Vibrant dolls bring muralist’s experiences to life

East L.A. artist expresses herself through her spraypainted street art

Collectors Unite—Collectors of Sand One’s art gather at her gallery in South Gate during a Mother’s Day event. CN/Julie Santiago

By Luis Castilla

It’s hard not to notice the murals of curvy girls with long, exaggerated eyelashes when driving around East Los Angeles. The person behind these dolls, as she calls them, is Los Angeles-based Latina artist Sand One. “L.A. is my playground. The streets are my gallery,” One said.

Most people just catch a glimpse of her dolls as they drive by, but to One, they represent periods in her life and obstacles she overcame to get to where she is. “Every doll represents an emotion or an issue that I’ve dealt with personally through me becoming an adult,” One said.

One grew up in East L.A. and briefly attended East Los Angeles College. She began drawing her dolls when she was about nine years old.

When a teacher praised one of her drawings, it sparked in her an unquenchable desire for the acknowledgment and recognition of others. “I could never get over that feeling of someone telling me how dope my stuff was, how beautiful my drawings were. I became like an addict,” One said.

One wasn’t satisfied with just praise, though. She wanted people to see more than just a pretty drawing. She wanted people to see her perseverance and determination when they looked at her dolls.

“These dolls are not just a little cartoon. I’ve taken these dolls very, very far. These dolls have been on TV. These dolls are on books. These dolls have travelled the world. These dolls are known by many women,” One said.

One first started selling her art in downtown Los Angeles at the age of 16. She began painting murals in 2009. Often , she wouldn’t  get paid.

She said travelling and seeing all that existed outside East L.A. inspired her to want more out of her art.

“I want to drive that guy’s car. I want to look like that girl. I want to eat in that place,” One said. “Do I belong there? Are they gonna know I’m a paisa from East L.A.?”

One’s dolls are heavily inspired by her mother, Maria Flores. Flores is a native of Mexico City. After immigrating to the United States, she raised her three children as a single mother. She left her abusive husband and worked at a lunch truck where she made $5 an hour.

Watching her mother work hard for such little pay motivated One to improve her mother’s standard of living.

“How do I get my mom out of the struggle? How do I pull her out of that $5, mediocre job and put her in my world full of dollars?” One said. “She’s in my world now. She’s no longer working that job that I hated with that stupid boss that I hated. She’s no longer silent,” One said.

Spitting Fire—Sand One explains how each of her dolls represents a struggle she overcame. CN/Julie Santiago

Love was something One had come to hate. In 2014, she realized that love was holding her back from unlocking her true potential.

She left her boyfriend of six years and began focusing on her art. “I did not have the right to be a lover when I was broke with no money. My mom did not hop the border for me to be a lover chasing men,” One said.

Many of One’s fans identify with her and her dolls. One said she encourages women to leave their dead-end or abusive relationships.

One has donated art to the East Los Angeles Women’s Center and clothes to women’s shelters.

Working at a lunch truck taught One the value of negotiating. If she noticed that a family didn’t have enough money to pay for their meal, she would accept whatever money they had. Now that she has her own merchandise, she still allows customers to pay what they can, and they never forget to bring the rest later.

One gives every doll a name, a backstory and even a horoscope. “Chola Nails” represents her mother and One’s childhood. The doll has long nails and wears big hoop earrings because when One was a child, her mother used to dress the same way and the two would spend time at a nail salon on Whittier Boulevard.

“They (the dolls) aren’t her drawings, they are her daughters,” Flores said.

Many of One’s murals can be found adorning the sides of small businesses. “I like to paint for the Mexicans, for the Latinos, for the women and the minorities, so when I look for a business, I find it,” Sand said.

“I usually look for businesses that are broken that need help. It’s my way of giving back to the community.”

One said business owners become her doll’s godparents because they have to take care of it. She paints their businesses free of charge, although she does ask for water when it gets too hot out.

Although she paints for the small business owner, One has also worked with big companies like Coca Cola, Levi’s and the National Basketball Association.

“I could have been there, stuck, stagnant, not moving and shy, just hiding behind my art like a lot of artists do, but the taco lady in me was like ‘a vender,’” One said.

Today, One has her own gallery in South Gate, a wide variety of merchandise and a private factory where she creates her art. Although she has become more well-known in recent years, One chooses to remain close to home because she wants to be around families. “I want to be accessible to all my followers,” One said.

Her mother said she is proud of how far One has come. “She is what she is because she is strong,” Flores said.

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