Muralist Juan Velazquez, 32, did basic training in 2018 at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, at the same time as Vanessa Guillen, a woman who was reported missing from Fort Hood near Killeen in April 2020 and later found dead.
He felt obligated to paint a mural in her honor.
“I didn’t know her, but a friend of mine sent me our battalion photo, and she was there,” Velazquez said. “I’m actually friends with her mom on Facebook. That’s one of the reasons I painted that because I’m in the military.”
Velazquez has about 75 murals around the metroplex. He was born in Mexico, then moved to El Paso then Houston, where he went to elementary school. He then moved to Watauga for middle school, high school and college at Tarrant County College. He now lives in the Riverside neighborhood.
Early on, Velazquez wanted to be an art teacher — but he had friends with art degrees who worked at Starbucks so he quit art after high school. He decided to work for an engineering and manufacturing company for 10 years.
“I was just going to work, coming home, going to work, coming home, and it was good. You know, I just had one of those moments where I started thinking about the future and how short life is,” he said. “I went to my office and I was like, man, ‘What did I do with my life? Did you make a difference? Did you achieve your dreams? Did you go for it?’”
Velazquez decided to try again and would paint at night after getting home from work. He spent hours painting to relieve stress. He got to the point where he “couldn’t wait to leave work to go home and paint.”
At 29, he joined the military. Velazquez said that his company told him that they would fire him if he joined the military. He still enlisted. After basic training, Velazquez took the opportunity to make mural painting his full-time occupation while remaining on the military reserves.
“I was like, ‘Maybe this is the time to become an artist,” Velazquez said. “I began to think about doing murals. This was during COVID, so all the art shows were shut down, all the events like ArtsGoggle and the art fair, pretty much all the places where I could actually sell paintings were all shut down.”
He worked on two murals and began to run out of money. He decided to do a third mural: the Vanessa Guillen mural, 3604 Hemphill St. It blew up on social media and he has been doing a mural a week since July 2020.
He made it a goal to create art that represents the cultures and communities that he paints them in.
“Some of these kids that live in those areas that are rundown don’t feel like they are valued because they don’t have good streets, sidewalks or lights,” he said. “It’s kind of like getting a haircut, you know? You’re still the same you, but it makes you feel better.”
One of the biggest issues Velazquez sees is that art often doesn’t represent the cultures of the residents living in the area.
“All the prices are going to start going up and the people are not going to afford to stay there and will move out. It’s a cycle, it’s going to happen just like Magnolia. I think in like 10 years, Hemphill is going to be a whole different area. That’s the thing with Fort Worth, it’s growing,” Velazquez said. “I need to paint a few more there before somebody else comes in and paints stuff there because I feel like it’ll be people who don’t really understand the area. I want to paint things that will be a reminder of the people that lived there before.”
Velazquez, who has lived in Tarrant County for 25 years, plans on painting a mariachi mural, a ballet folklorico mural and a mural for the lowrider community in the South Side — to preserve the culture.
“When people think of public art in Fort Worth, I want them to stop thinking about longhorns and cowboys. There’s more to it than that. Once you paint 100 murals in one city, you can make a huge difference in the culture and I’m halfway there already,” Velazquez said. “We need more art that actually represents the people that live in those communities.”
Cristian ArguetaSoto is the community engagement journalist at the Fort Worth Report. Contact him by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.