San Antonio – A local painter is turning his troubled past into beauty through elaborate portraits he creates while at local bars around the city.
Rudy Almanza paints to earn a living for him and his family.
“I do a bunch of research on what people want to see in pop culture,” Almanza said. “This is great practice for when I officially do my own show, but it is also good to have my work in people’s houses.”
He said he has done around 2,300 paintings over the course of six years.
“In the beginning I was giving them away, but then when I was bartending and transitioned to being a painter, I started charging reasonable prices," Almanza said.
He said painting is something he has always wanted to do.
“I grew up in the housing projects,” Almanza said. “It started really when I was younger, but I wasn’t motivated until I got hit by a truck.”
Almanza said while riding on his girlfriend’s bike, a truck hit him going full-speed.
“I was 8,” Almanza said. “I just remember a big white bumper just hitting me and I woke up and the tire was next to my head. I went into the ambulance and I was passing in and out. I had broken legs and was really roughed up.”
Because he was bound to his room, Almanza said all he knew to do was draw.
“All I could think about was getting outside and playing with my friends. I couldn’t walk, so I would just sit in that room and look out the window and I really got to see the neighborhood open up,” Almanza said. “From people being stabbed, to people being chased around, to people getting beat up - stuff like that and I would just draw it. My mom told me to stop drawing them because she would say those people were handling business. I didn’t know what she was talking about then, but I know now.”
He continued to draw as he got into high school.
“I felt like it was the best way to hide out from people,” Almanza said.
He said because he thought he got a girl pregnant, he dropped out of school and started working construction.
“At that time, my mother got arrested for drug trafficking and then I got arrested because of her,” Almanza said.
He served time in prison.
“The first felony I got, I was running from one of my aunt’s houses to another aunt and a police car jumped the curb and arrested me, thinking I was a suspect in a burglary of an apartment. My aunt even tried telling the officer they had the wrong guy. I had the bangs and the bald head, so I looked like the suspect.”
That charge, Almanza tried to fight. Unfortunately, he got busted with drugs later down the road.
“I was running drugs for my mom and I didn’t have any education on how to do it,” Almanza said. “So I got pulled over and I just threw the drugs under the mat. That was my second felony and I had a plea bargain to say I did the lesser of the two evils, which was the burglary, even though I didn’t actually do the burglary.”
He said depression was knocking on his door.
“That was like a hard pill to swallow because I was like, ‘Well, now you are here and once you have that jacket on, it’s done,’” Almanza said.
While in prison, Almanza continued to draw portraits for other inmates. He even tattooed inmates while incarcerated.
“By drawing in prison, you get to hear so many criminals just vomit out everything without knowing and I am just hearing it by drawing or tattooing,” Almanza said. “You got to see a lot of gang cultures and organizations. It is very scary.”
Almanza said he knew he had to turn his life around as soon as he got out of prison. So, he went back to school.
“I went to San Antonio College, which has one of the best art systems,” Almanza said. “My girlfriend was going to Texas Tech.”
He also started bartending to make ends meet.
“It is hard to find a job with a felony on your back, so I started bartending,” Almanza said. “I used to do drawings on napkins; I did like 300. People were like ‘Wow! You can draw. Did you just draw that whole guy right now in just like two or three minutes?’ I said ‘Yeah and that I was like a comic.’ Then, I would give them to people and be like ‘Hey man, this is how you look to the world. You should smile because of this.’”
While bartending, Almanza said he would still sell drugs as a source of income until one of his fellow artists and mentors spoke with him about it.
“He asked me if I was going to be doing that forever and he said I would not,” Almanza said. “He said ‘You’re going to really just end up in prison for a big gap in your life and you are just going to be like, ‘Man, I could have just found a way out. How come I didn’t do that? You are going to be thinking about all the would have, could have, and should-haves while you are sitting in that iron box. It is going to give you a reminder of what kind of failure you have become.’”
From there, Almanza just focused on his life as an artist, graduating from napkins, to charcoal drawings, to portraits. He even paints them live for families and bar patrons to see in action.
“The joy you see when people look at some of these things,” Almanza said. “When they see that or of someone who has passed away, you can’t really put a price on that. They are just like ‘Oh my God! I can’t believe you did this!'”
He is now a father of two, which he said he was initially concerned at first due to his relationship with his mother, and his non-relationship with his father.
“I think that is the reason I didn’t want to have kids because how can you parent someone when you didn’t have the greatest parents?" Almanza said. “I probably should not have been in bars playing pool as a kid. I would do my homework and ask ‘Can I go with you?’ and I would be all through the East Side in bars playing with a bunch of older drunk men. Even after I was hit by a truck, I was in the hospital. It was just the babysitter in there with me. My mom was out partying for days before she actually showed up. That still hurts me to this day.”
Almanza said thanks to his aunts and other family members, he learned the proper way to care for and love a child.
“I think my mom meant well, but at the same time, even though I want to be like really angry at her, I have to think that maybe she didn’t have the greatest parents either.”
You can find Almanza at local bars like Slackers multiple times a week, painting and taking requests to paint. He said though life still is a struggle, he is blessed to move forward in a more positive lifestyle.
“You just got to keep looking in that mirror like, ‘You know what, it is going to get better,’ and if it doesn’t, it is because you are not making it,” Almanza said. “I really believe that hugging someone once a day or telling them that you love them, I think they could end up having the rest of their day even happier than it was before. If you have a community of people who love you make sure just to radiate that same amount of love because that way, they could keep passing it forward. Hopefully, I will be able to get a painting in every person’s home that ever wanted one.”
If you know someone like Almanza who is making a difference in the South Texas community or who has a unique story, send us your tips. Contact Japhanie Gray on Facebook or @JGrayKSAT on Twitter. You can also send your tips to KSAT 12 & KSAT.com on Facebook.