Artist Tato Caraveo blends simplicity and eccentricity in an art-filled life

For some, a gallery is a place to spend a few dreamy moments immersed in another person's work. For people like Tato Caraveo, a gallery is not only a hobby but a home.

Caraveo's art is an unmistakable blend of the conventional and the unconventional, the consistent and the dynamic, the dramatic and the simple. It makes sense, then, that this juxtaposition would be reflected throughout the Grand Avenue apartment he shares with his girlfriend and their two-year-old "Chiweenie," Duke.

Peering out of the northernmost window of his humble abode that sits on top of a gallery, Caraveo can see right across the street and into the building formerly known as Bragg's Pie Factory, where his latest project is underway.

The building is set to house the second location of Barrio Cafe, a popular Mexican restaurant widely recognized for the colorful, expressive murals that adorn its outer walls. Caraveo was one of many local muralists recruited to paint this new location, and he is far from a novice when it comes to large-scale pieces.

Some of Caraveo's early work was graffiti art in the late '90s, but he got his first taste of mural painting in 2001 when his friend asked him to create a mural in the music room of the Emerald Lounge. Since then, his murals have graced large expanses of walls all across downtown Phoenix.

Caraveo said he tends to stay away from political projects, and focuses more of his efforts on creating positive, fun neighborhood murals.

"There's a lack of historic architecture (in downtown Phoenix), so walking can be pretty dull," he said. "More murals would make it a more walk-able city, I think."

When he's not dragging his brushes around the concrete jungle, Caraveo might be found tucked away in one of his two studios painting a droopy, dramatic face on one of his eccentric figures.

Though the "studio" portion of his home is technically just one open room right by the entrance, Caraveo's work can be found around almost every corner. Three Dia de los Muertos-themed faces watch over his kitchen, while an unfinished man holding a severed head camps out in the corner of the living room.

"I really only use that front room mainly for oil painting. When I'm doing charcoal stuff, I'll bring it in here," he said, gesturing to the green horseshoe-shaped coffee table and patterned couch in the center of the living room. "It gets pretty messy, but it works out."

Perhaps his most recognizable piece of work is his ongoing series of bold-featured musicians, some of which grace the outer walls of the old Paz Cantina building on 3rd and Roosevelt Streets. When asked how the figures' eccentric features came about, Caraveo said it "just sort of started happening."

Much of his artistic process seems spontaneous and carefree. For instance, he rarely draws out his work before he commits with the paint.

"I just don't like getting pigeon-holed and stuck in one thing, you know?" he said.

On the other hand, his craftsmanship and curation suggest that he actually cares quite a bit about consistency and calculation.

Each of his shows is themed, and he never mixes mediums in a show. He recently finished up a disco funk-themed series of oil paintings, which he created to a soundtrack of the same genre.

"I always try to capture the style of the music in my people," he said. "If I’m doing one series, I’ll try to keep it so that if one’s happy, they all gotta stay happy. ... Whether they’re somber or happy, there’s gotta be one or the other."

Nicole Royse, a curator at the monOrchid who worked with Caraveo during the gallery's Phoenix street art exhibition in April 2014, applauded his easily recognizable "unique voice and whimsical style."

Though the Phoenix art scene's love for Caraveo's work is apparent in the myriad reviews and profiles that have been written about him, he said he loves getting feedback on his work through eavesdropping.

"I like when people don’t know who the artist is and you can hear their opinions," he laughed. "I’ve heard like, 'Wow that’s depressing!' or, 'Why is it so sad looking?' But I think more or less I seem to be getting a good response. I’ve been getting a lot of sales lately over the last year."

When he's not beautifying the streets of downtown or painting new members of his obscure musical family, Caraveo might be found at The Lost Leaf, where he has worked as the art and music curator since its opening in 2006.

Caraveo, who has played the bass since high school, said he has played in a band with the owners of Lost Leaf for the past 15 years, though they don't play many shows anymore. He classifies their music as "psychedelic rock and funk."

"I think the more artistic mediums you have, the better," he said when he considered the symbiotic relationship between his art and his music. "I'd love to do more ceramics and have the music come through more with that. I think (having more than one medium) keeps you fresh as far as ideas. The more, the merrier."

Caraveo is positive about the future of the local art scene, and said he is happy to see a rise in younger kids coming up with unique ideas and approaches to what they're doing.

As for his own approach, Caraveo said his next step as an artist will be carving out more time and space to create.

"If I don’t finish something within a certain period, I’ll never finish it. It’ll just sit there and I’ll get bored with it." He glanced over at his studio, where a handful of immaculately sketched musicians sat unpainted and unacknowledged. "I can see it start developing and then I’ll stop, and it just keeps happening. I just need to take a few months off or something and just shack up and paint ... I’m sure it’ll happen in time."

(pic of him looking at charcoal sketch)

But right now, his priority is the Barrio mural.

As I gathered my things to leave, he looked out the window again in an attempt to point out his project, but immediately got distracted by a red-headed hummingbird buzzing near the window. Eventually, he re-focused, went downstairs and ran across the street, ready to be re-immersed in the world of simple eccentricity that defines his entire life.

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Reach the reporter at celina.jimenez@asu.edu or follow @lina_lauren on Twitter.

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