The graffiti- and sharpie-inspired art of Aaron De La Cruz


Sibling rivalry isn’t often cited as the reason one becomes an artist, but for San Francisco-based Aaron De La Cruz, it was a major influence. The painter, whose latest exhibition opens Saturday night at Public Functionary, grew up in the '80s, and often hung out with his older brother and other teenagers, doing graffiti and skateboarding.

“My brother loved to draw buildings and he loved to build skate ramps,” he explains. “I was always like, ‘I’m gonna be better than him. I’m gonna draw straighter lines than him without using rulers.’”

And that is exactly what he did, creating an instantly recognizable style of monochromatic patterns and labyrinth-like shapes. “The marks themselves are about certain moods or mindsets that I’m in,” says De La Cruz, whose obsession with letter forms began after high school. “The pleasure of working with black and white is that it helps me focus on space. They’re like blueprints. They’re almost thoughts or ideas put down for a larger project in the making. Even though I’m painting two-dimensional, I’m really pushing and thinking in three dimensions.”

He’s well on his way there. In addition to numerous murals, De La Cruz’s art has been incorporated into interior design, clothing, jewelry, footwear, and car wraps. He was named among the 25 Most Important Artists by Complex Magazine, and has exhibited internationally. He still feels weird calling himself a professional artist, however, despite the fact that his success allowed him to leave his decade-long career in arts education to pursue his passion full-time.

His Public Functionary show, titled “Always Something,” speaks to uncertainty, unpredictability, and obstacles. “Even taking on this show was a challenge,” De La Cruz admits. (His wife gave birth to their third child just two months ago.) That said, all of his work has some kind of connection with, or is dedicated to, his family. “Everything comes full circle with them,” he says. “They’ve been really supportive.”

De La Cruz fondly recalls the Sundays of his youth, when he and his brother helped their father tear down walls, lay tile, build A-frames, and do wiring around the house. “My parents come from a lineage of fieldworkers, so I have this background of hard manual labor,” he says, suggesting that those early experiences are why he finds so much joy in the very physical act of painting and public art. “I love when I’m painting murals outside, people will come up and talk to me. I feed off that,” he says. They often ask if he’s going to “clean the drips up” (no, he’s not) or offer their own interpretations of the shapes.


Way back when, he used to dream of a cobblestone road in Mexico made of his designs. That fantasy hasn’t changed much, though what he’s interested in now is working on a large scale in a public, interactive way, perhaps eventually incorporating cement, grass, and trees into his designs.

“Whenever I talk to people about the work, they almost feel compelled to imagine what it would look like if things had color. People seem to want to finish it for you in a way,” he says. De La Cruz only uses color when he has a specific purpose for it. “When I work in black, it’s reminiscent of the time when all I had was a black marker,” he says. “For me, it’s very nostalgic and soothing to work in that format.”


Aaron De La Cruz: “Always Something”

November 7 through December 5

Public Functionary

All Ages

There will be an opening reception Saturday, November 7 from 7 p.m. to midnight