Graffiti can encompass a lot, even “Elmo” and “Hello Kitty.”
Wearing a backward ball cap, baggy clothes and sneakers in Calwa Park on Saturday afternoon, Freddy Soto, 31, worked diligently on the children’s characters that were at the center of his spray-paint art project during the second annual Bizarre Art Festival.
The Los Angeles man was among about 70 graffiti artists who gathered in southeast Fresno during the festival to transform a concrete wall into a canvas a quarter-mile long.
Soto — whose nickname is Elmo — spray painted Hello Kitty wearing an Elmo pajama and riding a skateboard for his 8-year-old daughter, Angel, who loves the fictional, famously pink feline.
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Looking at her father’s painting, Angel said, “If he puts Hello Kitty, I think he likes me, too.”
Dad confirmed that, yes, he really does.
Angel was inspired by the graffiti that — legally — filled the wall and sides of several park buildings.
“I like to see different drawings because it makes me want to do art and stuff,” Angel said. “Art is creative. You can make different kinds of stuff and no one can tell you what to do.”
Soto’s 12-year-old son, Anthony, said of the graffiti: “It’s not vandalism. It’s art.”
Saturday’s event was a 100% legal opportunity for graffiti artists to put their work on public display.
“Of course, there’s still illegal graffiti going on everywhere,” said Serena Lujan, the festival’s organizer. “But I think if there were more communities like this, that allowed them to express themselves, you’d see less of a problem.”
Calwa Park is unique. For years, artists have been allowed to legally paint the park’s wall and structures for a nominal fee.
That was a joy for Lujan’s brother, Salvador, a graffiti artist who used to travel to Fresno from Modesto to paint in the park. Lujan started Bizarre Art Festival to honor Salvador after he died of a heart attack.
“The day of his passing, I can’t even tell you how many people walked up to me and told me that they were alive because of what he did for them,” Lujan said. “Getting them off the street, getting them away from whatever they were into and putting them into something more positive. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m doing this, and I’ll keep doing it as long as I can.”
There is a difference between graffiti artists and common taggers, Lujan said. Graffiti artists use their talent “to portray something positive.”
Katie Moreno, director of Friends of Calwa — which helped with the event — said the festival is a boost for Calwa Park, which has “seen a lot of change — and a lot of it is not for the good.”
The nonprofit’s volunteers ran games and an art station for children during the festival. Sandra Celedon, director of policy and advocacy for the group, said, “The idea is to link it to the bigger festival, which is about using your artistic abilities in a positive way.”
Fernando Amaro Jr., 35, of San Jose, was trying to do just that as he spray painted.
Amaro’s nickname: Force 129. It stands for his birthday, Jan. 29 — the same day Salvador Lujan died — and “Force” refers to a positive motivational force that brings opportunities. A friend gave him the name when he was 13.
As he painted — a design that included a man’s face within the “O” of “Force” — he took a moment to step back from the wall and smile.
Force 129 hopes the entire festival’s work “brightens up the place” and brings new life to Calwa Park.