Gustavo Zermeño Jr. Paints For His City And Himself

The Venice muralist and airbrush master talks growing up around lowriders and skaters, personal style, and why he loves painting in the streets.

Man seated on a bench in an art gallery showcasing paintings, focusing on his sneakers
Adam Rindy/Sponsored by Jordan
Man seated on a bench in an art gallery showcasing paintings, focusing on his sneakers

Gustavo Zermeño Jr. is a painter from Venice, Los Angeles. He’s known for large, outdoor murals depicting SoCal sports and music icons, as well as detailed airbrushed paintings rich with subcultural details, including lowriders, skaters, and graffiti.

Zermeño’s work spans the spectrum from underground to prime time. But most important, his paintings are offerings to the city that raised him, as well as to the people, places, and things that nourished his creativity. On the eve of his first solo gallery show, What Was, What Is, What Could Be, which opened at Beyond the Streets the day after this interview, Complex chopped it up with Zermeño to discuss his creative processes, Los Angeles, personal style, and why, despite his best efforts, everything he loves ends up with a “drop of paint on it.” The interview was edited for concision and clarity.

You grew up in Venice, which is a neighborhood where multiple subcultures come together. Venice has lowriders, surfers, skaters, graffiti writers, and more. How do you integrate that rich history into your artwork?
I always talk about Venice as a melting pot. I literally grew up with people that were millionaires and people that were on assisted living, Section Eight and things like that. I always loved the idea that everything was blended together. I grew up with surfer homies, gang homies, graf homies, artists, musicians, you name it, man. I grew up with all that. And I think that had a huge influence on me being able to share my creative side, not being afraid to be creative and be artsy and be soulful.

Yeah man, it was always in my face. I worked down at the boardwalk for 16 years right out of high school, so I was surrounded by artists, performers, musicians, again, you name it. I was surrounded by all that on a daily basis. And I think that's what really sparked my interest in art. And of course family. My parents were very supportive of it. So that really made me feel confident to be able to express myself through art.

Artist in casual wear paints a mural, focus on detailed sneakers

And out of all those influences from Venice and working at the boardwalk around those subcultures and performers, did one specific part of that impact your artwork more than others? 
Originally it was Venice. And Venice definitely still stands out. But I think when I started stepping out of Venice doing murals… I thought I knew LA. But once I started doing murals, it took me to all these little pockets of the city that unless you start turning down these random streets, places you would never know existed, even places you drive by the main street, the main boulevard, but all you had to do is take a little right, and you go into these little neighborhoods that were just filled with so much culture, so much love, so much community. 

That's what really opened up my eyes to LA and really helped me push Venice aside in a sense and really expanded myself as an artist who was able to absorb LA in a real, genuine way. I grew up with a bunch of knuckleheads, so there were those parts of towns that we didn't go to because it was kind of sketchy, like, Oh, I can't go there. Nah, we can't go there.

And with art, it helped me go into those places and then people had their guards down. People were really open to me being in their neighborhood painting and it became a really good experience to meet people in a real positive way. It was cool. You were meeting the true person. 

In LA, there's so many people, you just walk by people, you don't really say hi to them because there's so many people. You can't say hi to everybody, but when you're out there painting, people stop by and say hi. They’d normally just walk right by. So my inspiration expanded a lot more once I started doing murals.

Man in a plaid shirt at an art gallery points at a painting, wearing casual sneakers

I love that art is a bridge that opens people up. People see you out there being open with your art, being vulnerable, and that opens them up too. And then one thing that's really interesting about LA and Mexican American culture there, is that it's globally influential in fashion, in cars, in skateboarding, in music, and even in stuff like tattoos, but I feel like it doesn’t get the acknowledgement it deserves. It doesn’t always get its due for how influential it really is. Is that ever on your mind coming out of that Chicano culture in LA? Are you representing for your culture or just being yourself? 
I have to say both. I think over the past three or four years, we've been on the come up man, in the art space itself, the gallery space. There's a lot of influential artists that are of Mexican descent right now. And again, like you mentioned, the Chicano culture, it's really taking off. And I'm very grateful and fortunate to be creating art in this time because I've had a lot of projects, obviously because of my talent, but also because of my heritage, and I'm very proud of it. It shows in my work.

I don't know if you've seen my current collection. I have a show coming up and it's really based around the lowrider community, and you have the street vendors in the paintings and one of the dudes that paved the way for myself and other artists like myself. So I really want to put on for the city number one and for the culture number two, for sure.

That's really beautiful and it shows in your work. You have your first gallery show, What Was, What Is, What Could Be, coming up at Beyond the Streets, right? 
So that one opens tomorrow night. I did a group show last November. It was an airbrush show with a well-known LA artist and a lot of Chicano artists. I’m very fortunate to be in that show with them. And it went really well. And that's when Beyond the Streets pushed for a solo show. So here we are, man. One day away. Yeah, basically one day away. 

Murals are like my gift to the city, my gift to the community, and the canvases are a gift to myself.

That's so cool. That's so cool. I'm really excited to hear that. A gallery's got to be a little different than doing your huge outdoor murals. What was that process of getting ready for the show like? 
To be honest, it was very difficult. I've been working on these paintings for the past couple years. Not because it took that long to physically paint, but mentally just not being able to be out and about, man.

I really fell in love with murals for the fact that every day was different, whether it was a different community, whether it was a different mural, whatever it was, every day was something different. And I loved that about my days. It was so unpredictable. Everything kind of came at me as it did. No expectation, just went out there and got to work. And with the canvases, you're kind of locked in that studio for months on end. It really challenged me mentally. It really challenged me as an artist to push myself forward. Another way to say it is: I describe it as murals are like my gift to the city, my gift to the community, and the canvases are a gift to myself.

They really dive deep into who I am as a person, the way I view the city. And it's a different type of rewarding feeling. But yeah, I fell in love with it. At first, there was a lot of resistance. Again, it was difficult for me to sit still for a long period of time, to stay disciplined and paint when I am there, because when I'm doing a mural, man, there's so many people stopping by or people just watching on the street, I feel like I have to work. I'm clocking in, I'm clocking out. 

Person standing in khaki trousers and black and white sneakers, partial view of legs and feet

I hear you. That makes sense.
And painting the canvases, man, it's so easy to take a little break or, Oh, let me hop online for a second. Oh, let me post something. And then I’m constantly looking at comments or something. It is so easy to get distracted. I felt like it really challenged me mentally and I'm glad I pushed through it.

Looking at the pieces for your upcoming show, I saw lowriders in there, but my favorite piece is the one of the Venice Pavilion. People are posted up grilling, there’s some skaters, and then of course all the famous graffiti. Can you speak about the Pavilion and what it means to you? 
Yeah, growing up, towards the end of elementary-slash-getting into middle school, I started skateboarding. That took me down to the beach a lot more often. So I got to catch the tail end of the Pavilion, and really, I loved it, man. Pro skaters—I don't know if you grew up skating or not. 

It all ties back to my love for Venice and the love for the people that are from there.

Yeah I grew up skating too. I still skate, man. 
I got to meet my favorite pro skater there who rode for my favorite brand. And from there it was just dope. So I have that core memory there. And I remember picking up spray cans. They never had any paint in 'em, a couple little spritz or whatever. But I always loved the idea of the Pavilion. It really went downhill. But when I was younger, it was like, Oh, this is so cool. The artwork everywhere, skaters everywhere. And you got that beach life there.

It goes back to that nostalgic feeling for me of being there again. They demolished it pretty quickly after that. But I mean, I still remember it, man, like it was yesterday. Actually one of the guys I featured in the painting is Josh “Bagel” Klassman. 

Oh, I know him. I don’t know him personally, but I know who he is. He photographs surfing and skating and stuff in Venice. 
Oh, dope. So cool. Yeah, we’re pretty close. His work actually influences my work a lot. So that's him and his best friend that are sitting on the table there talking to the girls. And then my best friend and I are in the far back skateboarding. Again, it all ties back to my love for Venice and the love for the people that are from there. 

A box of various spray paint cans next to a painted sneaker and graffiti artwork

That's what you were saying with the gallery show. It's real personal. It’s so cool to learn that painting is of Bagel and then you’re skating. It's a real piece of your personal history. Really beautiful.
Yeah. Thank you, man.

Outside of Venice, the other thing you're known for is sports team murals. And LA is such a big sports town, they love those teams. The Venice stuff is really personal, but the sports murals are for the whole city. So how do you approach those sports murals compared to something more personal?
I grew up a sports fan. And sports are just so high energy. You either love the team or you hate the team, you love the person or you hate the person. And I felt that energy combined with the mural itself, usually on a large scale, combined with social media, had a life of its own. Whether you hated this player or loved him, a lot of people were vocal about it and people would start arguing in the comments, Nah, he ain't the GOAT. Nah, that team's wack. They're going to get swept in the playoffs. 

But that helped drive people to my page. And as an artist, you want to be able to make a living doing art. And it just started rolling from there. Through social media, I could gauge not only the interest there, but the energy that those types of murals would create.

Person standing in front of a store with sneaker advertisements, looking over shoulder at the camera

Some of the murals are gigantic. What’s it like working on those huge outdoor pieces? How do you plan something that big? 
The basketball court I did would be a good example. It's such a large scale and people might think it's difficult to go to a large scale, but to be honest, it's a little bit easier. You can get away with a lot more. Obviously it's a lot more physical, physically demanding, but being able to blend colors and create, I guess, my style of work for me, it's actually easier in that sense. But yeah, man, a lot of gridding, a lot of what they call a doodle grid, where you make marks on the ground and you use that as a guide.

I'm very fortunate to grow up with drones and a lot of this technology and programs that make it a lot easier for me to be able to do these things, either at home or on site on the spot. So it's a lot of technology mixed with a lot of classic techniques to pull it together. And personally, I could work 12 hours straight. I have a buddy of mine that’s the same way. So we love to just get out there and just get to work, man.

That's awesome. Then with these shoes, how do you see the Air Jordan 1 Shadow Lows fitting into your personal style?
I hope I don't get paint on 'em [laughs]. Everything I love for some reason ends up getting a drop of paint on it and then they become paint clothes. But no, I grew up in the ‘90s, so I love anything classic like these retro Jordans. I love classic ‘90s style and that's literally what I wear every day. So for myself, these Jordan 1s fit hand in hand with who I am as a person. Just anything classic. I love the LA hat, a crispy white tee, jean shorts, and crew socks with the kicks. And the kicks are usually the staple. The hat and my shoes are usually what stand out the most. Everything else is ‘90s-inspired for sure. A flannel, a crispy tee, jeans, khakis.

Shoes and hats, that's my stuff.

That's the LA style I'm talking about that's gone global and people don't even know. Can you talk about how Jordans fit into that? How do Jordans fit into that classic LA style?
With Jordans you can just rock 'em casually. Or we have a huge balling community out here too. So there’s a lot of people that love to ball. If you pull up on the court with some Jordans, people are going to have to take you serious out there. So it just fits hand in hand out here in LA where everyone wants to be stylish, everyone wants to have the new stuff. A lot of people, they'll be like, Oh, before I meet someone, I look at their shoes first. It’s kind of crazy to say, but that's just how it is, man. You're rocking Js and you look presentable and people take you a little more serious. 

And then you said everything you love gets a drop of paint on it. So I'm wondering, when you're out there painting murals in the street, do you think of sneakers almost as part of your painting toolkit? Like a piece of equipment?
Yeah, I wear sneakers every day, unless I'm going to some type of event. They’re part of the wardrobe, whether I'm painting or just running errands or enjoying the day out here. Shoes are that staple of an outfit. And again, I love hats too. Yeah man, the shoes and hats, that's my stuff.