Chicago (CBS) – What started as graffiti under train tracks has turned into a flourishing career for one Chicago man.
He truly turned adversity into triumph and now helps others do the same.
Graffiti can cause a range of reactions, from admiration to frustration to fear. Epifanio Monarrez feels the freedom of a child guiding his future.
“It’s almost going to take me to another world,” Monarrez said. “It’s like I’m completely disconnected from everything that’s going on in my life at this point.”
Life began in Little Village, where comic book art took over, but there was only one way for kids who wanted to create like him.
“I couldn’t take any art classes at that age, but graffiti was a free art medium, so that was the way I went,” he said.
Monarrez said he bought his first can of spray paint when he was 10 years old. He followed the older kids who encouraged him. He spent his school years making his mark.
Reporter: “Have you guys ever had a problem?”
Monarrez: “Many times.”
This made his parents desperate to find another hobby.
“I got in trouble one day and then my parents found all the spray cans a day later and they were all gone,” she said. “So me and my brother and my friends went around the neighborhood and looked in all the trash cans. We didn’t find anything.”
As time passed and a little more mature, Monarrez realized that the talent that began on the streets of Little Village could take him beyond that.
“After that, I started to realize that digital design was where it was at because it would allow me to build a career,” he said.
He studied illustration at Columbia College Chicago, which led him to find work after graduation where his creative vision could be seen and heard. At least, that’s what he was promised. He rarely found the truth.
“I would often go from one agency to another and hit glass ceilings and sometimes have uncomfortable conversations with some clients and people just because they saw me,” Monarrez said.
It was this “street style” that set him apart, and he knew it. So he started his own company, looking for design and promotional work in the neighborhood that knew him best.
In his work with the popular Little Village restaurant Los Comales, he found a way to mix marketing acumen and art.
“He’s a visionary,” said Los Comales partner Cristina Gonzalez, “You can talk to him and see the wheels turning.”
And other brands have noticed. He has done work for Rolex and Tacori. He’s had his art featured on everything from commercials to mugs, skateboards and even furniture featured on the national stage. He showed CBS 2 one of the chairs he made for the NCAA.
It would be easy for Monarrez to focus on the fruitful projects in front of him, but he also looks at where he started. He aims to use his company to help neighborhood artists build their careers, as he once did.
“I want to create opportunities like there are for other graffiti artists or other artists who have the skill set but don’t have an agency to support them to do big projects,” he said.
From spray painting alleys to running his own agency, a childhood dream still shapes Monarrez’s career.
Reporter: “What do you think 7-year-old Epi thinks of you now?”
Monarrez: “I think the 7-year-old version of me would be very proud of where I’ve gotten because I had a lot of challenges growing up, so I feel really blessed.”
Years after throwing away all those cans of spray paint, Monarrez’s mother said she now understands what her son did and is very proud of him.