Vanessa “Agana” Espinoza is a Venezuelan-American artist and educator from California’s culturally crucial Bay Area. With a Bachelors in Animation and Visual Effects (from Emeryville’s well-known Ex’pression College for Digital Arts) under her belt she’s a seriously creative storm, harboring talents and passion unmeasurable by today’s standards.
Combining a variety of trades – music video production, film, animation, game design, 3D visual effects, illustration, graffiti, mural-painting, jewelry arts, and fashion design, to only name some – she is undoubtedly a renaissance woman. Audibly she is known as DJ Agana, spinning a fusion of politically conscious and revolutionary vinyl, and even rapping in Spanish and English. Her genres include a fusion of salsa, timba, samba, merengue, reggaeton, cumbia, reggae, dance-hall, hip hop, soul, and a classic collection of music from the Americas. She says that music is her first love because it teaches our community skills by bringing us closer together through a common connection of struggle.
DJing since the tender age of fourteen, and even having hosted her own underground hip hop youth radio show (known as the Eclipse Show), we had to give her a holler and see if her busy schedule allowed a one-on-one in the eatmoreshoes lounge. And what lucky trainer-heads we were when she replied positively, and turned up to share her life story with us. Though traveling isn’t something new to her, having scratched her digs into Puerto Rico, Spain, Hawaii, and Venezuela, during her career as a DJ, and she’s also traveled for her past studies, working with metal arts in Bali, Indonesia.
Her affiliates and crews are many and prestigious, including work with Royal Crowns, Oaklandish, Visual Elements, Wizards of the Styles (WOTS), East Side Arts Alliance, and the international all girls graffiti crew known as Few and Far. In fact even her family members have inspired and pushed her forward, seeing her father and mother work with architecture and teach art classes (respectively) and her aunt who acted and modeled for the entertainment industry.
This amazing lady even had her first art show at the age of six in a coffee shop, and since then she has never stopped using multimedia art as her tool. Her goal is to communicate conceptual messages that are not only visually stimulating but also provoke educational ideas as a medium for social change. We could go on and on, but with her sitting right here it seems pertinent to let her do the talking.
Vanessa, welcome to eatmoreshoes! Let’s begin with your identity; where does the name Agana come from?
Agana is related to the Spanish word “Gana” or the expression “Con Ganas” which translates in English to one’s desire, motivation, drive, and ambition to hungrily accomplish any task wholeheartedly. In Yoruba or Santeria it’s a path of Yemaya, the orisha of the ocean, as well as the mother and source of all life and creation. I write Agana because it reflects my cultural heritage and taking back our own visual expression of identity separate from commercial advertisement of images that are force-fed to us through media. I started painting letters and characters illegally when I was ten years old, and on my own when I got in trouble, so I began to experiment with other mediums to expand my creative possibilities.
That is probably one of the most passionate and heartfelt writer names we’ve ever encountered. What is your artistic history?
I began with painting murals and graffiti, drawing and photography, and then moved on to combining jewelry metal arts and fashion design. I took my entrepreneurial skills to different legal mediums in graffiti arts after getting into trouble when I was a youth painting illegally. Carving out my entrepreneurial abilities and in search of different mediums, graffiti influenced the styles and techniques in my jewelry metal arts and the two disciplines seemed to flow naturally into one another. I moved on to create a customizable, graffiti-inspired jewelry line under the name Joyas Criollas, which included rights-of-passage nameplate accessories such as earrings, necklaces, rings, and belt buckles. I also went to study silversmith techniques in high school, and then went to study metal arts in Bali, Indonesia and at the California College of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco and Oakland. At the same time I cultivated a street art inspired clothing line called Fruta Madura, consisting of urban gear for people of all shapes and sizes.
Seriously, there’s no limit to your ambition Vanessa. Are there any art mediums you’ve yet to touch?
My father, uncle and two cousins are architects in Venezuela, which is a medium that I have a desire and dream of pursuing. The power of deconstructing a wall that was originally made to separate and then use it to unify communities is a spiritually fulfilling process that could be made more often in architecture. I can see a future of graffiti inspired architecture lending a hand as a tool and as a visual weapon to organize neighborhoods, unite cultures, and even channel mental liberation.
We can only imagine what an Agana estate would look like! Back to your current trades… metal working isn’t something you hear about everyday from modern street artists. What else can you tell us about your jewelry? Who are some of your clients?
Providing a functional message behind the jewelry I make is my ultimate mission. I generally promote words that are empowering, images that uplift and uphold self-love, inner knowledge, and determination. My work is never outsourced and always made in-house, and all materials maintain fair trade. I have made many jewelry pieces for performance artists such as Luna Angel, Favi, Raka Dun (from Los Rakas), Fist Up TV, Yosimar Reyes, Las Bomberas, Raw G, and DJ Sol. I’ve also made collaborative jewelry pieces with other graffiti writers such as Twick (ICP), Gremz (LA), Dime (Few and Far), Refa, Amend, Ceiba, Estria, and those whom have past such as Mike “Dream” RIP.
Overall my goal is to communicate conceptual messages that are not only visually stimulating but also provoke educational ideas of change in the community. You can see my current jewelry here for a visual example of the exciting new line coming soon! Please spread the word, as that is a wonderful way to be in solidarity with this project. Thank you for supporting a female Raza, Xicana, artist of color!
We gotta get some eatmoreshoes bling bling from you Agana! But really, down to our business, beyond collecting your own milestones and artistic masterpieces, are you a collector of street wear such as caps, or kicks, or clothing?
I have some classic, original, hand-painted kicks, snap-backs, wristbands, and jackets by some much respected artists that I will probably have till I am a grand-mamacita. I have quite a few custom jewelry pieces that I created that could eventually be melted down but will most likely stay solid in my possession as classic ‘rights of passage’ pieces in my path.
So, even though you’re not a collector, per se, you must have a favorite style from adidas or PUMA… can you drop that on us for kicks?
Shell-top and high-top adidas are an eternal classic in my books, the perfect protective canvas to activate your b-girl super powers and accomplish the impossible. Without a pair of classic shell-tops, the b-girl-isms seem to not be able to continue, they are the secret weapons to the ghetto-lympics, giving flight to the vandal. PUMAs will remain a classic in my heart, encompassing comfort with flavor. Shoes are like graffiti: showing off rare color combinations that you might think clash until you see them together and they pop to attract your eyes.
Right, no one wants to be boring or plain. Overall though, how do you personally feel about adidas and PUMA as brands?
Love ‘em all day every day! Hope to design for them in the near future. Sponsor me, I will be your human billboard as we can represent each other and build a mutual liking to one another.
Let’s hope they’re listening! So how do you think these two brands have influenced street culture?
They have become a uniform for the hip-hop and street culture community. A tool for recognizing similar active interests, however just because you sport ‘em doesn’t automatically make you down. Active dues must be paid to your craft’s element in order to receive proper respect.
Seriously true… this is great advice for every new-comer to hip hop in general. Along the same lines, what would you like to tell big brands such as PUMA and adidas? Any advice as to how they can continue to support the true hip hop culture?
Hip Hop is not a fashion statement; it’s an evolving lifestyle that is growing up in so many directions. A corporate brand can stay true to a movement by voting with their money and how they choose to use their profits for empowerment of its community or facades that determine their actual support in the movement.
Obviously you see a connection between urban arts and consumer fashion based on your jewelry and clothing labels… how do you think the cultures of street art and music relate to the sneaker scene specifically?
Clothing and our sneakers give us a blank canvas to either conform or be out of the norm. People are tired of the force fed fashions to fit into a categorical box that does not belong to them. We often seek refuge expressing our own culture through the patterns and colors we choose to surround ourselves with. Clothing is a tribal urge, the colors we demonstrate are similar to mating calls and what we choose to reflect and deflect back to the world. We adorn ourselves to stand out and we attract people to us that are attracted to just that. Aerosol art is becoming more accepted into the mainstream culture because it is growing up and becoming more resistant to its restrictions. The growth of public art is evolving into a beast that no force with be able to extinguish, therefore it must be adapted into the culture and recognized and respected.
How do you feel about the style and image that goes along with hip hop and street culture these days? Do you find that it makes sense or are you constantly trying to avoid being ‘one of the masses’ following trends?
I think certain repeating, living and dying trends are interesting reflections of societal norms and lead us to hints on where we are going next. Trends are entertaining and fascinating signs of human behavior, evolution and history. Image and style can prove to be a false statement of ones involvement in hip hop. These days you can’t judge anyone on their style because their spirit and soul speaks louder than their physical image.
And what about street dance? How does this tie into sneakers and sneaker culture in your mind?
The ghetto ballerina’s sneakers are ballet shoes when it comes to street dance.
So have you ever designed, painted, or otherwise modified or customized sneakers?
I used to paint snap-back hats with the Royal Crownz crew back in the day when Oaklandish was a collective of artists. The constant improvisation to satisfy the character of the client inspired me to branch out to various surfaces on the human body. What better way to advertise your artistic expertise than creating pieces for performing artists and fly friends?
Being a lover of accessories I expanded basically from head to toe. I went from hats to shirts to belts and eventually to sneakers. I even got into making shoe jewelry with my clients’ names threaded across their laces. I painted custom shoes for stores that sold out, however I have yet to see someone rocking ‘em, walking down the street. I’ve done a fair share of customizing entire outfits, from hats to sneakers, for youth TURF and dance crews.
Why not use our bodies, we’re already walking billboards of brands and advertisements, it’s time that we communicate our own cultural messages that we believe in and identify with instead of what is force-fed to us through media. I can customize anything you own, What do you need? Shoot! I got you!
From a professional standpoint it’s amazing the range of skills you’ve pursued… and your studies at Ex’pression seem to leave many doors open… where does your heart pull you the most right now between the digital arts you’ve studied?
I am using my full potential as an audiovisual artist. My hope is to be able to grow and constantly elevate in the various mediums that I use. I see light and sound as the two vibrations that when combined together can communicate endless possibilities. My goal is to combine them together as much as possible since I see them inspired by one another, connected, and sharing endless similarities. The powerful force behind storytelling inspires me everyday to stay on my digital arts grind sharing the same importance as any other by reaching more audiences.
Speaking of an audience, do you find through your teaching that you’ve become an ‘opinion leader’ of sorts? Do you ever see students or fans mimicking your style, your swag, your gear?
Biting can be received at times as the ultimate compliment from a student, only if it assists the artists in finding their own style should it be legit, each one teach one. Sharing graffiti with others willing to learn is the most self-satisfying; seeing someone you teach take their art to the next level creates the ultimate rewarding experience. My graffiti comes from a rebel mentality, fighting to be free, recognizing that without justice we will never have peace. With our youth being the most murdered I tend to look for images to unite us as a people beyond color, culture, age, and land. My art has a role to keep our history alive through storytelling and sharing that gift with the younger generation is where I find hope.
Back to your roots… what was it like being a woman in graffiti? A female DJ? Rapper? These are areas where it’s hard for anybody to get props but we would be specifically interested to know if you feel there is a difference in treatment between guys and gals…
I can come across intimidating to many males since I participate in various male dominated activities. I have had to earn respect by being equally talented not as a female but as an artist. There is pressure to come harder skill wise when you are painting as the only female with a crew of all males because you are representing for all the females out there. Painting is dirty and grimy, and it isn’t seen as being lady-like in society, which can make us females feel excluded and scarce. Sometimes you aren’t taken seriously as a female aerosol artist; there is a strange disbelief that a woman could learn to paint on her own and often an assumption that we were taught by a man. There is a huge assumption that the only way a girl could have gained graffiti skills is by being promiscuous with male writers, which is completely false.
The most crucial advantage to being a female writer is the ability to speak on female issues and give a unique perspective that only we can communicate. We can unify our brothers and sisters through a common connection of a people’s struggle without separations of sex, race, and class. Our letters, words, and images can liberate other young females from the feeling of inequality to rise up and stand up for what they know is right. We have the power to visually claim feminism in hip-hop, paint, and ourselves, in any powerful position we choose to influence future generations.
I usually dress masculine when I paint because I feel an unfortunate need to hide my feminism due to the possibility of being a victim of violence. Violence in graffiti must change; a female I write with was harassed by an officer, who sprayed her in the face, and after two years of court she never saw any justice. Cycles of violence, rape, and racism have been accepted in our culture for far too long. It’s time to break these molds visually through our graffiti. Sometimes it takes a less recognized female identity to bring about a new cycle in the creative contribution of a male dominated art form. It’s definitely a takeover.
Until women are treated equal, females should get as much recognition for doing absolutely anything just as well if not better as a man can do. I am exhausted of being under recognized as a serious writer in a male dominated art form and I appreciate any acknowledgment of any females rocking any wall. Feminine identity should be acknowledged more in various artistic mediums, I prefer to claim and be acknowledged for every asset be it cultural diversity or feminism. My preference is that women are recognized equally as men in graffiti and that we can respect each others art as brothers and sisters with a common purpose.
Like a true family. We agree full-heartedly. It’s love even in the battles. What are your thoughts on the competitiveness of graffiti?
The impermanence of art makes competition seem obsolete because of a city’s constant creative change. A healthy competition can work to your advantage to further inspire, challenge, and push your skills with your partner. When competitive battles turn into collaboration it is unifying and conducive to refining your technique. A good battle can push your skills to the next level; working under pressure can sometimes inspires different artistic reactions.
Collaboration has always had it’s hands in the otherwise egoistic and lonely art of graffiti. What about your own crews? How did you find Few and Far?
Dime and I had heard from Estria that there was an all female crew of graf writers called Few and Far, an art collective that was coming to Oakland. After we had painted an all female production all day at East Side Arts Alliance with Dime, Silver, and Favi, we were still ready for more! The same day we went to go try and find the Few and Far wall and meet other female writers. Dime and I drove around West Oakland for hours looking to meet and greet these other females that get up like us. After two hours Dime was hungry and went home. I wasn’t willing to give up I knew I had to find out more. Who were they? And how was I to get down with them? I continued to wander the streets of West Oakland in search of the fly Few and Far ladies of graf.
Just when I was ready to give up I found a huge recycling warehouse that had the most women I have ever seen busting and painting pieces all together on one wall. I called Dime and told her to come quick that this was an amazing opportunity to build with other female writers. She came in a matter of minutes and before we knew it we met female artists from far away that we looked up to and were inspired by. Being so excited and wanting to know all these amazing ladies we asked Reds from Miami and Toofly from New York if they wanted to collaborate or if they had any extra space on the wall to paint letters or characters near them. The ladies said yes, and in particular, the founder and organizer Meme started sketching with us and brought paint to the wall.
This was the beginning of an artistic friendship with some of the most talented ladies I have ever had the opportunity to paint with. Every wall that we have painted since with the Few and Far ladies has been successful and has allowed me to feel a creative sisterhood among other woman that I never knew existed. This day in West Oakland changed my entire perspective on females in the aerosol arts arena. My experience painting with the Few and Far crew gave me a sense of hope that us ladies together can accomplish anything we put our minds to and that ladies can get down just as hard if not harder then any male. Few and Far woman are extremely talented beasts on the wall, they are humble, non-competitive, and show me the power of female collaboration every day! Painting with the Few and Far ladies is a dream come true, a creative sisterhood of ideas, skills, and positive reinforcement by all involved!
A perfect fit. And the final product that you are develop together is outstanding. Walls let gorgeous, splashed in paint. Other than painting, how would you describe your role in Few and Far?
We all bring a unique set of skills to the wall, yet I assist in the jewelry line, and I get in anywhere I fit in for progression as a crew. We come together in the name of vandalism’s criminal behavior of organizing mutual aerosol explosions. We are a gang of visual super heroes in solidarity with the aerosol weapon as our grind. Really, we’re like a pack of wild females or a tribe of xicas down with a craft involving huge risks and sacrifice. We live to paint and collaborate no matter what genitals you may have, however there is nothing that can compare to painting with all yo’ sisters from other misters.
On that note what about your words of advice for other ladies out there who are trying to follow in your massive footsteps? And for the dudes (and dudettes) that might be jealous or hatin’… any words or thoughts for them?
I believe paint should be used as an expression with a message behind, it but I appreciate and prefer beauty and colors to a blank wall any day. Be humble, own your original style that’s true to you, use any hate to motivate, and heat and light the fire under your ass to push you even further along your path.
And lastly, how can people get a hold of you best?
People can find me on twitter, view my website or the Few and Far website, send me an email, watch my YouTube channel, listen to me on Mixcrate, SoundCloud, and Reverbnation, or simply socialize over on Facebook.
Vanessa, Agana, you are beyond belief. As an artist your progression through trades is blinding, the work that you’ve built is eye-opening, and the messages you deliver are nothing short of inspiring. As a teacher and leader of the community your ideas and determination carry a passion and an urgency that is so incredibly admirable. We’re completely thankful to have had the opportunity to pick your brain and learn about your past, and we look eagerly forward to seeing your future unravel. Stay up, stay safe, and stay Agana.
written by Dylan Cromwell
photos contributed by Vanessa "Agana" Espinoza