Santa Barbara Artist DJ Javier
Draws His Dream World
Illustrator and Surfer Uses Art to Address Social Inequalities
and Build Better Communities
By Ricky Barajas | January 28, 2021
An artist and illustrator whose work graces global brands and walls from Los Angeles to New York City, DJ Javier just opened a new studio in the Funk Zone, but he’s been in Santa Barbara his whole life. Now 27 years old, the skateboarder turned surfer was raised in El Encanto Heights on the western edge of Goleta, where he began developing his craft at Dos Pueblos High School.
Today, his work can readily be found around town on the walls of places like Captain Fatty’s and Santa Cruz Market. But his impact spreads coast to coast, adding color and soul to innovative developments like Industry City in Brooklyn, restaurants like The Waterfront in Venice Beach, and retailers like Patagonia in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. And as the art director for the Santa Barbara–based footwear brand SeaVees, Inc., for the past two years, Javier’s ideas and drawings are seeping into even deeper corners of the planet.
But he remains dedicated to uplifting his hometown. “As Santa Barbara continues to grow and develop, I feel called to show that there’s more here than just fancy rich people,” Javier told me recently. “There’s a thriving community outside of this tech bubble. I don’t know much, but I like art and I know that my art can have a message.”
Even going so far as to name his creative business Bayan Surf Club — a nod to bayanihan, a practice in the Philippines where communities help each other move their houses — he’s focused on becoming an integral part of the Santa Barbara community and art scene. He’s donated his work to small businesses to help them thrive, and he’s doing what he can to support more Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) involvement in surfing culture and ocean life, where he’s found a stunningly stubborn lack of diversity.
A humble and driven man with a glowing kindness and an overflowing sense of creativity, DJ Javier certainly seems like a laid-back product of his seaside upbringing. But with an increasingly prominent presence, from urban murals to corporate conference rooms, his messages ring ever louder and clearer.
As the first-generation child of Filipino immigrants, DJ Javier always felt like a career in art was a distant dream, something that his family wouldn’t be proud of or support. So art was just a casual hobby for many years, not even a proper passion.
“I never really took it seriously, but I think it was always something I wanted to move forward with,” he explained. “I didn’t know how to manifest it. I didn’t even know what graphic design was.”
Javier first tried to channel his creativity in an architecture class at Dos Pueblos High, thinking that architecture would ease his artistic tension and not sacrifice creativity for stability. Unfortunately, as for many whose lives led us outside the sphere of science and technology, Javier just didn’t like math, a critical part of drawing buildings. But his reaction to the rigidity of architecture led directly to Javier’s signature technique of drawing and painting all of his creations freehand.
Admitting that he “can’t draw a straight line to save his life,” Javier — who earned his degree in graphic design from Azusa Pacific University in 2015 — turned the accidental into the intentional. Those wobbling lines became free-flowing curves, full of thick, bold strokes, and vibrant, lively colors that are the staple of his aesthetic. His immediately recognizable pieces frequently feature anthropomorphic and animalistic figures, which, while entirely 2D, look like they could easily walk off whatever he’s chosen as his canvas. He explained, “I love when you can see my work from far away and know what it is because it’s so bold.”
Javier’s art is limited only by what he’s able to get his hands on. He’s painted towering three-wall murals but also coats small pieces of cardboard with the same amount of care. “I love how malleable [his art] is beyond the canvas,” explained friend and collaborator Morgan Maassen, a filmmaker, photographer, and former owner of Breakfast Culture Club on Chapala Street. “One day it’s on a shoe, the next is a mural. But the cohesiveness of each and every piece, no matter the medium, is utterly profound and masterful.”
Whether Javier is designing a concrete slab, surf fins, surfboards, or T-shirts, he transforms the object and brings it to life. “His art is his style,” continued Maassen, “and a very strong brand: unique, clean, surf-inspired, sometimes cheeky.”
Though associated more with surfing today, Javier came up through skateboarding. “I sucked at it,” he admitted. “It was my entryway to art and music, though.”
The subtly subversive attitudes reflected in his characters are reminiscent of the skater vibe, but he’s found similar inspiration in traditional American tattoos, Saturday-morning cartoons, and graffiti culture. Whether drawing mice in thick chains kickin’ it by the jukebox or a lemon and lime catching some waves, his art captures motion just as well as those moments of stillness that are an essential part of life by the ocean.
But mice, cats, and wacky characters are just part of the palette. Javier is now drawing water buffaloes and characters with straw hats to explore and embrace his Filipino heritage. “Even now, I’m unpacking what it means for me to be first-generation,” he explained, “and it’s finding its way into my work.”
Catching Big Names
From illustrating shirts and totes for Dune Coffee Roasters to painting three murals atop the Amazon office building on State Street, DJ Javier’s growing list of projects are a world away from his unpleasant architecture class. Just check out his mural for SeaVees down on East Mason Street in the Funk Zone: a massive wave on the side of the building that proclaims “Wish You Were Here.” That project led to his current job at the footwear company.
“He absolutely killed it,” said SeaVees founder and CEO Steven Tiller of the mural. “He was our art director before I knew it.”
Javier works at an unyielding pace. In addition to his role at SeaVees, his freelance design work (past clients include Adidas, Ruffles, Teva, UGG, 805 Beer, and more), and his own personal art projects, he helps run a Santa Barbara–focused clothing brand called Canto Vision. “I like having multiple things in the fire,” he said. “It keeps me going.”
A reference to his home neighborhood of El Encanto Heights, Canto Vision features Javier’s art on T-shirts, shorts, bags, and hats. To him, the brand represents what his art is all about: a symbiotic relationship between himself and his community. He draws upon his surroundings for inspiration, but then works hard to shape the community into a place that’s better off for kids who were like him — people who were not sure where they belonged.
“I love where I’m from,” said Javier. “And so I always try to be supportive of it however I can. I always have a special place in my heart for doing something locally.”
Making Waves, Not Just Riding Them
DJ Javier knows firsthand that his hometown and surfing culture at large is in need of improvement when it comes to inclusion. “Santa Barbara is a beautiful place, but it’s not immune to any sort of racism,” he explained, recalling the time when he was blocked from entering a jewelry store and the angry reactions to pro surfers who supported the Black Lives Matter movement.
Surfing is a major part of Javier’s life now, but it wasn’t always. “I actually didn’t learn to swim until I was 17,” he said. “I didn’t learn to surf until I was 18.”
He hasn’t stopped since, but still confronts the same notion he faced growing up: that surfing was only for white kids. “I’ve always felt out of place in the lineup when I go surf — even going out now, and I’m very well acquainted with surfing,” he explained. “I go out like four times a week.”
Though the ocean is always free, the cost of surfboards, wetsuits, and the amount of time it takes to learn the sport make surfing feel inaccessible to many who don’t grow up in a wave-riding family. It’s also incredibly uncomfortable to enter a space where no one looks like you.
“I work with a lot of surf brands, but I just don’t see a lot of representation at all within the industry,” said Javier. “That’s a really important component of my work.”
Unsatisfied with this reality, he searched for organizations that encouraged BIPOC people to engage in ocean activities and found that the Surfrider Foundation wanted to support surfers of color. Javier designed a clothing line for Surfrider, which donated 50 percent of the profits to Color the Water, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit that provides free surf lessons to BIPOC people of all ages.
Featuring graphics with phrases like “The Beach Is Yours” and “Break Down the Walls,” the collection of shirts, hats, and hoodies sent a message to BIPOC people that the beach, surfing, and the ocean all exist for them too. The collection was also inclusive of all body types, not just reflecting the stereotypically slender and muscular surfer build.
Once the clothing was distributed, Surfrider sent Javier pictures of participants wearing his designs. “I got choked up,” he said. “These people all look like me. I love this diverse body of surfers, which just isn’t something that you see.”
*last two photos by Mike Del Campo
Unfortunately, not all of the surf community had a positive reaction to the collection. “It kind of rubbed some people the wrong way in the surf community. I got some messages from people who were not happy with me saying these things, but I think if you have a problem with me saying there should be more accessibility and people of color in the water, you’re tripping if you’re bugged about that.”
But that’s exactly why this work is so important: His hope was that kids feeling like a young DJ — “who thought, ‘I don’t want to surf,’ or, ‘surfing’s not for me’” — would see the designs, think they were cool, and hit the water. “I wanted to make something that identified with the younger me,” said Javier. Indeed, sometimes all it takes to get involved in something is to see that other people like you are involved too.
DJ Javier’s career as an artist started less than a decade ago, but he’s gaining traction and recognition at a breakneck pace. Whether in the water or on the walls, you should keep your eyes on this easygoing Filipino dude from El Encanto Heights to see what more he’s got in store.
“I’ve heard people describe my style as surf and street mixed together, and that’s why these brands like it,” he said. “But at the same time, if you like it, then you need to actually listen to this community too.”