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How a Passion for Graffiti Led to the Opening of San José’s New Gallery, 1Culture

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A woman and a man stand next to each other against a gallery wall covered in paintings
Executive Director Lou Jimenez and owner Andrew Espino of 1Culture Gallery. (Cherri Lakey)

Just across the street from San José’s City Hall, the epicenter of local political power, real estate broker Andrew Espino has opened 1Culture, a new gallery with a vision that represents his lifelong love of hip-hop, the oldies and the graffiti scene of the late 1980s.

During his formative years, Espino may have been better at sports than he was at tagging, but his memories of hanging out with graffiti-writer friends, flipping through New York City graffiti books and listening to music have stayed with him. After college he dove into the world of real estate, but continued to collect art. “I’d buy a piece and then use it as part of the staging in a house I was selling,” he says.

A few years later, his passion for the arts and culture of his youth began to intensify, and Espino began selling prints and creative merchandise at local pop-up events under the 1Culture moniker. It was hard to break even, let alone turn a profit, and it demanded much of his time, but Espino was hooked — and hatching even bigger plans.

In May 2022, he took the leap and opened 1Culture Gallery, nestled in a string of small businesses along Santa Clara Street. “I wanted to see what it’s like to run a gallery and I wanted to help artists learn and make money from their artwork,” he explains.

A man with a beard stands beside a framed, black and white ornate drawing
Artist Miguel Machuca at 1Culture. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

The space caught the attention of San José State urban studies student Lou Jimenez, who was there to see an exhibition of the deeply psychological and symbolic charcoal works of Miguel Machuca. (Machuca produced the pieces seven years ago, during a year long battle with cancer.)

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“I came to see Miguel’s show and was so impressed that I wanted to learn more about the space,” Jiménez recalls. “I reached out to Andrew to see if there was a way I could be involved.” She’s now the gallery’s executive director; Machuca is the art installer.

Jiménez shares Espino’s vision to support local artists. “He comes from a different demographic and is leading by example,” she says of his real estate background. “He’s taking a huge risk because it requires a lot of investment and there is no art market here per se, so I appreciate the fact that we’re trying to expand that.”

Espino admits he initially underestimated how challenging sales can be. “When I first started I thought it was going to be much easier to sell artwork. When you look at it from an outside perspective you think, ‘Oh you live in Silicon Valley and there’s a bunch of rich people here, and they’re going to throw money at you,’ and then you realize there’s no market for it,” he explains. “When I say ‘no market,’ I mean there’s no buyers. We have tons of sellers but no buyers. That was a huge and discouraging surprise.”

Colorful mural of black, purple, orange and green on building front
Mural by Carlos Rodriguez in the Wynwood District of Miami, Florida. (Photo courtesy of 1Culture)

Even with this realization, his sights are set on success, and he’s already put himself in a “bigger mindset” to steadily accomplish that. In October 2022, Espino took artist Carlos Rodriguez to Brooklyn to participate in the BedStuy Walls mural festival. A few months later Espino arranged for Rodriguez to paint a mural in the Wynwood district during the Art Basel fair in Miami Beach. “Every city we’ve gone to, I feel we’ve had an influence there with our West Coast culture,” Espino says.

Espino hopes taking artists to other cities will provide the encouragement they might need to pursue a career in the arts. It’s also a way to build résumés, which gives the artists more legitimacy to potential collectors back in San José.

Through his businessman’s perspective, Espino feels collectors need to be educated on the value of supporting local talent. “A lot of homeowners need to be hand-held and explained to them how much of a difference it makes to the community to invest in local art and as sad as that is, they just don’t see it or hear it,” he says. “A few of the purchases we have had happened because we told them the story of the art and then they purchased, but it’s exhausting because you have to do that one by one.”

Painting of man with hands in prayer, overlaid with colorful patterns
Artwork by Shen Shen 210 for ‘Bay Area Legends’ exhibit. (Photo courtesy of 1Culture)

It’s clear that there are numerous hurdles ahead, but Espino is not the first person to face them — nor is he alone. Directors and proprietors of galleries and creative businesses have long grappled with issues of attendance, funding and sales in the South Bay. “San José is a suburb, it has [a population of] one million now, but the mentality is the same,” Espino notes.

Not one to back down from a challenge, Espino and his team have the passion and determination to construct a platform that will empower local artists and, if all goes to his plan, they hope to have a significant impact on the local arts community and culture for many years to come.

The upcoming exhibit ‘Bay Area Legends’ at 1Culture will feature 20 graffiti artists who have left their mark on the history and evolution of graffiti culture in Northern California. The opening reception will feature live painting and DJs on Feb. 3, 5–9 p.m. during Art Walk SJ.

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