by Jessie McKenna
Angelina Villalobos, who goes by the moniker “179,” uses art to affect social change. Through drawing and painting, she explores her past and Latinx identity, dissecting elements of a traditional Mexican-Catholic education. She is consciously unlearning aspects of it, such as gender norms — issues, she said, “would do me harm and will ultimately hold me back.”
She mentors youth and supports other artists, with a focus on womxn, people of color, and intersectional artists.
“I want to see the art world filled with as many POC as possible,” she said and noted that art school isn’t always an option. “We have to teach ourselves and each other.”
Villalobos paints vivid imagery depicting animals and folklore, working primarily in spray paint, which allows her to cover the maximum amount of space efficiently.
“I then modernize with elements of the Mexican American experience: abortion, immigration, women’s rights, and Catholicism,” she said.
She periodically shows in galleries or exhibitions. She also creates public art. An example is her work with Puget Sound Energy’s “ARTility” project (she’s featured in this video). Recently, she delved into illustrative logos.
She hopes to start important conversations with her art and help people find understanding.
An anxious and withdrawn child, Villalobos found escape in books and art. These activities allowed her “to be safely left alone.” Her mom would sit her down at the kitchen table with tempera paint and butcher paper while she cleaned and cooked.
Later, she found a creative outlet in sketching, and noted the low cost point of the medium, recommending it to anyone interested in creating art.
“It’s a great way to spend time with yourself,” she said.
Eventually, she tried her hand at various types of paint and styles and developed a broad skill set. Now she tries to match the medium to the job. She’s painted dozens of murals and large-scale works in the greater Seattle area.
Villalobos was raised, in part, by her grandparents, who couldn’t help her navigate college applications. Because of family dynamics, like the large generation gap, she relied on herself to build a future, attending Seattle Central College for graphic design. She was a Running Start student in high school, where she received mentorship via a program of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA).
Her family survived off of social security, but she was able to pay for school with Pell grants. She was the first in her family to get a degree. While studying in college, she worked nearly full time while helping at home. It took her three years to finish a two-year program. The biggest challenge though, she said, wasn’t the heavy workload, but navigating the adult world alone.
After college, she gravitated toward community work, social activism, and painting, though her graphic design background has provided business and marketing skills that have bolstered her career as a visual artist. She’s come full circle, as she now works with the AIGA. In May she’ll lead White Center youth on a mural project.
“It feels good to know I’m now taking on the role they [the AIGA] did for me,” she said.
Her art appears in the community she has long called home, in bus shelters on Beacon Ave near the light rail station. She grew up on Beacon Hill, and her work has also been seen at Dozer’s Warehouse, an art space and gallery that matches her own sense of community and culture. She painted in the warehouse, now famous in the local underground art world, back in 2018, along with over 100 other artists — up-and-coming and prolific, local and international.
“I watched Beacon Hill undergo many changes (which is inevitable) and this for me is a reclaiming of space; that although the city has changed, I’m still a part of it,” she said.
She moved to be with her partner in 2009, leaving Beacon Hill, where “everyone looked like a member of my beautiful family,” to West Seattle, a predominately white and wealthier demographic. She soon found Latinx and other community in South Park and White Center.
On becoming a mural artist, Villalobos said she had a desire to paint larger and explore sketch concepts in further depth. It’s impressive, she said, to see a sketch transition into a mural, and she tries to document the process whenever possible (see examples on her website). Villalobos stresses the importance of communicating that a person is behind the artwork—it doesn’t just magically appear.
“I was there,” she said.
In addition to drawing from personal experience and folklore, Villalobos finds inspiration in what she reads. She said she processes things visually.
“You’ll see a ton of fairy tales, fantasy, and sci-fi, for instance, in my work,” she said.
Villalobos carefully balances her career with family. She’s co-raising a teenage step-kid, or “bonus daughter” as she refers to her, who came with the package when she found her life partner. She has her career as an artist as “179” while also working full time in customer service at a local art company. She also does volunteer work.
Villalobos runs a program pro bono with Central District Ice Cream Company, curating five artists on a project they call The Artist Series, which centers non-binary and women-identifying artists of color. She started the series in part to address the challenge for many women artists of managing careers and family life and “feeling like like we have to choose,” she said. She works with the artists to find web hosting and establish online shops, coaches them on their artist bios, and helps them get their art displays ready to show.
Youth always emerge as paramount in Villalobos’s outreach. She wants them to, in her words, “retain the faith and identity” in a city that’s “pushing their families out.” She went on, “This is what happened to mine.”
In presentations to youth, Villalobos talks about her family, their displacement and “brokenness,” she said, presenting family portraits “before and after.” She started out with a nuclear family — mother, father, and siblings. She describes her Latinx heritage as an ever-growing realization. Her father, who was undocumented, moved her family from Seattle, where there was no work, to Eastern Washington where he worked in the fields. Eventually, she was moved back to Seattle to live with her grandparents.
“Because of deportation and economics, my family physically changed,” she said. She asks the youth questions — Which one looks like theirs? How can we challenge the idea of what a traditional family should look like? These concepts resonate with her, she said, in terms of the family she ultimately chose for herself, and she’s full of hope for the youth she works with and for the Latinx community. She said there’s so much room to grow and “establish new frontiers of growing up LatinX in the Pacific Northwest.”
Coming up, though, she said, she inadvertently chose to define herself based on stereotypes, some harmful — “particularly the ones in the media of what Mexicans should be.” She said the stereotypes remain today.
“This has definitely impacted a lot of my work including my name,” she said of being Latina and choosing a numeric moniker.
Villalobos started out with a moniker based only on her first name, Angelina, and three arbitrary numbers. She was “Angel 179,” which carried a feminine assumption. When she dropped “Angel” from her moniker, she felt she was able to be seen for the content of her work. She notes the irony of feeling like she was truly seen when “demoted to a number.”
It took time, she said, to realize that her identity “wasn’t centered around what I presented to the world, but how I felt about myself.” This notion is evident to her today, but it can be a “momentous epiphany” for youth, she said.
Youth tell her that they feel abandoned by their city, one of many reasons that youth-focused arts programs create what she calls “a mindful responsibility.” When young people see the impact of their project in their neighborhood, she said, it creates a connection that will resonate.
Villalobos considers accessibility in her art in multiple ways. She wants it to be affordable and sells prints to “budding art collectors,” who she said are directly supporting the community work she and other artists do by purchasing the art.
As for future directions, Villalobos is working to bring her art to correctional facilities. She said her challenge is making sure she’s emotionally strong for this work: “But I’m already thinking of 2020 so I think I’m ready.”
“Now my goal is to simply build a reputation as an artist of integrity, specifically with public art,” she said. “The challenge is there’s no handbook for it, so I’m back to navigating uncharted territory.”
Find Angelina Villalobos, 179’s, work on her online portfolio, specifically her work for hire, at angelinavillalobos.com and shop for paintings, prints, even accessories adorned with her art at shop179.com. You can also find her on Instagram and Twitter.
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Featured Image: Angelina Villalobos displays “House of the Wolves” Mural Installation for Seattle Art Fair sister show in 2017. (Photo Courtesy Angelina Villalobos)