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Austin mural artist Federico Archuleta talks about ’toughest year of my life’

Kristin Finan, kfinan@statesman.com
Artist Federico Archuleta, the man behind some of the most famous street art in Austin, poses for a photo Feb. 3 in front of his work "Lover, Fighter." [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Someone has taken a marker to Selena’s face.

They’ve scribbled on her cheek and etched a teardrop under her eye.

Federico Archuleta, who painted the colorful mural of the “Queen of Tejano music” at El Chilito on Manor Road three years ago, merely shrugs at the recent vandalism of his creation.

“I’ve never had anything, like, really badly damaged the way other people have,” said the artist, who signs his work @el_federico.

Archuleta, who was at the forefront of street art in Austin and who is easily the most recognizable stencil artist in the city, is well-known for his bright, contemplative style that’s showcased in pieces that range from his interpretation of the Virgen de Guadalupe in front of Tesoros on South Congress Avenue to his Instagram-famous “’Til Death Do Us Part” mural outside of the Mexic-Arte Museum.

But while he may be a frequent winner of “best of Austin” polls and have his work featured regularly in national magazines and on band album covers, he also just went through what he calls “easily the toughest year of my life,” a divorce and a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease testing everything he thought he knew.

Early days

Archuleta, who grew up in El Paso, knew he wanted to be an artist by the time he was 6 years old. He could pore through the vinyl album covers of bands like Led Zeppelin, the Cars and Aerosmith that he found in his older brother’s room for hours.

“I just loved, loved, loved the vinyl and looking at the covers,” he said. “I would stare at them like, ‘What’s going on here?’”

Raised Catholic, Archuleta briefly considered missionary work and even the priesthood.

“I remember a counselor told me, ‘You’re too good of an artist, don’t preach to people,’” he said. “’Just do your art. That’s your calling.’”

Following high school, Archuleta, 52, attended community college and worked in silk-screen shops in El Paso, then became a display artist for Tower Records, working at stores in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Dallas and, ultimately, Austin in the early 2000s.

He credits his time at Tower Records for helping him to fine-tune his work and inspiring him to try working with stencils while he was in his 30s.

“I got started in this whole graffiti-stencil thing very late in life, for lack of a better word,” he said. “I was never in my teens throwing tags on trains. I was never part of a crew; I was never a skateboarder, for that matter. I was already doing well doing commercial art in other venues. Once I started doing the stencil stuff, I realized this is what I enjoy, what my true calling is.”

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When Austin’s Tower Records closed in 2004, Archuleta was able to make a living through his stencil art, crafting murals spanning pop culture icons, religious references and quirky sayings, many of them with a nod to Archuleta’s Mexican American roots.

“He pioneered stencil art in Austin,” said fellow stencil artist and friend Eleanor “Niz” Herasimchuk. “It’s instantly recognizable as his work, he has a very unique style, and it’s super creative as far as the stencil art form goes. It’s colorful. It’s playful. And it has Latino influence. If it weren’t for Federico, there would be little to no representation of Latino culture in street art in Austin. He also set the bar for originality, substance and style in public art. He’s the real deal.”

Inspiring a movement

Standing in front of his mural called “Lover, Fighter” on the PRINTpress building on East Cesar Chavez Street, Archuleta says he has “no clue” how many pieces he has on Austin’s walls, although it’s easily in the dozens. Spotting them is like finding bright Easter eggs on a dreary day.

“Federico’s stuff was already established when I got here, so when I arrived it was like, ‘Oh, this is Austin, I get it,’” said fellow artist and El Paso native Bradford Maxfield. “But it felt like a very comfortable space for me as well.”

Maxfield remembers the first time he met Archuleta, when Archuleta attended one of his shows at a local gallery.

“He showed up and he was looking super cool,” Maxfield said, noting Archuleta’s hand-painted leather jacket. “He definitely inspired the hell out of me.”

Stencil artist Niz, who recalls being “starstruck” the day she first met Archuleta, said that despite their similar artistic styles, he has mentored her like a big brother.

“Someone asked me the other day, ’Wouldn’t he be your arch nemesis because you are the two main stencil artists in town?’” she said, adding that the two have collaborated on projects and sometimes refer clients to each other. “But not at all, because our work is so different. Clients that seek out Federico are looking for Federico.”

These days, about 90% of the work Archuleta does is commissioned by local businesses, although many of the business owners give him free rein to paint what he’d like. Even as Austin’s number of street artists has grown, Archuleta has remained dedicated to ensuring that they’re a community.

“There’s a lot of fresh talent, great talent here in town. I hear that a lot: ‘Oh, you inspired me.’ If I can inspire these young people who take up the torch and continue to inspire them to experiment in their own right so they can flower and become their own people, that’s probably the most important thing for me.”

Life with the diagnosis

It’s 10:30 a.m. on a brisk Thursday at Radio Coffee in South Austin and Archuleta is sitting down at an outdoor picnic table.

As he sets his coffee cup down, a few drops spill, a side effect of the Parkinson’s disease he is trying to learn to live with.

“Balance can be very tough,” he said. “A lot of times people think that I’m drunk. My speech gets kind of slurry. I feel like I’m operating on half my strength. Exhaustion is very common, and I don’t have the speed that I used to.”

Archuleta was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement, two years ago but has probably been impacted by it physically for the past five years, doctors told him.

“I saw a neurologist in Mexico (before I was diagnosed) and he tells me, ‘Squeeze my fingers as hard as you can.’ I think to myself, ‘You’re asking for it.’ When I saw he didn’t even flinch, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m in trouble. The dude isn’t even flinching.’”

Archuleta is taking seven pills a day to manage the symptoms, which have taken a toll on his ability to paint.

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“Last night, for example, I was wrapping up a mural at a restaurant and I could only wrap it up at night when they closed. It got to a certain hour I got so tired I felt like I was painting with lobster claws,” he said. “One thing I hate about this disease is that it takes forever to get a damn thing done. It’s like swimming with molasses, or a ball and chain around your ankle.”

Fearing a loss of work, Archuleta waited until last summer to break the news to fans.

“I was afraid the jobs would stop coming in. You don’t want a liability. I don’t blame them,” he said. “But I realize I’m in public a lot and if I don’t explain what I have, people are going to think that I’m on drugs or that I’m drunk all the time. I also wanted people to know it was starting to affect my work.”

Archuleta is candid about harsh toll the disease has taken on his life and on his marriage, which ended in a divorce last year. Still, he adds that he has no regrets because his marriage brought him his son, Alejandro, 5.

“If I hadn’t gotten married, I’d probably be dead by now,” said Archuleta, adding that he has struggled with cocaine in the past. “If I would have gotten Parkinson’s without being married and without having a kid, I would have been like a ship without sails and without a motor. I would have floated out to sea.”

Moving forward

When Archuleta talks more about fatherhood, he tears up.

“I apologize, because this damn medication really makes a guy weepy,” he said. “Give me a second here, all right?”

He mentions a time when he lived in Mexico briefly in his 20s and was asked frequently if he had children.

“They would tell me, ‘You have the ways of a father,’” he said. “There is a saying in Spanish that goes, ‘A child arrives with a loaf of bread under their arm.’ It means when you have a child, you have more blessings come to you. That certainly happened in my case.”

Alejandro is already showing a love of art like his dad; the two frequently paint together.

“All I want is to live long enough to see him turn 18 or 21 years old,” he said. “I want to make sure I did a good job, that he’ll be fine out in the world.”

Archuleta has also vowed to continue his art as long as possible and has found that he’s received even more job requests since he announced he has Parkinson’s.

“It’s been nothing but support and kind words from everybody. Now that I’ve announced it, things have gotten better for me. Business is going stronger than ever. It’s one of the great ironies of this situation,” he said. “(It’s good because) I’d rather be standing, being physical. That’s the best thing to combat Parkinson’s. Painting gives me a sense of purpose. If you don’t have a sense of purpose, that disease will whip your ass.”

Much like Archuleta can’t control what happens to his murals once they’re up, he also can’t control how Parkinson’s will ultimately impact him. For now, though, he’s trying to live in the moment and do the best he can for himself and for Alejandro.

“It’s been really rough for him, but now he’s just skyrocketed. He flipped he script to where he’s telling people exactly what he wants and he’s getting it because he deserves it,” fellow artist Maxfield said. “He’s on this next-level trajectory right now. He’s one of Austin’s true beacons of art and of inspiration.”

Learn more about Federico Archuleta’s artwork on Instagram at @el_federico or on Facebook at facebook.com/FedericoArchuleta.

El Federico