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A mural of a young brown boy with a red bird mask engulfs a wall in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. On another wall, the boy is surrounded by quotes. There’s another wall-turned-canvas where the boy is among his friends, again donning the red bird mask. The boy’s name is Saint, a creation made by artist Sentrock to symbolize freedom achieved through the imagination.

Growing up in west Phoenix, Joseph Anthony Perez, also known as Sentrock, had little exposure to the arts. “You had to fight to do it mentally because it wasn’t so abundant like Chicago or New York,” Perez describes. He grew up never going to art shows or museums, but grasped the closest thing to art he could cling to, his grandfather’s lowrider club, neighborhood graffiti and religious paintings, like the last supper overlooking his kitchen dining table.

Though, Perez does recall an elementary school visit from muralist Martin Moreno.

“He showed us how to do like murals and the mural still up at the school,” Perez said, adding that it “created who [he is] today.”

A man poses for a portrait

Joseph Perez at Sentrock Studios in Chicago.

(Carolina Sanchez / For De Los)

For Perez, art was his escape during his teenage years in west Phoenix.

“I started doing graffiti, like painting birds, illegally,” he said.

After finishing a bird painting, he would photograph it with a disposable camera and write a letter to his dad on the back.

“He was locked up probably most of my childhood,” he said. For Perez, the bird painting was a reminder to his father to “stay free,” even while incarcerated.

A man moving a painting

Sentrock moving bigger mural pieces in his studio.

(Carolina Sanchez / For De Los)

Over time, the bird murals evolved, with Perez adding a human element to the mix, a young boy wearing a red bird mask. Perez, who is Mexican American, describes his work as a “natural reflection” of his identity.

“I don’t have to say I’m Mexican American in my work, I feel like this is just who I am,” he said, though clarifying that the main character Saint is indeed Latino. On his website, he explains that the bird mask is “analogous to humanity: a person who is able to find or escape to their freedom by placing them in a different reality.”

Perez’s work has been most embraced in Chicago, where he moved for college more than a decade ago. He recalls seeing the many murals across the city, and taking in the local history.

“I developed my wings and who I am back home in west Phoenix, but then I learned how to fly out here [in Chicago],” he said.

A man stares at a wall mural

Sentrock’s admiration for Chicago is revealed through his street art.

(Carolina Sanchez / For De Los)

While enrolled at Columbia College, Perez started working with local galleries, and he quickly realized that he could pursue his passion in Chicago without the need for a college degree. Trusting his instincts, Perez left school.

“This is where my art needs to be, and my art will be nurtured,” Perez said.

Over the years, Perez has collaborated with brands like Foot Locker, Apple and Converse. His worked has been commissioned by the Chicago Bulls and White Sox, and he has put on his own exhibits.

But his favorite pieces have always been the public-facing murals because they allows him to share his message with the larger community, “allowing them to interpret it or be inspired,” he said.

A man poses for a photo

Joseph Perez in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago.

(Carolina Sanchez / For De Los)

Perez, who grew up feeling like his voice didn’t matter in society, says he is now using his personal studio in Pilsen as a way to open doors for the next generation of artists.

“I’m going to pass it on to the younger generation of Latinos who do graffiti or do art or [are] trying to create, it’s like … what we say matters or what we do matters.”

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