A look inside the visual mind of Ryan L. Rocha
Meeting Ryan Rocha makes you wonder how many budding artists are standing behind coffee counters around the world. It was a simple interaction at the coffee counter that led to our initial conversation. My $5 Yeezus Tour tee always a grand conversation starter. Our conversation about music, led to a conversation about art, and a conversation about art introduced me to his work.
Raised in Sactown, with relatives in the Bay, Ryan’s work serves as a road map into the mind of a critical thinker. Drawing much from his experiences and relationships for inspirations, Ryan cites his grandmother as one of his primary influences.
As one of the visual artists from last November’s FEELS II Festival, we thought it only appropriate to check in with the mixed media artist. After recently publishing a collection of drawings, writings, and paintings entitled “Four Piece,” Ryan spoke with us about life in Sac, the meanings behind his work, and his beloved Vava.
Tell me a bit about your upbringing? How did you come to develop your craft?
I was raised in Sacramento, California, living with my mom and my sister. I love Sacramento for raising me, and I love the people I got to grow around and skate with, and I’m thankful for the frustration I would feel when searching for music or different types of art or performance I wasn’t hearing or seeing out in the open. That frustration really drove me. I was looking for some weird shit to get into and the city felt so dry. It was dry, and I feel like that motivated me to dig really deep, not only in the CD racks to find something interesting, but also into myself and my own creativity as a way to escape that giant-empty-city feeling. I would always be in the Bay for shows or just seeing friends. I’d stay with family I have in San Francisco pretty often and felt the energy the Bay was putting out, but wanted to find that connection back where I was living. Watching my older friends put on their own shows, and the wave of creativity the hyphy movement brought to my school and neighborhood was really inspiring, but I was still feeling like something wasn’t there.
With that said though, Sac has a lot of gems scattered throughout its history, really out-there shit you’d never expect to come from a quiet place. Or maybe it makes sense it came from a quiet place because they felt pent up too. I dedicated a lot of time to searching record bins and looking through different zines, trading mixes, trying to find out what was going on in Sac specifically just as hard as I was the rest of the world. I wanted to know how other people dealt with the heat, or the violence, or the emptiness of that city. That whole process taught me to fall in love with and truly appreciate other people’s work. Or even look at it, feel disgusted by it, but accept and respect what made me feel disgusted as its own thing. It taught me to listen and look deep into the stories I would find in other people’s records or drawings.
Being a little kid and hanging around my Vava’s house really shaped my creativity too. I’d be sitting on the floor in the middle of the room, drawing whatever, and she would pick up my paper and walk it around to everyone in the house like, “Look at how beautiful his drawings are!” And it would be some weird dragon, or like, a bootleg Batman or some shit. That made me feel really good though. She was always into art so she appreciated it. She made clothes and blankets that are beautiful. The colors were perfect together always. She’d always be in a bright colored sweatsuit, like… 3 baby Jesus pendants, all her jewelry on at once, thick glasses. Her hair picked out like a halo around her head. Five feet tall with a super thick accent. Rosary beads hanging off everything with a corner in the house–chairs, lamps, bedposts. The only wall in her tiny house that didn’t have a window or a door on it, the wall with the most wall space, is completely covered in framed pictures of all the popes. She was strong and had her own cool about herself.
Being in that house and around that side of my family really shaped my creativity. There was a lot of hurt and a lot of love they passed on to me. And of course, getting into punk music, making fliers for shows we would book throughout high school, and skateboarding totally helped me find my style.
There seems to be tons of meaning encapsulated in each piece, what subjects do you touch on in your work?
Making these pieces is my meditation. Each one is a map of my past and present to guide me through my own future, so there are a ton of different themes and references. It’s the zoo that’s in my head laid out on paper. It’s an opportunity to communicate with what’s really going on inside of me that I didn’t know how to give myself until recently.
I use hand mirrors pretty often to show self-reflection. Not like someone points out something about yourself to you, not like you walk into a room and there is a huge mirror on the wall so you look at yourself, fix your hair and shit. With a hand mirror you have to walk up to it, pick it up, hold that shit in place to see your reflection and STARE. You have to make the choice to look at yourself and see what’s in you. See the lover, the demons, the oppressor. Whatever it is. Just recognizing how you affect others and what rituals you may carry with you that are rooted in some fucked up, misogynistic, racist, or dangerous mentality. But also seeing what’s in you that makes you the shit. Seeing the power and light you have in you and respecting yourself for that.
I use gloves often too, almost as a follow up to the mirror. Once you discover what’s in you, you can put on the gloves and you’re able to reach these things. You can touch them. You can find your strength and move it to the front. You can take your oppressive behavior, that you thought was normal because that’s what you’ve been taught your whole life, and take that out. Destroy it. Start to unlearn the bullshit and refocus your hatred or frustration on something that’ll help heal you and your surroundings. I’m just speaking for myself, of course. That’s what it means to me.
The list goes on and on so I’ll leave it at those two for now. There are so many themes though: abuse in the household, love, suicide in the family, neighborhood life, addiction, growth, empathy. It’s all over the place.
You said you and your mom are really close? How has your relationship with ma dukes influenced your art?
That is a question that has a lot of different answers and a lot of different emotions. And gets really personal, but that’s the only way it can be answered.
To be really straightforward…we’ve been through a lot of shit. Growing up in my house there were a lot of dark times. We dealt with evil men, jail and cops and shit, losing our house, suicide attempts, struggling with addiction. We also laughed super hard, stayed up late together talking shit, she’d smoke cigarettes in front of the house while I was trying to learn kickflips in the street, she heard all my horrible bands practice in the living room. She’s an angel and I owe her my life. We’ve always had a funny relationship because we are like each others parents. And she dropped out of high school just like me, and she left home at 17 just like me. And she saw shit she didn’t want to see, just like me. I have to look after her like she looks after me. It just works that way though.
She’s tough, but a person can only be so tough in the face of certain things, and life is hell sometimes, the devil is real sometimes. But she rides on and I always have her back, so it’s all good. A lot of love to my mama.
What ideas were you looking to convey in FEELS II?, what was the significance of the small rug below?
At FEELS II I was just glad to be out there. I had seven pieces up that I felt represented all the different sides of my visual work. I also wrote out some explanations for each piece and I was happy to see people taking a moment to read those. There was a lot of love in the room and I let myself swim through it.
The rug was something my Vava made, she passed on a little before that show and I wanted her to be there, see everyone’s art, feel the music. See what her boy is doing with the gift she gave me. I had a piece of paper on the wall with some flowers too that that said “we’ll never stop talking”, that was for her too.
There’s some pretty evident detail applied to each piece, how exactly do you approach a new work? Meaning first then go? Or derive meaning from the process?
Going back to what I said earlier, it’s a meditative process for me. Usually when I start something, I have an idea of what it’s going to be and the idea starts to take its own shape as we go together. Each piece takes me like a month to complete, so different things happen, different thoughts happen, and so each one has a lot of different stories tied into it. I end up learning a lot about myself in each piece. It’s like a part of me that’s buried in me gets to climb out for that time and we get to talk. It feels really good. It’s definitely therapy.
I usually paint the first layer with gauche or watercolor. I just fuck with different shapes and composition on the page. Then after that I draw or paint with black ink.
You’ll see in most of my work layers of tiny black dots covering large sections of color…I started doing that for a few different reasons. I like how it obscures an image, almost like looking at something through a foggy window or in a dark room. I think that gives the viewer more space to see what they want to, or relate to it in their own way because they have to get creative in trying to find what’s hidden in that texture. Also I can put whatever part of my emotions out there, and it’s sort of half hidden, or protected in a way.
What inspired me to experiment with that specific texture was seeing work from my friend Jackie Ung, who taught me a lot of different techniques and whose family let me live with them when I was younger in South Berkeley. She was taking these super grainy black and white photos of bed sheets, they were amazing. I was looking at them and seeing the shadows of the sheets through that lens had a lot of depth. I started trying to mimic that look with tiny dots of ink on paper and just kept fucking with it. Eventually it became a constant theme in my work.
I like writing on my drawings too, just words or phrases that come to mind while I’m making it. Nothing huge or profound just something to go along with it.
How’s Oakland treating you?
It’s been good to me and I feel thankful for everyone around me out here. I appreciate Oakland for having me. I’m lucky to be here.
In your eyes, what does “making it” as an artist mean?
My opinion on that has changed a lot in the past, and I’m not confident enough in the idea that I have right now to give it as an answer. I used to want to do skate decks for people. When I was like 13 or 14 that was my dream. That would still be really cool though. It’s always flattering when different musicians I have respect for or am already a fan of ask me to collaborate with them, that’s making it to some place. I love that. Wizard Apprentice asked me to collaborate recently and I’m really excited for that. Making each piece just feels good to me. There’s no other option.
What music informs your work?
The list of music is too long, but it’s important and carries a lot of weight in my work. I’m always playing something when I work. I’m usually working from like midnight to 6 AM too, and regularly skip sleep to have time to work, so music gets to me in a heavy way in that delirious state! During this interview Brian Eno and Cakes Da Killa is what was playing. I’m wearing a shirt with a portrait of Björk I painted on it. The last show I was at was STILLSUIT and SBSM. I think In School’s “Praxis of Hate” was my favorite release last year. RIP The Jacka, I’ve been listening to him a lot this week.