Career Stories: Victor Quiñonez, BFA '03
Victor “Marka27” Quiñonez is a self-dubbed ‘prolific artisan’ whose work spans illustration, graffiti, fashion design, mixed-media installations, his own line of toys, and an award-winning creative agency, Street Theory, that he founded and runs with his wife, Liza. We recently caught up with Victor, and he shared the latest on his art practice, inspiration, and recent work.
Thinking and Working Across Disciplines
“You don’t want to be pigeonholed into just one thing. A huge influence on my personal work is the ability to think like an illustrator, and a product designer, and a fine artist, and to combine all of those things when working on a piece. All of those things together create something very unique.” Victor’s “Neo-Indigenous” style is unmistakable, whether in his commissioned murals around the world, his gallery exhibitions, or his work in fashion design: powerful imagery drawing on graffiti and street culture, boldly mixing pop culture and traditional Mexican imagery, with the purpose of “engaging an audience in a dialogue on cultural authenticity driven by self-expression.”
SMFA gave him a head start on his early career working for companies like Nike and Converse by posing real-world assignments as opposed to “boring and basic stuff.” Practicing faculty-artists also helped connect Victor to the gallery world. He recalls an early encounter with Kehinde Wiley, who was just emerging into his career and came to SMFA as a visiting artist. “At the time I was very anti-tradition. I was working with spray paint 90% of the time and I was painting these huge murals throughout Boston. Kehinde was one of those people who would question what you were doing. He was trying to get you to open up about other options. To explore other mediums to take your work in different directions, because every medium has its advantages and disadvantages. I think back to that conversation and I'm glad I was able to meet people like that through SMFA.”
SMFA’s open structure encouraged experimentation. “It was amazing because I knew people who went to other art institutions, and they would always be really jealous of SMFA students because at SMFA if you were taking photography, but you wanted to do something that was mixed media, or make a silkscreen with your photography, or vice versa, you wouldn’t have to be enrolled in a class. You could just talk to the instructor, set up a time, and go do it.”
“Another thing that I really respect about SMFA is how incredibly diverse they are in terms of the students that they accept, the students that they allow to have a platform or voice. It doesn’t matter what gender you are, how you identify. You know, me being a Mexican artist and dealing with subject matter of immigration and politics: that's all encouraged.”
Creating his Own Career Trajectory
Victor’s career didn’t jump right from being a student to running his own company. But each role he had along the way taught him something that carried him to the next step. “I got my first job doing graphics for a fashion company, which led me to packaging design, which later got me into designing for a toy company, which eventually got me to designing my own toys.” Those toys actually gave him one of his first experiences of being featured in a major international museum. “I think every artist’s big-time goal is to get into a museum. That's kind of a big box that everybody wants to check off at some point in their career and the first time I had a taste of that was when I was on a trip to London with a company I was working for and I visited the Tate. Randomly, one of the toys that I designed was in their gift shop! That kind of blew my mind.”
Not every job was glamorous. Victor remembers working as a janitor at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum while he was attending SMFA. While buffing floors he’d look at the Renaissance paintings hanging there and think “all these guys have been dead and gone for such a long time and they have no idea that their work has carried on for all these decades.”
“I read that John Biggers, the incredible African American artist, was also a janitor at a high school while he was going to college, and I just want to tell students: what you do never defines who you are. If you work in a bookstore or as a waiter, no matter what it is, that doesn't define who you are, and you should never define people that way.”
Coming Full Circle
Things came full circle in 2018 when Victor was invited back to the Gardner Museum as a Luminary, an honor given to Boston’s most innovative artists and cultural leaders. “I brought my daughters with me to the museum. They loved it. And I said to them ‘Do you see these floors? I used to mop all these floors.’ And they just looked at me like ‘Are you serious?’ It’s just what I had to do, but it never stopped me from pursuing my goals. And I’m proud of that. Not everybody comes to college with the same
resources. I just want to let students with backgrounds like mine know that the struggle makes you stronger and smarter than people who are just handed opportunities. I think that if there are students that feel like, ‘I want to go to art school but it's going to be hard.’ I just want to tell them that it'll be worth it in the end.”
Even though Street Theory keeps Victor and Liza busy, they still find the time to curate a space in the South End neighborhood of Boston dedicated to murals and public art called Underground at Ink Block. This urban park provides opportunities for local, national, and international artists to leave their mark through impactful public projects. Thankful for the support he received early on, Victor still prioritizes providing opportunities to a new generation of aspiring artists. Another way in which things come full circle.
Lead photo by Sal Rodriguez