From street art to fine art with the Sour Grapes

The Sour Grapes attended a party in their honor at the Highland Park home of a donor to the Dallas Contemporary. It was the first time the Donjuan brothers — Carlos, Arturo and Miguel — had been inside this mansion, but they had noticed it for years.

Their father is the landscaper for the homeowners across the street. The brothers have mowed and edged that neighbor’s lawn many times.

“It was strange,” Arturo Donjuan says. “It was one of those moments.”

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Carlos, Arturo and Miguel were born in Mexico in 1982, ’83 and ’84, respectively. Their parents brought them to Oak Cliff in 1985, and they’ve lived here ever since. Their artist collective, which they started as a bunch of kids spray painting freight trains, celebrated its 15th anniversary this year.

They’re grown men with children of their own now. Carlos is a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington; Arturo is a barber at Studio 410; and Miguel is a teacher’s aide at Trinity Basin Preparatory School. And they’re all working artists. The Sour Grapes, which includes four other members, is booked so frequently that they sometimes have to turn down offers for live painting or murals.

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They say they owe it to work ethic learned form hardworking immigrant parents and the guidance of former Sunset High School art teacher Filberto Chapa. When the Grapes opened a 15-year anniversary show at the Latino Cultural Center this past summer, their teacher was part of the exhibit, exhibiting his own work in a second room.

“He’s the one who taught us how to take it from street art to fine art,” Arturo Donjuan says.

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The Sour Grapes started in the summer of 2000. The K-Mart on Ledbetter was going out of business, and the mother of one member, Isaias Torres, sent some of the boys to buy cat food at clearance prices. They found cans of spray paint on sale for 64 cents, so they loaded up.

Then they spent the whole summer painting freight trains.

They painted maybe 100 or more trains before they were caught, on Labor Day. Since it was a federal holiday, the marshals were off. The security guard photographed them, confiscated their paint and let them go.

After that, they looked for legal ways to paint.

“At that time there was a lot of gang graffiti around here in Oak Cliff,” Arturo says. “So we would go around to these tire shops and any place we would see gang graffiti and ask if they wanted a mural.”

The crew has never used stencils or projectors to plan paintings. They let the wall speak to them and decide, often at the spur of the moment, what to paint. Planning large murals is like a sixth sense to them, although very large pieces, such as the Jefferson Viaduct murals, are planned in detail.

At first the Grapes painted at their own cost, but soon they began asking business owners to pay for supplies. They always included their website at the bottoms of their murals, and their reputation spread. About 10 years ago, Neiman Marcus commissioned a mural from them, and other corporate clients followed.

Now they earn commissions from Nike, Red Bull and Goodyear Tires, among others. Carlos Donjuan has celebrity clients and has shown paintings in Milan and San Francisco.

But it’s not all about prestigious and lucrative commissions.

Last year, the Mayor’s Rising Star Council hired the Sour Grapes to create murals at five Dallas Independent School District high schools: Adamson, Madison, Roosevelt, Lincoln and South Oak Cliff. The students got to help the crew design and paint the murals.

It’s their most rewarding – and inspired – work. More people should sponsor murals in places that lack public art, especially near schools, they say.

“So kids walking to school can see that and maybe realize they can become artists as well,” Arturo says.

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