Melo Dominguez

Melo Dominguez is an East Los Angeles muralist who moved to Tucson in 2007. After a near-death incident landed her in the hospital for almost eight weeks, Dominguez made a conscious effort to produce more art and to work with local youths, and to bridge the two as an activist focusing on Arizona politics and the environment. She has a show at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library downtown that closes Friday, Nov. 30, and she's one of seven international artists in The Art of All Possibilities, an exhibition and installation at Biosphere 2. The Biosphere art installation continues through Feb. 28, 2013. For more on Dominguez's work, visit www.melodominguez.com.

Where are you from?

I am originally from East Los Angeles. I started off as a window-painter doing murals at restaurants, because I was trying to make money. You can imagine being a kid who's poor. I was in the jungle all the time, and being around art and music all the time—the graffiti that was being produced. My mom was a single parent, so I didn't really get to go to museums or galleries. Graffiti was really my art gallery—you were able to walk up and talk to (the artists). That's really what inspired what I create now. I used to be a graffiti artist. I still love it, but my mom, she caught me one time, and she just blew my mind. She said, "I'm not going to argue with you. I'm just going to tell you straight up: Mel, do you want to pay the city, or do you want the city to pay you?" Wow, Mom, thanks. ... Since then, I've focused my life on just really painting. I went to school for graphic design, but in the end, I figured out I didn't really want to do that. ... I love stories.

How did you get to Tucson?

My girlfriend. We met each other out there, and we reconnected out there. She said, "People are so mean and ugly out here (in L.A.), so busy trying to make the rent." She said, "Let's move to Tucson," and I said OK. I had been doing scenic production, music video, theme parks, all the background stuff, working for a designer on Melrose (Avenue). I had a really good job. I realized there were no art jobs here in Tucson like there were in L.A., so my first job here, I was a tow-trucker. During the summertime, I was driving around in a frying pan. I learned the streets of Tucson. I also got lost in the desert picking up seized vehicles from Border Patrol. I had a pager; they'd call me in the middle of the night. All those seized vehicles and what was going on along the border, I couldn't deal with it.

Wow. Welcome to Tucson.

Well, then I got sick. I got a chronic illness, and I was in the hospital for eight weeks, and I almost died. It made me reassess my life. I've been pumping out artwork like there's no tomorrow.

What's helped you keep working as an artist?

Back in L.A., I was part of an internship with the Getty, with Self Help Graphics and Art in East Los Angeles. When I got here, coming from L.A. to here and the border issues, I felt like I didn't think I should be painting for myself. "How dare I be a citizen and Latina and living normally, when there are people dying in the desert?"

You've maintained a strong relationship with Self Help.

Yes. They picked me up to represent Tucson and gave me an honorarium to work on a day-laborer project. I did a bus scene, and I used the bus because it's the public limousine. Everybody rides it. You have homeless, the wanderer, the businessman, the college student, the cyclist, grandma—they are all in my artwork—and the day laborer and the domestic laborer. They always forget her, and she's there taking her child to school before getting to work. I have these people onboard, and it is at the library right now next to panels I created with the youth at the John Valenzuela Youth Center.

Why has it been important for you to work with kids?

I'm doing that because we are leaving this world to youth, and we can't leave it like this, not with these politics. It's not working; it's not right. We all know what's going on. The curtain is open. We've got to do what's right.