Ruben Orozco can’t remember the exact age he was when he first picked up a can of spray paint, but he does remember it was when he was still in his single digits.

He grabbed a can that had been huffed by his cousins to get a quick high and sprayed a few wavy lines. Today he paints professionally – both in his full time job within the oil and gas industry – and in the venture he runs on the side called DNG Designz. But his professional path was not a straight line.

Born in 1978, Orozco lived on the west side of Fort Worth near Vickery Boulevard. He remembers dope houses on either side of his home and gang activity all around.

After a while you have to become a wolf,” Orozco said. “You want to try to be a sheep, remain humble, but in that type of environment, you get eaten up if you’re around wolves.” 

Tagging became a way of making a name for himself and representing his neighborhood, but his love of the art fell to the wayside when he started using drugs.

“I don’t know how many times we were actually shot at hanging around the wrong crowd…” Orozco said. “I became an addict.”

But, he says he was a high-functioning one, holding down a job while still searching for his next high, an issue he struggled with for nearly 10 years. 

“I caught a case in ’05, which (was) like my fourth time getting locked up in Tarrant County for drugs,” Orozco said. 

By this point, he felt like he’d tried all of his available options for kicking that addiction. During his time in jail, Orozco turned to his last resort: the Bible.

I thought I was reading it,” he said. “But to be honest, it was reading me like it was like a mirror of what I needed to fix.

He likens his experience to cracking a glow stick – it’s through being broken that he’s now able to shine.

Roughly one year after his release, he was driving to church with his wife when they got stuck at a train crossing where he watched boxcar after boxcar covered in graffiti pass by.

“I was like, ‘Man, I wonder if I could still use that in a sense to push hope now instead of dope’,” Orozco said.

He went to Home Depot, bought some boards, leaned them against his house and started to spray paint again. 

Roughly eight years after his release, he started his business, DNG Designz. DNG stands for Drawing Near to God, and he thinks of this work as not just art but ministry.

If you put pain and add a cross at the end of it, it spells paint,” Orozco said. I kid you not, and I’m not trying to be all preachy. I’m just saying, this is where it came full circle with me. It’s like when I realized why I was created … I know I have an identity. So this whole time, I know why I’m here. I have a purpose.” 

For a while, he airbrushed T-shirts and painted houses, but stopped offering those services in favor of doing more murals and signs. He squeezes in the extra work when he can and hopes that someday it will be sustainable enough to be his full-time job.

But, the busy schedule doesn’t stop him from taking on volunteer gigs.

One group that he has volunteered with on multiple occasions is Leader Kids, Leadership Fort Worth’s youth program, aimed at helping middle school students set goals and develop leadership skills. 

Ann Barr served as the program director of Leader Kids for 23 years until her retirement this past June.

“I don’t know how he had enough time to do it with his job,” Barr said. “But he always made time for us.”

Working for students is important to Orozco both because he feels like he can relate to them, but also because he struggled to finish school. He had to repeat sixth, ninth, 10th and 11th grades before taking night classes and graduating at 22.

Part of the Leader Kids program is to work with artists to spruce up indoor and outdoor spaces in underserved schools. In addition to brightening up the area, it also gives them the opportunity to see a project from conception through completion.

“The students just absolutely gravitated to him, and he was just wonderful to work with,” Barr said. “The kids at the school were just mesmerized by how their school was transformed.”

At the start of the project, Orozco attended meetings and spoke with students about what they wanted their mural to look like and started sketching ideas. They also worked through what materials they would need and divided painting assignments.

Before the students came in to paint, he started outlining out some of their ideas so that the kids could hit the ground running. 

Ruben is just such a fantastic artist,” Barr said. “I mean, he can take a can of spray paint and just create something that is absolutely fantastic.

He hopes to inspire all youth, but especially the young men who have trouble opening up and being vulnerable.

I’ve been there and I lived it,” Orozco said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, man, we all have a purpose here, and if you’re not dead, you’re not done.’ So that’s what gives me that drive.”

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org or on 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.

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Marcheta Fornoff

For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...