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Perez (at home in Guatemala in 2001) "really had a foot in both worlds," Donna DeCesare says. (Donna DeCesare)

Out of the Guatemalan Gang Culture, an Artist

Carlos Perez could have been an artist or a gangster. Photographer Donna DeCesare helped him choose

Meanwhile, DeCesare’s picture of Perez appeared in a Guatemalan newspaper with an article highlighting his artwork. At the time, his art was heavy on gang iconography and graffiti, but the story caught the attention of local United Nations officials. Eventually, he won a commission from them to illustrate a series of textbooks.

Shortly after his mother died, Perez heard from a schoolmate that an Austrian art school was interested in having more students from Central America. He launched an effort to get admitted and to organize his resources, including a scholarship, and in 2004 he enrolled in the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, concentrating in painting.

He uses bold colors and large images, often of children. “I recognize in my art that I’m processing a lot of violence,” he says. “I don’t overdramatize it, but I think it’s there.”

Perez has already had three shows in Austria; he is working on another one while teaching a course in painting at an art school. When he graduated from the academy, last June, some of his paintings were hanging in a juried exhibition of students’ work. Perez dedicated the exhibition to his mother; DeCesare attended the ceremony as his guest. He intends to stay in Vienna, where he is living with his German-born girlfriend. He says he feels safe there.

Patti McCracken edited graphics for American newspapers for 15 years before moving to Europe. She now lives in Vienna.

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