It was a family affair on Sunday afternoon when Albuquerque-based muralist Leopoldo Romero and his student Felipe Tapia unveiled A Toda Madre, a joint exhibit of eclectic works at Santa Fe Baking Co.
"This one gallery in Albuquerque invited me to have a one-man show and I don't have enough work to fill up an entire building," Romero says of ATM's collaborative origins. Out of that exhibit at El Chante: Casa de Cultura, A Toda Madre's current iteration was born.
Inspired by up and coming talent, Romero, a 30-year arts veteran, decided to open a guerrilla art school venture in his home upon surviving a cerebral aneurysm in the mid-90s.
"There's a lot of energy in there—energy that feeds us artists to work with," he says of the impromptu art space. "We were able to get this going in a way that it keeps on happening."
Romero says his students "come at their own will. I don't talk 'em into coming. If they show up, they show up and if they don't, they don't.
"I keep their hunger going," he says of his open-door philosophy. "That's how it's going to grow into larger, better things. I feed off of them just as much as they do off me.
The artist says the school is his way to pay it forward.
"When I was younger, I was hungry and I didn't have anywhere to go. I feel sorry for the poor ones, 'cause they were left out of all the good things that were out there."
He considers the move a true calling. "I wanted it so bad that I made a promise to the all-mighty: If you give it to me, I'll give it back."
His efforts, he says, have brought with them a reciprocal effect.
"I just turned 60 but I don't feel like it, I feel 30 because my mind is free-spirited and my students are free-spirited, so they keep me going."
That includes students like Tapia, who has worked under Romero for the last six years.
"Before, I was just spreading paint and flattening out, but when I went to Leo he showed me the different ways of the brush," says Tapia, a bail bondsman by day who considers painting his "therapy" says.
A laundry list flecks the 36-year-old’s inspiration board. “My neighborhood, my culture, my family, everything like that,” he says.
So, his body of work is flecked with everything from tattoo-inspired pieces to lowrider art to portraits of hometown heroes like Johnny Tapia (no relation) that practically jump off the canvas.
"I struggled with it for a little while," he says of his homage to the troubled boxer. Getting it right was of paramount importance, he says, because the two grew up in neighboring parts of town.
Were it not for Romero, the budding artist perhaps wouldn't have explored his creative side. "There aren't a lot of people that are willing to do that," he says of his mentor's initiative. "We need more people like him."
Still, altruistic ideals and all, Romero isn't succumbing to the artiste stereotype.
"What attracts me the most is money," he says with a hearty laugh when asked what has inspired his career. "If it comes my way, I'm ready to do it because I don't want to punch a clock."
He stops and looks around the brightly colored walls and sees the breadth of his work. "All these styles you see are all because of money," he says. "I did not want to turn down a job, so if they said they wanted it, I said I could do it."
An array of pieces—ranging from abstracts to some reminiscent of Rivera and Alfaro Siqueiros line the restaurant. "I don't stick to one style because I don't want to get bored," he muses.
One particular piece of a man in the Philippine jungle stands out.
"I live in a house that's 113-years-old and he lived in there in his younger days. He died in the Bataan Death March," he says, pointing at the man in the painting. "He's my wife's uncle. He's the ghost that's in my house. He's always playing pranks on me. Now, when he plays pranks on me, I walk up to this painting and say, 'Now you can't hide from me. I can see you.'"
His comments always laced with good humor, Romero hopes to inspire young talent to broaden their horizons.
"The majority of them are graffiti artists, and they turn up with this love of graffiti," he says. "I tell them, 'If you can learn my art as much as you know your graffiti and if you can love my art as much as you love yours, I win.'"
He continues, "When it comes to art, the sky's the limit; when it comes to graffiti, the roof is the limit. So, how high do you want to go? I've got students that are going very high in art that were graffiti artists. I don't knock it, but I don't [support] graffiti because half of the time they're doing it on somebody else's wall."
If they're resistant, he says, he'll press a little further so that they pick up an airbrush. "Leave those cans alone and again, the sky's the imit."
Ultimately, Romero hopes that by sharing the creative love, walls—especially those cemented in cultural and racial tension—come down.
"I think art is a good tool to make cultures fall into each other," he says, citing a mural he painted some years back at Robert F Kennedy high school, which included a Zia symbol topped with the eagle devouring a serpent commonly seen in Mexican flags.
"It was to let them know that it's not one or the other. We're in this together," he says. "If they don't hear it from me, they're gonna see it and they're gonna put two and two together."