Los Angeles

The Infectious Ephemera of Germs

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There are plenty of depictions of the Virgin Mary dotting the facades of buildings across Los Angeles. However, the one that has had the biggest impact on Jaime Zacarias, the artist best known as Germs, is on the side of Pancho's Bakery. It sits on the corner of Holmes and Florence, next to a bus stop in South Los Angeles. The mural depicts Our Lady of Guadalupe, the apparition that Catholic tradition teaches appeared to Juan Diego in Mexico hundreds of years ago. She is swathed in a lightly patterned gown and a cloak covered with stars. Her figure is surrounded by rays of light. To one side of her is a string of roses. Legend has it that Juan Diego presented roses to the Blessed Virgin Mary. To the other side of her is a Mexican flag. Beneath her is a pillow of clouds from which an angel hoists her into the air. The angel's wings share the same colors as the flag.

The mural has been on the side of the bakery for years, where it exists unscathed. There may be some light tagging on the front of this bakery, but on the side that is home to the mural, there is nothing. Zacarias remembers the painting from his childhood in South L.A. "They never tag over it," he says. "It's always respected."

Photo: Liz Ohanesian.

Every now and again, community members will touch up the mural. This happened just a few weeks ago. Zacarias noticed them working on it while he was driving through the neighborhood, where he currently lives. "They use house paint," he remarks, mildly shocked by the choice of medium. "It's pretty cool, they get something like that just using Home Depot paint."

Zacarias has painted his own fair share of Virgin Mary pieces over the years. He estimates that he's captured her image at least 10 times. In "Mamacita," from 2012, Our Lady of Guadalupe appears as a head and a set of prayerful hands connected by the tentacles that mark nearly all of Zacarias' works. "Most people don't get it," he says. Playing with religious iconography can be a touchy situation, even when the works still maintain a sense of reverence amidst the surrealism.

Depictions of the Virgin Mary have deeply impacted Zacarias' style, even when he isn't painting her. "It influenced me more as an iconic thing," he says. He'll place images in the center of the canvas, the same way one would with religious figures. He'll draw inspiration from the colors and techniques that are used. Characters are sometimes surrounded by the sunbeam-like strobes that reference Our Lady of Guadalupe. Sometimes, a cross will settle in the middle of a brightly colored painting. "I guess I'm influenced by religious artwork," he adds.

Photo: Liz Ohanesian.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Zacarias found art when he was a student at Huntington Park High School. A teacher enrolled him into the AP art program at the school. Eventually, he landed a scholarship to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where he studied illustration for a few years. Zacarias didn't graduate and he didn't go into illustration. Instead, he gravitated towards painting. Working under the name Germs, a teenage nickname that stuck, he's been showing his work consistently since about 2003.

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When we met, Zacarias was putting together the final touches on "La Luz de Germs," a small solo show that was a few days away from opening at Hoy Space inside the Vincent Price Art Museum. There are only seven pieces in the exhibition, three paintings and four lamps. The lamps are derived from Germs' popular luchador characters. The shades take the shape of the masked faces known from lucha libre. They appear in green, blue, red and amber, all crafted from stained glass by a local artisan named Tom Krumal. The bases are tentacles carved from bamboo by Sean P. Riley and Tiki Thai Arts, a firm in Thailand that is well known for its wood carving work. Some of the pieces arrived with damages acquired during shipping. Zacarias and his friend Tim Kummerow have spent the past couple weeks putting them back together. Kummerow has been instrumental in putting together "La Luz de Germs." He's one of Zacarias' biggest supporters, with about 100 pieces in his own collection, and funded this current project. The lamps were a long time in the making. The first prototype, done in pleather, was made about two years ago. They went through three or four versions of the lamps before settling on this design. Now they're installing the completed lamps inside the gallery.

GERMS, "Otra Vez," acrylic on wood, 12" x 10", 2012.

The walls of the small gallery inside the museum are dripping with red and yellow oxide. From a distance, they look like tiny, tea-stained foot prints. Instead they are cell-like shapes surrounded by those short, straight lines that hark back to the Our Lady of Guadalupe image. It's a symbol that appears a lot in Zacarias' paintings.

There are recurring themes throughout Zacarias' body of work. The religious imagery, from subtle to obvious, is just one element. Luchador masks are another. Zacarias grew up watching wrestling, both lucha libre and WWF. It's the former that stayed with him. He likes "the duality" of the masked faces, "the good and bad" that comes with territory of the wrestling ring. Los Angeles figures into his art as well. Sometimes the name of the city will appear emblazoned across a surreal scene. Sometimes, he will reference the Dodgers. Quite recently, he printed up a batch of stickers with the baseball team's L.A. logo reworked in his own tentacle font. It's the tentacles that make each piece easily identifiable as made by Germs. "I was never too big on doing bodies," Zacarias says. The tentacles substitute bodies and limbs. They sprout from orifices and wrap themselves around the figures within the paintings. Sometimes they form words, both in English and Spanish. They take shape in acrylic paint, becoming part of the many layers that comprise each piece.

GERMS, "Por Vida," acrylic on wood, 24" x 32", 2012.

In two new paintings, titled "La Batella," multi-colored tentacles swirl from the base of luchador masks. The paintings are dense. One bursts in shades of red, the other in cooler green tones. Zacarias works with acrylics in order to achieve the layered effects in his paintings. "I'm really impatient when I paint," he says. "I've got to layer it quick." Acrylic dries faster than, say, oil paint. He usually works on multiple pieces at once. "If I get sick of one, I move on to the next," he explains. "It's more productive that way." These two pieces took about three months to complete. They were, he says, "spontaneous" productions.

Standing as a counterpoint to "La Batella" is "Tribute to Magu." It's a commission that hasn't been exhibited prior to this show. Zacarias created it for a friend and collector that he met through the late artist Gilbert "Magu" Luján. It is his own take on Magu's piece "Our Family Car." The collector who commissioned the painting also owns the Magu-painted car. Zacarias' tribute turns the car into an anthropomorphic character and adds his own luchador masks. The automobile is surrounded by this rays of light that keep popping up in his work and floats through the sky on a bed of tentacles that function in a manner similar to the angel in the Our Lady of Guadalupe mural. Huge chunks of Zacarias' work stem from that one piece of street art found in a neighborhood where he grew up, where he still resides, and its made an impact far across the southern end of Los Angeles.

Photo: Liz Ohanesian.

GERMS, "Mamacita," acrylic on wood, 16" x 26", 2012.

Photo: Liz Ohanesian.

GERMS, untitled

GERMS, "Pedometer," acrylic on wood, 24" x 16," 2012.

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About the Author

Liz Ohanesian writes about art, pop culture, music and, sometimes, a combination of the three.
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