By Tommy Winfrey
Artist and ex-convict Francisco Vargas returned to San Quentin to talk to a group of men about his successes and failures in life. But his return to the historic prison did not go as planned.
Getting out of prison can be rather difficult; just ask any lifer. For Vargas, getting back in proved just as difficult. Stopped at the gate for wearing the wrong clothes, he was denied access to the men with whom he came to share his path to redemption.
Vargas started out in life with hardship. According to him, his life of crime started at age 11. Like many men who end up incarcerated, he grew up without a father in the house.
Without a stable male role model, Vargas looked up to his older male cousins with whom he lived. “My older cousins would say, ‘Hey want to make more money?’ So at night we would help them break into pet stores for rare birds and fancy pigeons,” said Vargas.
His life of crime eventually led him to abusing drugs and alcohol, he said. “By 12 years old I was in juvenile hall.”
Vargas’ introduction to the justice system at the age of 12 would mark the beginning of years of incarceration for him. As he put it, “I ended up in the revolving doors of the California Youth Authority.”
According to Vargas, his drug addiction spiraled out of control in the late 1960s, and as a result he was sent to adult prison at the age of 19 for first-degree armed robbery.
The sentence of five years to life didn’t sit well with him, so he decided to make a break out of the courtroom, he said. “I picked up an additional five to six years for the escape.”
The next 13 years of his life were spent in the cycle of incarceration. In 1974, he was sent to San Quentin for a parole violation hearing. After seeing friends of his locked up for long periods of time, Vargas said, “I knew I had to make a change. I was tired of being locked up.”
He also had a wife and kid to take care of, so he started looking for work. His road to redemption was not glamorous or full of excitement. Vargas admits he spent a lot of time cleaning houses and washing windows. But the experience he got doing those jobs put him in contact with art and art lovers. “One lady I cleaned for told me how much money she spent on art and I looked at the abstract art she had and said, ‘Geesh, I could’ve painted that.’”
Sometime later Vargas needed some business cards for his window washing business, and he ended up meeting an artist named Frosty the Creative Artist, who placed him on the road to realizing his dream of becoming an artist.
Vargas became friends with Frosty, who not only designed business cards but also was a sign painter. It was Frosty and his wife who gave Vargas his first set of brushes.
After trying to make it as a sign painter on his own, Vargas realized he needed more skill than just raw talent. At the time there were only two schools on the West Coast that taught sign painting, one in Portland and one in Los Angeles.
“I called my uncle who lived in Pico Rivera, by LA, and told him my situation. He let me stay at his home while I went to sign painting school in downtown LA, plus I got a part-time job at a sign shop (where they) knew I was a student.”
During his stay with his uncle, who was a member of the Hispanic Minority Businessman Association, Vargas was invited to the Warner Brothers Studio for a luncheon.
Vargas used this luncheon to make connections and ask questions. He soon found himself on the back lot of the studio in the sign department.
That is also where he met actress Heather Locklear. He painted a picture of Locklear and met other actresses during his time in Los Angeles.
But as life would have it, before Vargas could complete school, he was called back home to San Jose to take care of one his children, who was sick. Vargas never made it back to school, but he’s been a sign painter ever since.
After working many jobs in San Jose, Vargas finally got the chance to paint his first mural in a roller skating rink. He also landed a job with artist designer Paul Price, who was the art director of Great America when it opened.
Vargas moved back to Fresno, a city where he spent some of his childhood. His marriage broke up after a while, but he kept his business afloat.
Eventually, he says, “I think about the old sign painters back in the day who would travel painting signs from town to town. So in ’98 I find an RV and set it up to go across country; my goal was to go to Key West, Florida.”
Vargas ended up making it to Key West with a little help from friends he met on the Internet. He wrote about the things he was doing, and people began to follow him.
This led Vargas to write for a magazine called Sign Builders Illustrated.
Writing stories allowed him to meet people from the Walldogs. “The Walldogs are a group of sign artists and painters who take a small town and knock out 14-16 murals in a four-day span.”
Working with the Walldogs has taken him all over the country painting murals, something he has been doing more and more.
In 2014 Vargas started his latest project, designing and painting a mural in downtown Fresno. The mural is located on the Fresno Business Journal building and measures 125 feet long by 33 feet high. Vargas said, “It became known as the Largest Painted Mural Stamp in the United States.” He added, “It was a huge challenge but one of the most rewarding.”
The mural took Vargas five and a half months to complete with help in a few sections, but the majority of the work was done alone.
Vargas’ next project in June is a mural in Delvan, Wisconsin with his Walldog partners.