When Juan Muniz set a goal to make a living off of his paintings and drawings, it seemed as if he were dreaming. But truth be told, there was nothing to hold Muniz back except himself. Everything else was pushing forward—particularly the work itself: renderings of cartoonish characters that are humorous and heartbreaking in their response to the travails of life.
It all started eight years ago, when Muniz brought about 30 of his paintings to Downtown’s First Friday to sell in one of the artist booths. He was in his early 20s, had gone to design school and figured he’d see what happened.
By the end of the night every one of his pieces was gone. He’d sold them all.
The next month, Muniz was featured in the back gallery at the Funk House Downtown in the Arts District. Four weeks later, he went to pick up his work and was handed a check instead.
From there, it continued: more gallery shows here and in LA, murals around town, even the walls at Holsteins restaurant at the Cosmopolitan. The artist, now 30, has gone from working at a tattoo shop and peddling $20 paintings at a monthly street fair to creating works that sell for $2,000 in a gallery on the Strip.
The most prominent of his characters is Felipe, a lovable androgynous figure in a bunny suit with a small protruding belly and an expressionless face mask that reveals only his eyes. We’ve come to know him as one trudging through life despite grave (or minor) misfortunes.
There is Felipe, dragging his bleeding heart, looking back to ensure it’s still there as if it’s a security blanket. There is Felipe, sitting on a chunk of earth with an anvil tied to his fishing pole. And there is Felipe, looking down at the bullet that moments ago pierced him, then popped out his back, walked around to the front and held up a sign that reads, “I’m sorry.”
So prolific is Muniz’s making and marketing of the character—named for a brother who died at birth and became his childhood imaginary confidant—that Felipe has become a Downtown fixture, popping up in sanctioned murals on buildings (Art Square), on interior walls (Insert Coins), in galleries (Place, Brett Wesley and 303 Studio North), at events and on merchandise designed by Muniz.
Not only is Felipe the recurring visual icon at Holsteins, he also appears at Sugar Factory, where Felipe prints and onesies are sold. He’s been in exhibits in LA, including at La Luz de Jesus Gallery on Hollywood Boulevard, where Muniz has another show in November.
So by the time a buyer for Wyland Signature Galleries at the Venetian came across Muniz at Vegas StrEATs, Felipe (star of Muniz’s T-shirt, sticker and coloring book lines) was already a small-time celebrity, a part of the Vegas community.
At Wyland—a commercial gallery launched by the artist and philanthropist of the same name, known for his high-end, colorful sea life paintings and murals—Felipe faced a whole new crowd, more monied than his usual audience. Still, they adored him as much as everyone else, and Muniz saw his works go for as much as $2,000 at Wyland, where more than 30 of his pieces sold.
“It’s the feeling that gets created inside of people when they see him,” says Muniz’s representative, Philip Marais, who brought his works to Wyland. “It’s simple, easy, deep.
“I saw him out of the corner of my eye, saw he was going to be something to be reckoned with. And he works hard. That’s one of the reasons he will be very successful. He doesn’t sit around and wait for things to come to him.”
Indeed, the Tijuana-born Muniz, who was raised in San Diego and moved to Las Vegas in 1998, attending Chaparral High School and the Art Institute of Las Vegas, rarely takes a break. He even writes fan mail to the artists he likes best, which, he says, is how he ended up at the home of “POPaganda” artist Ron English (whose MC Supersized character was prominent in the movie Super Size Me) while in New York for a show.
If Muniz isn’t painting and drawing, he’s selling, which is why he was setting up under a tent outside the Arts Factory on a recent Friday night. Why rest when there are stickers, prints and plushies to push? It’s also Muniz’s way of offering his work to those who have been following him since those early days at First Friday. “Sometimes I’ll just give them to the little kids,” he says.
Across the street from the Arts Factory, Muniz’s black-and-white portraits of urban sophisticates still grace the outside of Artifice, and his drawings of windows and curtains are still featured on the walls of the back performance space. Muniz also has a mural in the Hardkore Parkour gym and another in a Zappos warehouse. Additionally, he works with local charities Nevada Childhood Cancer and AFAN. It’s his illustration depicting Teller in Felipe’s rabbit suit for the AIDS Walk.
Muniz even contacted Insomniac after seeing Electric Daisy Carnival in a documentary and asked if he could be a featured painter at this year’s EDC. And so Felipe went to the Speedway, where he was painted on a temporary wall while guests tried on a giant model of his costume head.
“You’re always going to see his stuff everywhere,” says Rich Moskal, co-owner of Happy Panda Toys inside the Arts Factory, which has exhibited Muniz’s work and sold his merchandise. “He pushes himself. He’ll drive to Pasadena, come back the same day and go to a meet and greet. He’s hungry. He wants it.”
And Muniz anticipates more opportunities once viewers see his work featured prominently in the home of fighters during the next season of The Ultimate Fighter, which airs on FX in September.
Already, he’s achieved his goal—supporting his family and two young kids through his art. “I just figured I’d keep my head down, keep working and see what happens,” he says, sitting inside Bar+Bistro on a recent First Friday. “The next big project is the next big project.”
Meanwhile, there is Felipe, by his side, watering a miniature tree with a miniature noose, holding a bouquet of grenade-shaped balloons, standing in a boxing ring fighting against a cartoon heart.