By Ivan Cazares
Luis Angel Cano captures part of the aesthetic and pop culture influences of East Los Angeles using plastic toys and polymer clay.
Perhaps the hand-crafted figure that best represents his style is a figure of the “Muppets” character Gonzo who wears clothes styled after Hunter S. Thompson in the film adaptation of the book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
Thompson, an infamous American journalist recognized for fathering Gonzo journalism was close friends with Oscar Zeta Acosta, a Chicano attorney and activist, so Cano created a figure of Acosta using a Fozzie Bear toy based on his depiction in the film as well. The duo have become some of Cano’s best sellers.
Cano, a 34-year-old East L.A. native, said “geek culture” is prominent among Latinos even though there is a lack of representation in comics and other forms of pop-culture. That’s why many of his figures are “East L.A. inspired.”
One his first series of figures were made using Homies, a popular capsule toy line inspired by the Chicano lifestyle and aesthetic. He left the bodies mostly intact but sculpted the heads of “Star Wars” characters on them.
A self-proclaimed social media introvert, Cano avoided using for a long time. Despite his trepidations, his friends convinced him to use them to promote his work, and he’s seen success because of it. He’s a returning guest at this year’s Designer Con and Latino Comic Con, and will have a booth at the third annual East LA Comic Book, Art and Pop-Culture Expo (C.A.P.E.)
“Most of our artists are from East L.A. and other local communities. Everyone is independent in a way,” said Peter Mellini, owner of Nostalgic Books and Comics and founder of East LA C.A.P.E. “The whole point of the show is to showcase the independent artists. It’s really cool, because I’ve gotten to meet amazing artist I probably would have never heard of otherwise. I would have been happy if 100 people showed up to the first show, but the support we got was crazy, and now here we are on our third show.”
Cano works using mostly handmade and repurposed tools out of a small studio in the east side surrounded by other projects, including paintings, car and motorcycle restorations.
A Whittier Boulevard street sign Cano acquired when a drunk driver ran into it near his home prominently displayed overhead in the studio, his vast vinyl record collection can almost be heard even when the vintage jukebox in his living room isn’t spinning. Poe, a Bull Terrier, enthusiastically wags his tail as Cano works.
He mostly uses a technique used in the toy industry called kitbashing, which is used by designers to pitch products to companies. Cano mixes and matches toy parts for the base of his creations, then sculpts around the figure using clay.
“For Zeta I used a Fozzie Bear, because that’s the Muppet that worked best for his look,” he said. “The shirt is from a Happy Meal toy, and I sculpted the rest from scratch. I like to make the figures articulated which isn’t easy, but I think the hardest is making something small and removable like Gonzo’s glasses.”
The clay Cano uses is usually baked when used for sculpting, but he boils it instead to avoid setting fires by throwing plastic figures in the oven. Cano makes molds of the custom figures for limited productions and hand paints the final products.
“I like blending unrelated things because it reminds of East L.A., which is just a mixture of cultures,” Cano said. “I was always good at sculpting even when I was a kid playing with Play-Doh, and I wanted to see things that just weren’t out there. So, if you can’t find it, make it. I’ve also always been obsessed with bootleg Mexican toys, so now I make my own.”
Cano attended East Los Angeles College to improve his sculpting skills and said he developed sculpting techniques he wouldn’t have learned otherwise.
“I consider returning to school pretty often, but I suppose I’ve become accustomed to a certain lifestyle and working with my hands. I had to leave school because I had to help my family financially, but I do think about going back.”
Silvia Cano, Luis Angel’s mom, said they discovered his affinity for sculpting and art at young age when a school teacher pointed it out.
“He’s always been good at working with his hands and is very creative. He’d create animals out of Play-Doh as a kid and liked to draw a lot,” Silvia said.
“I’m a fan of art myself, even though I’m not particularly good at it, so of course it was easy for me to support him. I’m really proud of him, and I’m happy others are recognizing his talent,” she said.
Cano will be at East L.A. C.A.P.E. June 1 at El Gallo Plaza and at Designer con at the Anaheim Convention Center Nov. 23-25 for Designer Con. He can be followed on Instagram @hecho_en_east_los.