The art of Albert Reyes can shock you. It can turn you on. It can devastate you with its direct, primal, sexual, and political energy.
An L.A. hipster with an ax to grind, Reyes doesn’t back down. Not one inch.
But who is this sarcastic, confrontational artist? Run down the gritty streets of Los Angeles and find out.
The Story of Albert Reyes
Blasting out of art school in the 1990s, Reyes takes his job as an artist seriously. Primarily working in pen and ink, Reyes also uses unconventional tools in a mashup of fine art and performance art called spit art. There is nothing low-key about Reyes’ art.
Born in Los Angeles, California, in 1971, Reyes came to art through a love for junk. Growing up, he picked up trash from the streets and brought it home to make art. He made creepy little faces and sarcastic side-eyed faces with lopsided grins out of to-go cups.
After earning a B.A. in Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute, Reyes returned home to Los Angeles. Reyes began to build a career with a unique style inspired by the graffiti he saw around him.
Critics loved how he combined fine art with street art, comic books, and tattoos. When the gallery owners came calling, Reyes was happy to oblige.
One of Reyes’ teachers told him something important that drives his career. “Your job as an artist is to be like a reporter, to report what’s happening in our culture and our world.” This landed with Reyes and forced him to look at the world around him. And he has. Pointing his pen at political figures, L.A. royalty, sex, war, and kink, nothing escapes him.
His sense of humor makes his art a juxtaposition. At once confrontational and hilarious, Reyes’s art aims to improve people’s lives. And it has. Featured in the New York Times: Year in Ideas, Swindle, and Chicano Art Magazine, Reyes represents the new reality of the art world.
Calling back to R. Crumb and Barry McGee, his work references ideas as big as the American Dream and as personal as his cats.
What Inspires Albert Reyes?
Figures in Reyes’s art stare boldly back into your face, daring you to look. His art is ephemeral, here one minute and gone the next.
Reyes says his inspiration comes from all over. The trash he picks up on the street becomes part of his exhibitions as jack-o-lantern-style faces. The backyard haunted houses he’s known for in his neighborhood are also art installations in top galleries.
One of his major influences is the idea that the American Dream is fractured, and his work explores those cracks. Big business, ecological collapse, isolation, and celebrity worship all push Reyes’ pen to paper. But there is something about Reyes that also looks for the good in these things.
While he believes our flawed system leaves serious problems behind, he believes in the goodness of people. “I think the American Dream is about people; they see things that are not right and also correct it.” Reyes’ art is part of the correction.
What Is Spit Art?
One of the more performative aspects of Reyes’ art is a technique he calls spit art. It highlights the temporary nature of art and pokes fun at folks who take art too seriously. You can watch Reyes create pieces on driveways and in parking lots in videos online.
He takes a mouthful of liquid and draws an image with his mouth. These pieces take only a few minutes to create and evaporate into thin air as they dry.
These simple works are easy to understand for a community that involves the “what does it mean to you?” question. For Reyes, work of this type helped propel him into the top echelon of the art world.
What Are Some of Albert Reyes’ Art Pieces?
Reyes creates work that speaks directly to the viewer. Subjects in his pieces usually stare straight out, giving the sense that the viewer is a voyeur. Appreciating this kind of work is easy if you can get over the feeling that you’re watching something you shouldn’t be.
Untitled (Blue Face on Street Sign)
Street sign art is nothing new, but Reyes takes an uncharacteristic approach to the genre. The flat painting of a blue face stares out at the viewer. Lacking the usual Reyes pen and ink, the piece quotes classic American Outsider Art. It’s like Big Brother staring out at you to remind you that there is NO PARKING. The Blue Face is watching.
Skulls on Disney Series
Working with a screen printing technique for this series, Reyes and Serio Press collaborated on these book covers. Reyes is known for his horror fascination, and putting this fractured skull on classic Disney images does the trick.
The skull, with its features made from several women in clown costumes and makeup, floats above a black hole. As a whole, the series highlights the lurking darkness behind consumer culture. Disney, of course, didn’t sign off on the project.
On the subject of women, Reyes is mainly known for sexy, nearly pornographic images. Curvy, sensual, grotesque; these are terms that come to mind. However, he’s not all darkness here either.
A portrait of his wife in bed exudes love and calmness. He made this piece for his anniversary and falls into the style Reyes is known best for. Illustrative, using black and white, this piece is lovely. Not a term we usually use when talking about Albert Reyes and his portrayal of women.
What Do the GIVE and TAKE Tags Mean?
Not much is written about the GIVE and TAKE tags Reyes incorporates into his portraits. And the artist chooses not to divulge his secrets. The best we can do is take a stab at their meaning. To get to that meaning, we have to examine the tone of the pieces where the tags appear.
Sympathetic characters in his art usually get the GIVE tag, even if they’re in a gimp suit. As part of society, we choose when to give of ourselves. Like Reyes’ characters, sometimes, when we don’t want to give, we still do. In some ways, the characters choose to give in these drawings.
The TAKE tag has another feeling, one that’s more sinister. It casts the viewer as the taker and the character in the image as the one being taken. A big booty with what looks like bondage gear that spells out TAKE invites the viewer to, well, take.
Is There a Book About Albert Reyes?
In 2006, Reyes worked with publisher Upper Playground to create a book of his work. The 96-page epigraph features his drawings and some photos from the early part of his career. You can find it online, but there aren’t a lot of copies still out there. Make sure to get your hands on this example of Reyes’ early work.
Reyes Shows Us the Warped American Dream
Albert Reyes creates art with attitude and heart. His portraits and installations all speak to a fascination with popular culture and with making the world a better place.
Knowing where his heart lies hopefully gives a different spirit to what can feel like brutal takedowns of celebrity culture and politicians.
But then again, some of these folks need to be taken down a peg or two. Count on Reyes to find the cracks in the American Dream and fill them with humor, sex, and a twisted sense of humor. We’re here for it!
What do you think of Albert Reyes’ art? Let us know in the comments!
Outside Folk Gallery
You can explore more folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans.
We’ll also be offering pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when!