When longtime Fort Worth resident Juan Velazquez first decided to pursue his dream of being an artist—only three years ago—he had some modest goals in mind. 

The 34-year-old originally planned to produce enough oil paintings to submit to a few gallery shows and sell the rest at ArtsGoggle, the local art festival that takes place in Near Southside Fort Worth every fall. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled those opportunities, but what Velazquez couldn’t have imagined was that the perceived setbacks would actually be the beginning of something bigger. In a few years’ time, he’d become a prolific artist with over one hundred murals painted.

It started with a tribute to slain U.S. soldier Vanessa Guillen. Guillen was reported missing by Fort Hood officials in April 2020, and her remains were found after a two-month search. Law enforcement determined that a fellow soldier was to blame for her murder, though he died by suicide before an arrest could be made. As a Latino and a member of the Army Reserve, Velazquez was particularly moved by this tragedy, and he wanted to do something to honor Guillen’s life.

“I posted on Facebook that I wanted to paint this mural, but I still needed a wall,” Velazquez told me. His post was widely shared, and Dub Nava, owner of the tattoo shop Noah’s Art & Supplies, offered up a wall outside. The artist had his canvas.

Valezquez's mural of Vanessa Guillen in Fort Worth.
Valezquez’s mural of Vanessa Guillen in Fort Worth. Courtesy of Juan Valezquez

Velazquez used the photograph that circulated around social media at the time of Guillen’s disappearance to paint a mural of her against a vibrant yellow backdrop. Other local artists contributed, painting brightly colored flowers around the portrait and images that were representative of Guillen’s heritage, such as the Mexican and American flags and an image of la Virgen de Guadalupe. The portrait became so popular it established a large Instagram following for Velazquez, and the requests started to pour in. The commissions ranged from local small businesses to a nature painting at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, to a portrait of the hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia, which Velazquez painted for a promo video. Velazquez even realized a childhood dream of his when he was contacted by WWE to paint a portrait of wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin for a Wrestlemania event. 

Today Velazquez averages an astonishing one mural per week, painting on neighborhood restaurants, private residences, and industrial buildings. Summer is his busiest season—Velazquez says he will complete as many as three murals a week during that time. 

His rapid process involves a day or two spent planning and sketching, using a digital illustration app. He then spends two days painting on location, working about six hours each day. Although he took some art courses at a local college, he credits the book How to Paint Like the Old Masters, by Joseph Sheppard—given to him by his high school art teacher—for helping him develop as an artist.

While many of the opportunities Velazquez receives allow him to paint portraits of sports legends, pop culture celebrities, and Mexican icons (local favorite murals feature Frida Kahlo and Vicente Fernández), the work he finds most compelling addresses social issues such as racism and gentrification. His art demands that observers reflect on making a difference in their communities and serve as more-permanent reminders of changes that need to be made long after news outlets have moved on to other stories. “I can’t [pass] a law, but if I have the ability to make someone notice, question, or remember something, then that’s what I want to do,” says Velazquez.

A five-minute drive from Velazquez’s Guillen mural, on a commercial building in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Fort Worth’s Southside, is his portrait of Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata. The black and white portrait sits next to the words “Hemphill No Se Vende” (“Hemphill Is Not for Sale”). Commissioned by the community organization of the same name, the work is a statement against the city’s potential rezoning of the area. “I [take on projects] that [align] with things that I believe in or things that I like. If I don’t like the idea, I just don’t do it,” Velazquez says.

Sarah Ayala, Ryan Ramirez, and Juan Valezquez in front of his mural of ten-year-old Alithia Ramirez in Uvalde.
Valezquez (far right) in front of his mural of ten-year-old Alithia Ramirez in Uvalde, with fellow Fort Worth artist Sarah Ayala (left) and Ramirez’s dad, Ryan (center).Courtesy of Juan Valezquez

It was those principles that led him to the Uvalde Mural Project, a tribute to the 21 victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary. Conceptualized by Uvalde art teacher Abel Ortiz-Acosta and organized by Monica Maldonado, founder of the Austin-based art nonprofit MAS Cultura, the mural features a portrait of each victim, personalized further with images of their hobbies and interests.

Initially, the project was to take several months to get underway as the organizers awaited donations to purchase supplies; Velazquez, used to getting work done quickly, opted to use his own in order to expedite the process. “America forgets quickly. If we’re doing this to push for change, we need to do it now,” Velazquez recalls telling Maldonado. He chose to paint a portrait of ten-year-old Alithia Ramirez because he connected with her love of art. Alithia’s portrait features some of her own artwork, including character she drew on a Father’s Day card she made for her dad.

The project garnered both statewide and national attention, even leading Velazquez to New York City to be featured on a segment of The Kelly Clarkson Show, something he recognizes as a bittersweet moment in his career. “It was a great opportunity, but I shouldn’t [have had to paint the mural] because she should’ve never died,” Velazquez says.

Most recently, he finished a collaboration with the My Brother’s Keeper program (an initiative created by the Obama administration and adopted by many school districts to help young men of color achieve better academic and social outcomes) in which he had a group of participants from a local school help him paint a portrait of Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta as the character Namor from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

As Velazquez reflects on how far he’s come since becoming a professional artist, he thinks about the responsibility he carries—to his newfound audience and, more importantly, to his daughter. “I always think about [her] and the world she’s going to live in. [She’s] five, there’s a lot she doesn’t understand, but one day she will,” he says. “It’s important to me that she sees the stance that I take.”