Artist’s medium of choice is road grime

Gustavo Arellano
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — One day in 2016, as Arnulfo Gonzalez waited at a warehouse to pick up cargo, he stared at the filth caked on the back door of his box truck. After a moment of contemplation, he ran his finger on it.

The Mexican immigrant once had ambitions of becoming an artist. He had earned a degree in the subject from East Los Angeles College and taught ceramics workshops in Bell Gardens. He took his wife on date nights to drawing classes, where they used each other as subjects.

Gonzalez set aside those dreams and became a trucker in 2000, “because there was more money there,” the father of two said. Besides an occasional notebook doodle, work and his family were his focus.

Until the day he realized that his canvas and paint had been there all along.

“It clicked,” Gonzalez said.

By the time his load was ready, he had outlined a woman’s face in the muck.

Dockworkers immediately offered praise. And so, every other week since, the short-haul driver has offered a new “painting” to commuters across Southern California, using only the dirt and grime that collects on his troca. Jesus Christ. A giant jellyfish. A Thanksgiving spread. A horse with a flowing mane, a soulful eye and richly detailed reins.

Often, the 48-year-old Gonzalez answers his muse as he waits for cargo to get loaded. He likes to use classical music as a soundtrack — Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata is a favorite.

“It relaxes you and brings out creativity,” Gonzalez said.

Driving up and down L.A.’s eternally traffic-choked streets and freeways, the Hacienda Heights resident has an audience to dwarf any Arts District installation. It would be easy for onlookers to imagine that some wannabe street Rembrandt furtively made the scenes on Gonzalez’s vehicle — like a graffiti artist in the night.

Truckers inspire many stereotypes. Artistic soul is not one of them.

Cruz Palomares, 50, a fellow troquero from Paramount, likes to show other drivers a photo of his favorite Gonzalez piece: Santa Claus on a reindeer-drawn sleigh flying over a forest.

“The cabron has a gift!” Palomares said, referring to Gonzalez using a word common in Mexico that literally means “male goat” but can serve as both an insult and term of respect.

“The guys I show stay there with their mouths open. And then they say, ‘Hey, your friend made a mistake to be a trucker.’”

Gonzalez tends to agree. But a man’s got to make money.

“I don’t see myself in this job forever,” he said.

His voice trails off as he stands in the parking lot of the Puente Hills Mall, ready to embark on his next “painting.” He slips on plastic gloves and opens a toolbox filled with paint brushes and other artist’s materials.

“Who knows what can happen? At least, I want to graduate to a wall.”

Limitless supply: But for now, grime is like an ink that never runs dry.

“It just gathers and gathers and gathers and never ends,” said Gonzalez.

The son of a troquero, Gonzalez came to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico, when he was 18. Before his artistic awakening in el Norte, he wanted to become an engineer or mathematician.

“When you’re artistic, you get that out there one way or another,” said his wife, Libet. “I want him to do whatever his passion is, and I wanted him to do this.”

She points out, though, that Gonzalez doesn’t hang any original pieces at their home.

“He’s too much of a perfectionist,” she said. “He’ll do something great, then tear it up. Besides, I think he wants his work seen by as many people as possible. That’s why trucks work so well for him.”

Gonzalez’s early works and methods were rudimentary. He’d get a Clorox wipe and do basic line drawings, like a Dia de los Muertos skull.

As he gained confidence, Gonzalez experimented with dimensions and material.

After washing off his last creation, Gonzalez covers the back of his truck with cooking spray to capture as much muck as possible over two days.

Gonzalez uses LA’s Totally Awesome all-purpose cleaner spray to bring out better whites, a finely pointed natural-hair brush to move around the crud, and cotton swabs for details. For vibrant grays, Gonzalez gets dirty water from his janitor pals; for the darkest blacks, he scrapes the soot from his tailpipe — and dilutes it in a jar to create other shades. He’s experimenting with axle grease for even more tones.

Laura Fernandez, who works in the shipping department at one of the loading docks Gonzalez frequents, said she told the trucker “to do stuff that people can relate to.”

“He’s driving all over L.A., and people are stuck behind him,” Fernandez said. A Grinch that Gonzalez did this past Christmas, she said, was particularly impressive.

As Gonzalez pulled into a car wash off Rosecrans Avenue in Norwalk, pedestrians and customers of nearby businesses stared. Some took photos. Someone shouted that the horse painting was good enough to use as an ad at the Santa Anita racetrack.

“Man, there’s so much talent hidden out there,” said Jonathan Aguilar, who owns a barber shop in the strip mall. “And you don’t even know about it until you’re behind it.”