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Artist Profile: Isaac Pelayo Is A Painter in Top Form

Isaac Pelayo is an artist and painter collaborating with Griselda Records.
Isaac Pelayo is an artist and painter collaborating with Griselda Records. By Courtesy of Ramon "1000WORD$" Lazo
By Ryan S. Kim, Crimson Staff Writer

Isaac Pelayo, a Los Angeles-based artist, has become an integral part of the Griselda Records brand — the gritty underground hip-hop collective led by Westside Gunn. With a unique visual style that has helped define the group’s aesthetic, Pelayo’s work has become synonymous with the music it represents. From album covers like Armani Caesar’s “The Liz 2” to exclusive merchandise and art exhibitions, Pelayo’s contributions to Griselda’s success are both undeniable and far-reaching.

Their journey began when Westside Gunn discovered Pelayo’s artwork via Instagram in 2017. After seeing Pelayo’s piece featuring 2Pac with a third eye, Gunn reached out to the young artist, initially intending to purchase the work. However, their relationship quickly evolved into a creative partnership, with Pelayo becoming the go-to artist for Griselda. “I started painting in early 2016, and I dropped out of college, halfway into that year,” Pelayo said. “I painted every day for a whole year. Come 2017 I painted the Tupac portrait and every year have just gotten more and more aggressive with it.”

Throughout the years, Pelayo has become a mainstay at Griselda events, signing merchandise and prints for eager fans. His art has also been exhibited at Gunn's curated art exhibitions, such as Vivian At The Art Basel in 2021, Bochella 2022, and last May’s WWVD in Chicago, dedicated to the late Virgil Abloh. These exhibitions have allowed Pelayo to further solidify his place within the Griselda brand and connect with their audience on a deeper level. Now, Pelayo is one of the leading street artists in the world, displaying his work in galleries across the country and selling many of his pieces for top market prices.

Pelayo’s art is deeply rooted in his personal history. According to Pelayo, art served as an escape and a source of balance during difficult times in his childhood. “I kind of was forced to grow up fairly quickly,” the artist said. “Art was the one thing that I could escape to. It was really just me, some empty sheets of paper and some pencils or whatever I could find to draw with. If I was feeling anxious, or if I was feeling like my anxiety was high or I felt uncomfortable, I would just draw.

His father, also an artist, played a significant role in exposing Pelayo to the art world while allowing him to develop independently as an artist. “There’s a misconception that my dad taught me how to draw, and taught me how to paint,” Pelayo said. “That’s not true at all. What is true is that he exposed me to the art world by taking me to galleries.”

Pelayo’s latest solo show, “The New Renaissance,” which debuted last September, showcased his most ambitious work yet: over 70 pieces, including sculptures. The inspiration for the show came from Pelayo’s transformative month-long trip to Europe, where he soaked up the works of the masters. “I was just floored by the artwork that I was seeing out there,” Pelayo said. “I cried more times in one day than I can think of throughout my whole life. Literally crying because I just couldn't hold it together to understand how unreal these paintings are in person.”

Shepard Fairey, the legendary street artist responsible for designing Barack Obama’s “HOPE” campaign poster, also played a significant role in Pelayo’s artistic development. According to Pelayo, Fairey advised the young artist to embrace imperfections in his work. This advice led Pelayo to create one of his most iconic pieces, the smiley-faced Mona Lisa for Westside Gunn’s “Pray For Paris.”

“When [Gunn] put that out, a tidal wave took place, where people responded to it like it was the start of a whole new movement,” Pelayo said. “It just exploded and I ran with it.”

At 26 years old, Pelayo has already achieved more acclaim than some artists achieve in a lifetime, with names like Diddy having pieces in their collections and prices for his art and merchandise constantly rising. Despite all of his success, the artist remains hard at work.

“During 2020, I created between 100 and 200 paintings,” Pelayo said. “In 2021, I probably doubled that. Last year, I think I doubled that again. It’s been more and more work and trying new things. Now I’m using different mediums where I incorporate a lot of pastel and spray paint, instead of just oil painting.”

—Staff writer Ryan S. Kim can be reached at ryan.kim@thecrimson.com.

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