A skeleton faced figure wearing a black leather coat with a sewed on “I” patch cruises in a jet-like convertible. Its fingers are bent in an anatomically impossible manner spelling out the numbers “956,” as if throwing a gang sign and repping the Rio Grande Valley with pride. The image is the work of San Benito native Joseph Nuncio, a 29-year-old artist whose fresh take on hip-hop references and allusions to popular culture along the border make his artwork unique and a pleasure to admire. Nuncio describes the inspiration he has found along la frontera in the love-hate relationship that many seem to have with the Valley.
“Everyone dogs so much on the RGV, yet when they leave they want to represent the Valley so bad,” Nuncio mentions. “I think people deep down will do whatever to rep the Valley even if it means growing an extra finger, just like the picture.”
The artist’s work is diverse in content but carries a similar unpretentious aesthetic throughout. Nuncio’s paintings are mostly in the form of line drawings with thin outlines, simple shapes, washed textures and subtle color palettes. The references to music and pop culture in his work are of junk food, TV shows, sports, and artists like Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Eminem, and a slew of other rappers and musicians. His style earned the interest of Fresh Selects and indie hip-hop label from Portland, Oregon with whom he has collaborated for two years by designing the poster for their “Tightest Songs of” year-end showcase.
Nuncio’s style has a broad market but some of his more personal pieces are those that are unapologetically “Valley” in their imagery and content. For example, in a series of pen and marker drawings Nuncio depicts RGV characters in movement and transition. The collection includes a drawing of a female vendor selling Hot Cheetos y Cheese, Pickle Shots y Chamoyadas while driving Chiquita’s Elote truck. Another image features a skateboarding bandido hitching a ride back from the grocery store on a bullet-riddled Valley Co. vehicle.
In a different series, shared through Instagram as a mini-zine called Con Hambre, the artist features scanned watercolor paintings of food over imposed on faceless figures in action poses. Some of the drawings that you will find in this zine include a washed out packet of Super Fruity Kool-Aid over a two bloodied MMA fighters in the midst of a headlock, a karate student about to break a wooden board over imposed by a Little Ceasar’s Hot and Ready pizza, and a hand-standing skateboarder being covered by a bag of Taquis Fuego. Another of his more Valley specific work is a digital drawing of the San Benito legend Freddy Fender with the saying “Puro San Bene, Guey!”
The work is a fun and down-to-earth take on RGV life and although unassuming, the images do point to larger concepts and issues of the region like bilingualism, the dependence on informal markets and on transportation. Nuncio’s work is shaped by lived experiences and situations he has faced. For example, as a student at Texas State Technical College, he relied on public transit that did not work out very well for him and ultimately helped in his decision to not continue his studies. Perhaps one of the toughest and most challenging circumstances for Nuncio occurred in the early morning of January 1, 2016, when he was in a car wreck in Weslaco. Due to the accident Nuncio lost the lower part of his right leg and spent half of the year in San Antonio recovering at physical rehabilitation. Additionally, Nuncio dealt with slight memory loss and the calcification of his right arm into a fixed position.
As part of his rehabilitation Nuncio turned to art as a tool for healing, but due to the condition of his arm, the artist was forced to learn to draw with his left hand. “I remember one of the first things I drew was this ridiculous guy with a branch for a leg,” Nuncio mentioned in a phone interview. The artist began drawing things that brought him joy and the idea behind the branch leg stuck with him particularly as he waited for a prosthetic leg. Fixated on the idea that anything could replace his leg Nuncio began drawing characters with a leg made up of varying items including hamburgers, basketballs and Legos. The drawings are mostly digital since the artist had to adjust to the limitability of his hospital room, but they include scans of watercolors, too. The images are hip, fashionable, and touching. One, for example, shows a sharply dressed young man in a grey-toned outfit, brown socks and black kilted-loafers. His right leg consists of two grapefruit flavored La Croix cans. He is smirking and giving the Shaka Sign. Another is a peace giving, blue-skinned cyclist in full gear: smartwatch, shorts, cycling jersey and cap. His right foot is made of stones and is carefully being assembled by a female character in a black shirt and Vans. Nuncio described these particular characters as a coping mechanism while he waited but in February 2017 he received his prosthetic leg and returned to San Antonio to go on with rehabilitation.
He continued his digital drawings and in April Nuncio started a new Instagram page called @Un.pata (one foot). He is dedicating this page solely to drawings regarding limb-loss as he describes, “It’s Limb Loss Awareness Month so I’m gonna try to update this though out the month with new content. These drawings began as a way of coping while I waited on my leg. I now have a leg and hope these drawing reach others who may find comfy in them.”
As describe by the artist, April is Limb Loss Awareness Month, as named by the Amputee Coalition, the nation’s leading organization dedicated to “enhancing the quality of life for amputees and their families, improving patient care and preventing limb loss.” The Amputee Coalition carries its goal of reaching out to and empowering people affected by limb loss to achieve their full potential through education, support, and advocacy. They do so by focusing on three key tenets that include raising awareness and increasing practices to prevent limb loss, ensuring that no amputee feels alone during and after amputation and recovery and lastly that amputees and their families live the fullest lives after amputation. During the month of April, the coalition has an advocacy days at the nation’s capital where members push for legislative priorities that this year include the Insurance Fairness for Amputees Act, healthcare reform, the Local Coverage Determination Clarification Act, and support and research for the limb loss and limb different community. Lastly, the Amputee Coalition is running a social media campaign with the hashtag #amplifyyourself to highlight the stories of the community and raise awareness which is what the Valley artist hopes to do as well through his art.
Nuncio continues to use his drawings to heal. He mentions trying to give them more thought and allowing himself to not only draw happy characters because, “You don’t have to feel happy all the time, you only feel the way you feel.”
In his recent Un.pata posts, Nuncio explores emotions rather than “just the leg.” One image features an angry dark figure in a black jacket and dark denim. He is holding a bat and is scowling as black mist floats around his head and clutched fist. The character has a bionic right leg powered by a red crystal that is only showing slightly. In another image, a skateboarding man checks his watch as he holds nun-chucks in one hand and a switchblade in his mouth. He has a scar on his cheek and his robotic leg is only slightly visible at the ankle. In both these drawings the focus is on the attitude and emotions the characters portray rather than on the prosthetic leg. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell when I’m wearing pants, when my legs are covered you may not know if I’m an amputee or if I have both legs,” he mentions.
Nuncio described this internal struggle of “looking the part” and the responsibility he now feels of drawing attention to his prosthetic in certain situations. He described an instance where he attended a concert and made it a point to wear “loud shorts” for the purpose of making his prosthetic visible but people didn’t seem to get the message and weren’t very considerate. Nuncio hopes to explore more of these feelings and ideas throughout the month. His goal is to make a zine when done adding that, “he doesn’t know if he will stop or keep going after April.”
For now, Nuncio continues working on getting better at rehabilitation, drawing when possible and hanging out with his girlfriend, friends and family. He has recently made a poster for the Nasty Weekend music show in San Benito and is expanding into animation. “It’s gonna sound cheesy,” he responds when asked what keeps him inspired. “All the support that I have been getting is something that I am not accustomed to and it has changed my art,” he says, “now I am is trying to give back through the art where as before I was kind of drawing without a purpose.” By focusing on the silver lining of a very dark cloud Nuncio shows evolution as an artist, he demonstrates resistance through passion and there is nothing more Valley than that. Make sure to follow @nunci0 and @un.pata on Instagram for more great art.