Chalk work leads arts student on a journey to be a working artist

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Babak Tavakoli, 25, an Art major at the University of Texas at El Paso, has gained recognition for his chalk art at Hillside Coffee, Independent Burger, Crave, and other locations in El Paso, landing him a new project for Eastlake High School.

“I barely recently started getting jobs like this” he said. “I had never been a working artist, just a student artist.”

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Tavakoli adds details to chalk drawing on local coffee shop calendar.

Until about four months ago, Tavakoli never had an Instagram, but when he finally made it he got various request from business owners asking him to embark on art projects to attract people to their businesses.

In this case, Eastlake High School’s flag team was in need of a mural-sized banner to travel with for their competitions, and this year the theme was graffiti. Given that Tavakoli’s background in graffiti is lengthy, they chose him to create the 640 square-foot backdrop.

“I got into graffiti in middle school. I was always pretty good at drawing, and it didn’t start out with me grabbing a spray can and running into the street” he said. “That wasn’t until high school when I met up with a few friends that also did graffiti. It was mostly in my notebook or on the margins of a page. But I knew once I got a taste of it that it was gonna be hard to stop, and I haven’t stopped since.”

Tavakoli’s work is richly inspired by MSK Crew, a group of graffiti artists based in Los Angeles. More specifically the graffiti artist that goes by the name Gary. “He is more of a graphic designer; his letters are always clean. They look like stickers on a wall” he said.

According to Tavakoli, graffiti artists face a lot of risks by making their art. “You’re risking your freedom, your rights, your health. I’ve been there, I’ve ran. But for what? If I’m painting in a ditch somewhere, who’s the victim? Who wants their ditches painted grey anyways?” he said.

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Babak Tavakoli works on hillside chalkboard calendar. Photo credit: Aylin Tafoya

However, that is changing for Tavakoli, since with this project his art will not be painted over or washed away. “I was hoping to get the kind of recognition where I could be working, doing what I’m good at” he said. “And now I got a gig. The best gig I’ve ever had, and it’s paying me to do graffiti which is a skill that I’ve been rolling the dice on hoping that it would pay off one day.”

Graffiti is one of the few arts where artists do it for the sake of doing it, instead of doing it for any other kind of means or compensation because it is considered vandalism. “I feel like it will slowly faze out of that taboo over time” Tavakoli said.

When asked about his aspirations, Tavakoli mentioned that exceeding in painting was his goal at the moment. He felt that the best version of himself as an artist, would be a painter.

“Right now, I’m learning painting because I feel like that would unlock the greater artist in me” Tavakoli said. “The difference between being a painter and being a graffiti artist is the absence of hip-hop. Painting isn’t always hip-hop, but graffiti always is. I don’t think I’ll give up graffiti, I just think I’ll learn from it and incorporate it into my canvas paintings.”

Every artist’s process to doing a piece is different. For Tavakoli, he tries to find inspiration from within. “Before I make anything I’ll close my eyes, try to visualize something I haven’t seen before” he said. “But sometimes your mind will trick you and it’ll pull something from your subconscious. It’ll never be a replica, though. It will be the Babak version of it.”

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