“The reason for this interview is because, as you might know, last year was a little rough for me,” I explained to Ruben who sat across from me in a black winter coat. A thin layer of dew covered the small table and chairs where we sat across from each other. The brightly painted storefront of Novel Cafe stood out against the gray skies in the same way that Ruben and I disrupted the quiet landscape of a deserted Main Street in Santa Monica at 8:05 a.m. on a Thursday morning.
“I was trying to do whatever I could to stay in LA, and when people asked me why, I realized that your art was one of the top reasons,” I continued.
Ruben nodded and took a sip of his coffee as I opened my laptop to take notes.
“One thing before we start though,” he said, setting down the coffee. “You’re not trying it. You’re doing it.”
Everyone makes their way down Main Street for different reasons.
Some locals are heading to the office. Some out-of-towners are sightseeing their way to Venice. Some surfers are carrying their boards down to the beach. Some bloggers, like me, are looking for photo backdrops. And some artists are knocking on doors.
Like Ruben. He has been since meeting his friend, Evan, at a workshop in 2012.
“He saw me doodling in my notebook and was like, ‘We need to get you on a wall.’”
Ruben’s first mural was on the wall of the Cardio Barre along Lincoln Boulevard which boldly encourages viewers to embrace love, compassion, vulnerability and asks, “Who will you be?”
Up until that point the movement was called Beautify Lincoln in an effort to rid “Stinkin Lincoln” of vandalism out of a sense of civic responsibility and also increase foot traffic to local businesses. The ugly walls were low on the list of priorities for the city though. Many would assume that somehow escalating the issue would be the only option.
“Or you can buy a gallon of paint and cover it yourself,” Ruben said.
“One wall by one wall by one wall it becomes a thing.”
A few gallons of paint have turned into hundreds, and similarly, Beautify Lincoln has evolved into Beautify Earth, a grassroots non-profit – that is a little unique.
“It’s all self-funded. No one gets paid. No one is employed by Beautify Earth,” Ruben explained. “It’s hours and hours of work and passion.”
But how is that possible?
For Beautify Earth, there are a few things that help.
- Local businesses – If a business is willing to have their walls painted, artists will gladly provide the art. And some even pitch in for the paint.
- No lack of artists who want to be involved – Currently there are more artists than walls to paint which is a good problem to have. “’Go find a wall and maybe we’ll put you on it,’” Ruben instructs them.
- The city is now providing funding – The City of Santa Monica and the PIO (Pico Improvement Organization) have worked to fund paintings along Pico. Additionally, art in Korea Town is now part of the Great Streets Program funded by Councilman David E. Ryu.
Because of this, Beautify Earth has grown from door knocking to much more opportunity. In turn, the organization is better able to live out its mission of “painting the world in color and having blight-free cities” as it funds and creates art around the world.
What about Ruben though? Why does he do it? And how?
Working Out of Love
“Everyone is looking for their purpose or their mission,” Ruben answered as I began to ask about the more personal reasons behind his involvement.
Though his career as a full-time financial advisor currently allows Ruben the resources needed to volunteer his time to Beautify Earth, there is something else that fuels his motivation. Something that drives him to labor for long hours without monetary gain.
“My mission is to inspire people – whether that’s speaking in front of 10,000 people,” Ruben said, “or painting a wall and letting it speak to 10,000 people.”
Except it’s now been millions.
Some of those are the locals who travel Main Street daily on the way to work and feel empowered as they pass the “Anything Can Happen” painting.
Some of those are creatives, like me, passing the “Create” mural on Pico and are reminded to keep giving life to new ideas.
And some of those are out-of-towners, like one of Ruben’s favorites, who are reminded that they are beautiful no matter what Kim Kardashian or even cancer might make them think.
“Everything I do is based in love,” Ruben said. “I either paint a lot of love or put in a lot of love.”
And the love doesn’t stop in California.
Standing next to a freshly painted wall in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Ruben had the attention of a group of at-risk kids who were, to him, simply his fellow artists.
“Who has dreams?” Ruben asked as hands shot up.
“Now, how do we make a dream a goal?” Ruben handed out paint brushes and instructed them to share their goals.
“I told them that by doing so ‘You’re making them accountable to the Universe and yourself and all your peers who saw you write this,’” Ruben explained. He uses these types of projects to educate youth and shift their mindset into believing that they can achieve their dreams.
“If my life could be just that…” Ruben said as he recalled that day. “I want to collect those moments.”
What It Means to Me
Explaining to your friends that street art is one of the reasons you’re fighting to afford Los Angeles – through tears and long days – is tough. It’s like telling your parents you’re staying with your crazy boyfriend because of his tattoos when you lack the words to explain the way he makes you feel.
Driving in Los Angeles is one of my least favorite things to do. However, on days that I’ve felt lost or uninspired or unsure of my reason for being here, I’ve driven around town and looked at the murals, most of them being Beautify Earth’s and many of them by Ruben.
The bright colors give new life to the buildings without taking away their character. The neighborhoods where they’re found are about as imperfect as of any of us, yet someone was willing to fight for them. Someone saw beauty in them and was able to amplify it in a way that the world can appreciate. The building’s potential is met through the help of others, much like the dreams that lead people to Los Angeles.
And while each of us is traveling Main Street for different reasons, there are a few things we are seeking that are exactly the same: We want to feel inspired. We want to feel loved. We want to feel beautiful.
I want to help Ruben and Beautify Earth remind people that they are because that’s what they’ve done for me.
- For more Beautify Earth: Instagram / Beautifyearth.org
- For more Ruben: Instagram / Donate to his trip – In May he and his girlfriend are traveling to Cartagena, Colombia – where his parents are from – to build a home for a family living in the slums and hopefully leaving some art behind.