop art because he wanted to grab attention the same way Warhol did with his famous "Campbell's Soup Cans."

Franco created a number of pieces in response to Warhol, including prints of Goya kidney bean cans and Sriracha hot sauce bottles. Franco said he wanted to create work that featured foods he grew up on.

"I thought it was interesting that Warhol's piece were so popular," said Franco. "I wanted to introduce how I see America now. That Campbell's soup can is no longer a good representation of America. Times have changed. I just wanted to show that change."

All-City

You've seen it, Franco's art. You might not know where, but you have.

Franco designed the poster for the Centerfest Arts Festival this year. He's shown work at Durham's Beyú Caffe and Bean Traders. Franco holds space for his work in LabourLove Gallery at Golden Belt.

That's just in Durham.

Franco is the featured artist at Busboys and Poets, a restaurant in Hyattsville, Md., through February of next year. Last winter he displayed his work at UNC-Chapel Hill's Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History.

"Franco hustles. That's what he does. He works hard," said Pelphrey. "He definitely tries to seek out, not just art galleries, but other places for people to find his work."

Pelphrey said Franco has a hand in the downtown Durham renaissance of the past few years.

"Franco seems to have become a part of that legacy, part of that evolution in downtown Durham," said Pelphrey. "When Franco does a poster for somebody locally, you know it's his."

Luis Franco's work shows at the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture at Duke University through Oct. 31. His work is also available for purchase and viewing at LabourLove Gallery and at francoproject.com.


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