In his West Hollywood apartment, Ramiro Gomez paints freestyle on a large scrap of cardboard.
"You know, I do like the fact that I'm not planning it out. I'm just literally going with it," he says. An image quickly emerges — a brown-skinned man with a moustache, and shadows for eyes. He's one of the domestic workers Gomez paints, the pool cleaners, the nannies, the people who make many a Los Angeles household hum.
"They're much more than a gardener. They have friends, families and loved ones. And I'm trying to ask you to look into them a little more," Gomez says.
Gomez, 27, knows his subject. His parents are from Mexico. His mom is a school custodian. His father drives a truck for Costco.
After a stint in art school, Gomez went to work as a nanny for a family with twins in the Hollywood Hills. On breaks, he tried to practice his art, but he says he didn't feel comfortable bringing his canvas into the house. "It wasn't even my home," he says.
So he started tearing out pages from old home décor magazines that were around the house. And he painted images of faceless domestic workers into scenes of luxurious living rooms and kitchens.
Then he uploaded photos of his work to Facebook.
"I did it, originally, to get acknowledgement, because I felt that these were my only thoughts, and that I was the only person feeling this," he says.
But people connected with these images. And feeling encouraged, he created a blog called Happy Hills, in 2011.
Online buzz began and immigration activists took notice. Academics invited Gomez to give talks.
"The works themselves were just quite stunning," says Chon Noriega, who directs UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center. He says that while Gomez is certainly not the first artist to comment on race and labor, his images are some of the most powerful. "He's resonated as much with the arts world as with rights-activists who are struggling to bring visibility to these issues," Noriega says.
Visibility only increased when Gomez began putting life-sized cardboard figures in upscale neighborhoods, in places like Beverly Hills.
Using a boxcutter, Gomez carves out his paintings of laborers. He's done guerilla art installations more than 50 times around Los Angeles.
On a recent afternoon, Gomez heads out to install a cutout he made of himself, holding the twins he used to care for. He knows exactly where he will place it: the park in West Hollywood where he used to bring the children. It's a familiar place, but Gomez says there is "still a nervousness. There is still the opportunity to hear somebody's reaction, which may or may not be positive."
Once, he placed a cutout of a man selling maps to the homes of Hollywood stars next to a man actually selling the maps. The man told Gomez to take his art away. "It's a tricky position to be in when I want to bring awareness to these things and bring attention to people who sometimes don't even want attention on them in the first place," Gomez says.
At the West Hollywood park, Ramiro finds a sunny spot and jams the cardboard cutout into the ground. His friend Vera, a nanny from Brazil, walks by with two little girls. She hugs Gomez, tells him his work is "muy bonita," beautiful in Spanish.
Gomez doesn't mind if she doesn't read anything more into his piece. "Who am I to judge her?" he says. "I'm prodding her for something that may not be there."
The reaction was different at Gomez's first solo show at a Los Angeles gallery.
"Well, I think this makes some people feel really uncomfortable," says Marguerite Coster, who lives in Los Angeles. She says she's befriended her pool cleaner and landscaper and pays them good wages. Even so, she's struck by Gomez' paintings of faceless workers "because you realize what it's like to be a non-person."
Immigration activist Zacil Pech is also at the gallery show. Her mom is a housekeeper and lacks the papers to work in the United States legally. Pech thinks of her as she looks around at the people there.
"Most of them are white people and it's kind of interesting. I hope you're able to realize that the reality of our lives and your lives, and how they differ," Pech says.
For Gomez, it's a good night. Museums are interested. Collectors make purchases on the spot. But he can't help but notice the irony: wealthy people buying his art and, Gomez says, "more likely than not, underpaying their staff. Even that should somehow seep, in because they can't look at my work, and not think about themselves and their implication."
Gomez also thinks about the workers who might come across his art, hanging in a house. He says he hopes they realize that they're the ones who are truly valuable.
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