Artist J.C. Rivera is a master of many mediums. He’s a trained fine artist first, then a graphic designer, cartoonist, toy designer and finally, a mural artist. His colorful abstract public works have recently earned him city and corporate commissions, over 18 thousand Instagram fans (@jcrivera) and respect from both his street-art peers and high-profile art collectors alike. We chat with the Puero Rican transplant as he puts the finishing touches on the art piece he’s painting outside our new flagship guideshop in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago.What was your childhood like in Puerto Rico and how has that shaped you?
I grew up close to a boxing gym, and I wanted to be a boxer so bad growing up. But my mom was overprotective; she never let me. So I never got to try boxing, but it stuck with me. I really admired the sport; it teaches you discipline and strategy, and I have used that to be a successful artist. I actually just finished a mural for a boxing gym, and the owner is a professional boxer. He told me that if I agreed to do the mural he’d give me lessons. I guess it’s never too late to try something new.
Your well-known cartoon character, The Bear Champ, wears boxing gloves. Is that for nostalgia? What else does he represent?
The boxing gloves represent motivation. I use tools every day to stay motivated, and to just keep pushing to be a better person. Sometimes, bad things happen, but you got to roll with the punches. When I first started drawing The Bear Champ in 2010, I wanted to create a character that was not human, and not too specific in terms of race, so it’s more symbolic. He used to smoke, he was beat up, he had a little chip on his shoulder. I’m 36 now, and i’ve been through a lot as an artist. I’ve been taken advantage of without getting recognition. I feel like I’m finally at an age when something is working for me, so that’s when I started making the bear a little more positive. That’s when I gave him the crown—cause now he’s a champion. Like, it took him a while to become a champion, to get where he is. Now, he’s more successful, more iconic, more positive, like me. Kids like it more too, and I have young kids, so I wanted him to be someone they could look up to it. He’s a character that everyone can relate to.
When did you pick up your first can of spray paint?
Three years ago, professionally. I used to play around when I was younger, but I met one of my closest friends a few years back, and started collaborating with him on murals. I came in with that fine art background, and he was into graffiti, so I brought something new. I never had a name, a tag, but I had this bear that I used in my drawings, so he told me to use that instead.
For two months straight, I practiced every day, and I figured it out pretty fast. It’s like painting with brushes, just more about can control. I still learn a lot now; I’m constantly experimenting.
What’s the difference between graffiti and street art?
It all started with graffiti. It was established in New York in the 80s, and taggers used their names instead of a character or scene. The next wave started in Europe in the 90s—Barcelona, Berlin—and those guys were like, ‘OK, we gotta do something different; we’re gonna do characters.’ Most of them were artists, like the London Police, and it started appealing to a wider audience. That’s when it started switching over to street art. It’s more abstract; it’s more for the public and not the artist themselves.
What was the inspiration for your mural for us?
I had an idea for a design that I wanted to do for a wall; I wanted to expose the brick. And this was nice enough brick. I’m more of a designer than an artist, so I wanted to create something that people would think is good design and has meaning to it. But I still used some elements and colors of The Bear Champ.
What do you hope the effect of your art work is on people that see it?
I feel like this is good for the neighborhood, it’s something different but positive. If I had done The Bear Champ really big, it may have been met with a negative response. But this was a good fit, the abstract was a good decision. It pops, and it makes the public stop and think, like, What is it? A lot of people stopped and talked to me while I was painting. One lady with her son was excited, she said, “we don’t see this a lot over here.” And everyone was anxious to see how it would turn out. Kids would ask, “What’s it going to be?” They liked the colors. One older lady said, “This is nice, it makes me smile.”
What are some noteworthy projects you are currently working on?
This week, I am teaming up with Matthew Hoffman of the “You are Beautiful” campaign on a commission inside Havas Worldwide, the advertising company, for Chicago Ideas Week. And I’m curating an external gallery for The Numbers Project in the West Loop. I chose artists that are doing something cool in Chicago. It’s basically a bunch of colleagues that I admire, and together we’re painting an entire side of a huge building. It’s really good for the neighborhood. We picked four colors, so it looks consistent, but other than that they have total creative freedom.
What’s your dream project?
For The Bear Champ to have his own television show.