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Native American Street Artist Honors the 'Strength' of Legendary Indigenous Leaders

Work by Native American artist Votan Henriquez (banner)
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Artist Votan Henriquez works on a vibrant mural in Indian Alley. | Photo: Pamela J. Peters
Artist Votan Henriquez works on a vibrant mural located in Los Angeles' Indian Alley. | Photo: Pamela J. Peters

Cold, cramped and battling a headache, Los Angeles street artist Votan Henriquez helped put the finishing touches on a massive mural on the east side of the Minneapolis American Indian Center.

"When I was done I felt so relieved. ...A weight had been lifted off my shoulders," acknowledged Henriquez, who teamed up with Gregg Deal, a painter, street artist and performance artist who belongs to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, for the project.

Then, just as he was about to leave the site, a woman approached Henriquez. "[She said,] 'We need this. This is going to empower our community,'" he recalled. "Then I understood the reason we did that mural and sacrificed so much. It wasn't until you had to go through it that you really understood the bigger picture."

The realization came as a revelation for the Venice native, who has Mayan and Nahua roots. One of his prized possessions as a child was a red T-shirt bearing the words “Chichen Itza” and a picture of a pyramid. “That's what opened my eyes to my ancestry,” he said.

“At first I was just a tagger” incorporating indigenous patterns into his graffiti, said Henriquez, but teachers convinced him he could make a living from his art. After a brief stint in art college — “They didn't really understand what I was trying to do, and I didn't understand it myself,” the artist explained — he moved into graphic design, exploring themes inspired by his indigenous identity and the Mexican Day of the Dead, Día de los Muertos.

Now Henriquez mixes politically minded murals and street art with apparel and more. His company NSRGNTS, conceived in 1999 and launched in 2000, promotes “the transmission of indigenous thought and philosophy” through everything from T-shirts to stickers to skateboard decks.

Votan Henriquez, "Warrior Wombyn (aka Rezzie the Riveter)."
Votan Henriquez, "Warrior Wombyn (aka Rezzie the Riveter)."

Although the brand boasts such high-profile fans as rapper M-1 of Dead Prez and hip-hop star Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas, Henriquez and his crew meet many of their customers at pow wows and tribal gatherings.

Henriquez was in his early 20s when he attended his first pow wow. “I saw so many people who looked like my relatives,” he recalled, Native Americans who were truly “in tune with their heritage and their family history.”

He longed to connect with them and tap into a shared ancestral history. “We can learn from other ancestors — how to deal with reality, with life, with diversity,” Henriquez said. “All of us need to know that as indigenous people. There are lessons to be learned.”

Votan Henriquez, "No Dakota Access Pipeline."
Artist Votan Henriquez re-imagines a popular "The Simpsons" scene to comment on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Henriquez is inspired by legendary Native American leaders outside his own tribal tradition, such as Chief Joseph and Red Cloud. For instance, he painted a mural of Sitting Bull for H.O.M.E. On the Promenade, a Long Beach store that describes itself as an “urban trading post.”

“I want to represent that strength, in what we create and what we design,” Henriquez said, whether it's a T-shirt that proclaims “You Are on Indian Land” or a poster protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline showing a Plains chief in a war bonnet and a gas mask.

As Henriquez recently told his son — upset because his teacher had told him the Aztecs were brutal barbarians — “We have to go to school because we need to be educated. [But] sometimes we need to do the education ourselves.”

“As indigenous people we've contributed so many things to the world, and our kids don't even know [about it],” he said. “We really have lost a lot of that through our history books. We need to educate our kids through our art.”

Bus bench by Votan Henriquez.
Votan Henriquez, "You're on Indianland​."
Votan Henriquez, "You're on Indianland​."
Votan Henriquez, "You are on Indianland​."
Votan Henriquez, "Autoimmune Disease."
Votan Henriquez, "Autoimmune Disease."
Votan Henriquez, "Amoxtli."
Votan Henriquez, "Amoxtli."

Featured photograph of Votan Henriquez by Steve Zeigler.

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