.Addicted to Creationat Empire Seven Studios

Empire Seven Studios marks the return of a local graffiti pioneer

PAINTING ON: Artist Antonio Nava Torres, a.k.a. Zook58, took up painting again after 15 years and ended up creating a whole new body of work.

BIEBRACH PARK sits adjacent to the Gardner Community Center, just southwest of the monolithic cement abomination of an interchange where highways 280 and 87 spew off in seemingly every direction.

It is not a spectacular ‘hood, but I am here, schlepping through the bumpy, waterlogged grass, past the rusty soccer goalposts and straight up to one of the more classic murals in San Jose, a gorgeous Aztec calendar 16 feet high. Local artist Antonio Nava Torres originally spray-painted the mural in 1995, but its original luster had long since eroded over time, so a few years back, the local community banded together and helped repaint the mural. It now stands out like a giant Aztec god watching over the community. Torres himself is about to return to San Jose, from his current home in Los Angeles, for his first-ever solo art exhibition at Empire Seven Studios in Japantown.

Originally known as Zook58, Torres helped pioneer San Jose’s graffiti art scene in the 1980s, first discovering his own potential when viewing murals underneath the bridge by Orchard Supply Hardware on San Carlos Street. As he progressed into his teenage years, bumbling schoolyard authorities often mistook him for a gang member when he was simply a young artist looking for a canvas.

“I got expelled from Lincoln [High School],” Torres told me over the phone. “Over graffiti, I got busted. They took me in and the school said, ‘We don’t want him back.'”

So Torres then went to Broadway High, a continuation school, where he soon developed into a mural artist, one whom the other kids admired and looked up to. Everyone started talking about him and Torres even wound up on ABC and in the San Jose Mercury News. Eventually, folks at the city of San Jose hired him to paint murals, beginning in the late 1980s. Of all his original murals throughout San Jose, the Aztec Calendar in Biebrach Park is the only one still remaining.

Torres, who now lives in SoCal and enjoys a lucrative career designing backdrops for shows like Family Guy, returns to San Jose this weekend to launch his new exhibit, opening Saturday at Empire Seven. Addicted to Creation will include many of Torres’ recent paintings and works done while escaping the routines of the establishment. His balancing act is a common one, that of a commercial artist who must consistently grapple with plying his trade and creating stuff for clients, while trying to find time for his own creative work in the process.

“A few years ago I decided I was starting to miss the creative outlet of just being free and creating for myself,” Torres told me. “Back when I was doing graffiti art and painting under a bridge, or even working with the city, there was no guidelines. I created whatever I wanted. And I missed that spontaneity. So I just started doodling and I thought, ‘I don’t care how it comes out. I’ll just start with the blank page and see what comes out. If people hate it, I don’t care.’ So I started with pen and ink, and they started getting cooler and cooler. And before you know it, I had 200 of them.”

When friends informed Torres that he’d produced a whole new body of work, one he should continue with, and take seriously and probably even paint on, he went for it and voila. An idea for a new gallery show in his hometown emerged. Even though Torres hadn’t painted in 15 years and was unsure what to do with the new work—he wanted to keep it for himself—his friends swayed him into doing an art show.

Torres continued: “After I spoke to several people, they all said, ‘Dude, as an artist, you have to grow. And you have to let these go. We understand they’re your first batch of paintings in a long time, but you need to grow. Have a show and then move on.'”

At Empire Seven, Torres will exhibit small paintings and large paintings, as well as many of the doodles and original sketches. It’s a huge exhibit.

“I’ve never had a one-man show,” he said.

Addicted to Creation

Empire Seven Studios

FEB. 15 7-11pm; Thru Mar. 1

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.


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