written by:
November 17, 2011
Originally published in Smaller & Smarter

Pursuing his passion for painting gave Fabian Debora a means to transcend his troubled past.

Boyle Heights street signs painting by Fabian Debora
“Boyle Heights used to be a predominantly Jewish neighborhood,” Debora explains. “These street signs hold that heritage as well as the memories of people who live there today, including the gangs that plague the area.”
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Fabian Debora LA bag for Artecnica
“I wanted to give this bag the essence of the street, with a twist,” Debora says of his second collaboration with Artecnica.
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Fabian Debora illustration by Riccardo Vecchio

Fabian Debora believes in the transformative power of art. A tumultuous childhood in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles set him on a path toward drugs and gangs, but putting pen to paper helped him turn his life around. He is currently a substance abuse counselor at Homeboy Industries, a center that helps youths redirect their lives through mentoring programs and employment in its growing businesses. Debora is also their resident artist, merging his two responsibilities by using art as a form of therapy. A recent collaboration with Artecnica allowed the Homeboys to express their skills with a collection of totes.

What’s your earliest memory of experimenting with art?
I was ten years old—about to be expelled from school—and [Homeboy Industries founder] Father Greg Boyle told me to go home and draw him a picture. I held onto that support.
You use the term “community artists” to describe the people you work with.
They’re emerging and making a name for themselves but are not yet known outside their neighborhood. Their talents can contend with those in the mainstream, but they haven’t been given the opportunity to shine.
But street art is all over museum walls these days.
Yes, but exhibitions featuring graffiti art don’t often take its history into consideration; it’s important to recognize those who have fought to create it, and understand that people have passed away behind those spray cans. When this form gets glorified in an irresponsible way, it can cause harm to future generations. We have to be cautious of that.

Boyle Heights street signs painting by Fabian Debora
“Boyle Heights used to be a predominantly Jewish neighborhood,” Debora explains. “These street signs hold that heritage as well as the memories of people who live there today, including the gangs that plague the area.”

How do you communicate that to today’s youth?
I tell the little kids to take their work and put it on a canvas instead of giving it away on the side of a building.
What’s your studio like?
I’ve set up a small altar with pictures of the master painters: Frida Kahlo, Picasso. I have a ritual where I light two candles and some sage, and then I turn on my music—–anything from Mozart to Marvin Gaye—–open up, and let the spirit roam free.
Fabian Debora LA bag for Artecnica
“I wanted to give this bag the essence of the street, with a twist,” Debora says of his second collaboration with Artecnica.

And when you can’t make it to the studio?
When I was a kid, I lived five minutes away from the L.A. River, and I would play there in order to escape the violence at home. To this day, when I’m feeling especially tired and frustrated—wondering where I’m going to end up and if my art is going to take me places— I’ll sit there with my sketchbook and the thoughts flow in.
Where would you like your art to take you now?
I’d like to go back to school for my BFA—my goal is to work for DreamWorks Animation company. I also want to establish a Homeboy Art Academy.

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