Visual Arts

"Chola Kitty Nueve Vidas" at AZ Latino Art and Cultural Center Mates Universally Loved Japanese Anime Character with Classic Chicano Cultural Style

What do you get when you cross a sweet, universally worshiped Japanese icon with a low-riding chola from East LA? According to Such Styles, well-known Phoenix graffiti artist and muralist whose real name is Noe Baez, you've just given birth to Chola Kitty, his latest creation. Such, as he prefers to be called, has immortalized this bad-girl kitty combo on canvas in "Chola Kitty Nueve Vidas" (Chola Kitty Nine Lives) at the Arizona Latino Art and Cultural Center.

Chola Kitty is Such's obviously Latino take on Hello Kitty, Japan's 40-year-old mega-anime character and product brand, which, along with Mickey Mouse, is one of the most recognizable cartoon characters ever created. In conceptual collaboration with his wife, Annette and his oldest son, Champ, the artist has taken Hello Kitty and recast the cuddly pink cat character into a bad-ass Latina gang-banger type with a don't-muck-with-me attitude, popularly known in Mexican-American culture as a chola. The chola's usual stomping grounds include low-rider car rallies and swap meets. At least, that's what the lyrics of a female take-off version of Down aka Kilo's 2007 hit,"Lean Like a Cholo," by Carmen, claims. It was Carmen's video satire that elevated cholas to near mythic pop-culture proportions.

See also: American Graffiti Artists Answer Scrawl of the Wild Such Styles Gives Hello Kitty a Makeover in "Chola Kitty Nueve Vidas Show" Opening Friday

Such's Hello Kitty lampoon, executed in classic graffiti style with drips, swirls, tagging, and Old English typeface, is 180 degrees from the cute, mouth-less cartoon feline so beloved by pre-pubescents and full-grown women around the world. His version celebrates the cross pollination of the demure, Japanese Harajuku girl and the western tough street mama.

The unmistakable chola look appearing in Such's paintings has traveled far beyond the barrio. Even the likes of Angelina Jolie, Queen Elizabeth, and Pee Wee Herman have been cholafied in an online photographic series by L.A. artist Michael Jason Enriquez. The look is not restricted to certified gang members and their girlfriends anymore. Anyone can now look like a chola by following these few basic dress, hair and makeup rules: paint on your eyebrows, preferably in angry, unnatural shapes; wear upper and lower black eyeliner that would make Cleopatra proud, together with either obviously fake eyelashes or the same look achieved with multiple layers of black mascara; wear either black lipstick, or considered even cooler, just wear dark lip liner sans lipstick. Oh, and be sure to curl your hair, then tease-torture it to within an inch of its life, anchoring it for posterity in gravity-defying shapes with at least a full 12 oz. can of Aquanet. Accessorize with a bandana in the color of your favorite street gang, large hoop earrings and a miniscule tube top from which your ample breasts ooze. Many cholas will mimic their male counterparts for that androgynous touch, so baggy pants, suspenders, tear drop tattoos under one eye, and plaid flannel shirts are often sartorial choices for these home girls.

These are important things to know when deconstructing Such's Chola Kitty canvases, executed in everything from automotive aerosol paint to Sharpie markers and acrylics. In Cat Rider, we see the archetypal cholo male superimposed on the highly female, mouth-less Hello Kitty: fedora, mustache, sleeveless t-shirt and pants held up with suspenders, teardrop tattoo under one eye (said to stand for the number of people in your life you've killed and/or lost), three-dot tattoo under the other. In Gata, the female kitty reincarnation sports a bandana headband and the same "tats," which generally connote the dangerous, carpe diem quality of "mi vida loca" or "my crazy life" related to being a gang-banger.

"Smile Today Cry Tomorrow," a favorite cholo phrase often seen in graffiti work, prison and low-rider art and as tattoos, figures prominently in a painting of the same name; the phrase is often accompanied by classic tragedy and comedy masks, which in this piece appear on Chola Kitty's dress. In other work, we see our heroine astride a chopper, cruising in a classic low-rider car, haunted by a pink, halo-crowned, skull-and-crossbones Chola Kitty phantom, and dressed as a payasa or clown, all important signifiers in hip-hop and street gang culture of the Southwest.

It's the tug-of-war between the benign and malignant that makes Such's Chola Kitty icon so fascinating. That good-kitty-gone-bad theme threading its way through the work in this show turns a sweet, uncomplicated symbol into a complex, multi-layered evil twin. Such says that he's been getting a flood of friend requests on Facebook in Japanese since he's posted Chola Kitty images online, so don't be surprised when Chola Kitty wannabes pop up on the streets of the Harajuku district in Tokyo.

For a look at Such Styles back in the day, as well as a brief history of graffiti art, check out our New Times article, "Scrawl of the Wild." "Chola Kitty Nueve Vidas" is on view in the La Capilla Room at Latino Art and Cultural Center at 147 E. Adams in downtown Phoenix.

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Kathleen Vanesian